The Untold History of Synesthesia & Music

Here we look at the documented history of Synesthesia to Music, and fill in some of the gaps.

Synesthesia roughly translates to “sensing together” or “mixed perception”; it is the consistent and involuntary interconnection of one’s senses, such as seeing sounds. About 4% of the population are reported to have synesthesia, with those that do are called “synesthetes”. Although synesthesia is a general term, it takes on many specific forms (over 60) with some of the most common types being audibly and visually triggered — such as chromesthesia, the sensory connection of sound to color.

Many have written about Synesthesia, it is often framed as magical and mysterious, some even calling it “Nature’s Genius Button” as it seems to affect a disproportionate number of famous artists. Indeed, many talented people have praised its value in their creative process, such as Billie Eilish. Studies have shown it has proven benefits for people, such as enhanced memory. And, there is even research on its parallels with psychedelics.

Since there is so much detailed work on Synesthesia already, we want to contribute by doing something different — let’s zoom out a bit.

First, we have compiled the “Working list of Notable Synesthetes”, the most comprehensive list of synesthetes out there (big thanks goes to the talented synesthete Michelle @MuseyMiu). Plotting when they were born, we see a clear pattern — Synesthesia is a steadily growing trend.

A Chronology of Notable Synesthetes, by Birth Year

Why are there so many more artists with synesthesia in modern times? Is it simply because the documentation has gotten better with the rise of tech and the internet? Or that the world’s population and economy has grown so much? Or maybe is it because synesthesia just became “cool” and it is now a marketing strategy to claim it?

Turning to the science, academic literature on the subject dates back to the 1800s, but there’s been a strong uptick since the 1970s, that has been growing exponentially to this day. “There’s definitely been a shift in the time I’ve been a synaesthesia researcher.” said one leading researcher.

Academic Publications Referencing Synesthesia Over Time [source]

Why did start in the 70s? Yes, the 70s were an inflection point for many things, but is it really only a coincidence that they were especially prolific for technology, music and spirituality?

We think all this hints at something much bigger, perhaps the birth of multimedia and the digital age has given us the tools to expand our cognition. Perhaps humanity is on the edge of another cognitive revolution, much like the one that developed the modern human mind — which some accredit to music, circa 70,000 years ago. Indeed, Harvard neuroscientists have mathematically validated the integral role of music in the human race’s cultural and cognitive evolution.

But if you’re reading this, we probably don’t need to convince you of music’s value. Instead, we will give some reasoning on why Synesthesia has generally had a drastically under-appreciated role in music, art, and society over time. Music and Synesthesia have gone hand-in-hand since the beginning, with tech compounding their synergy for centuries now.

Synesthesia in music was first documented in the early 1700s in Europe, with classical music luminaries like Beethoven, Bach, Beethoven, then Franz Liszt, Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov, and later Claude Debussy, Osmo Tapio Räihälä and Itzhak Perlman who were seemingly led by their elevated intuition to create masterpieces. Alexander Scriabin went so far as to create the first audio-visual instrument, the color organ. Liszt was known for instructing his orchestra with phrases like “a little bluer!”, and Debussy, he was so renowned for making colorful compositions, that to this day he inspires musical experience in even more novel multi-sensory ways.

“Claire De Lune” by Claude Debussy, Painting by Julia Hamilton

The next big wave of synesthetic music happened in the US at the turn of the 1900s, with artists like Duke Ellington, Leonard Bernstein, Quincy Jones, Amy Beach, pioneering genres like Jazz and Swing. Later artists like Billy Joel, Jimmy Hendrix, The Beatles, then Stevie Wonder, Miles Davis and Michael Jackson continued to break new ground with Soul, Rock and Pop. Each of these visionaries praised the role of synesthesia in their creative process as there is no doubt that it helped them navigate their way in such uncharted territory. The influence of this group can still be felt to this day in both music and pop culture, and one has to wonder why there was such a concentration of synesthetes in the USA during this period, and the role this played in establishing America as a leader in the global music industry.

“Seems So Long” by Stevie Wonder, Painting by Melissa McCracken

In recent years, the synesthesia bug has undoubtedly spread, with contemporary artists like Pharrell Williams, Jay-Z, Dev Hynes / Blood Orange, Hans Zimmer, Alessia Cara, Lady Gaga, Kanye West, Frank Ocean, Tori Amos, Aphex Twin, Ed Sheeran, Charli XCX, Marina Diamandis, Lorde, and Billie Eilish now carrying the torch. They are continuing to innovate music and be cultural leaders in the process. Again, it’s interesting to note the apparent boom in the number of artists with synesthesia, and its parallels to the current advancements in multimedia and tech. A fun example is the animated video for Pharrell’s “IT Girl”, by Takashi Murakami.

“IT Girl” by Pharrell Williams, Music Video Animation by Takashi Murakami

Modern digital art installations take things even further, with artists like Nick Ryan making extraordinary immersive music shows like the “Synaes” installation at Imogen Heap’s Roundhouse with the London Contemporary Orchestra below.

Synaes — Excerpts by Nick Ryan, Quayola & Sinigaglia, and the London Contemporary Orchestra

So much has been written about these influential synesthetic artists and many others, including those outside of music like Isaac Newton, Nikola Tesla, Vladimir Nabokov, Richard Feynman, and Vincent Van Gogh — that we won’t attempt to condense it all down here. (If you think that we’ve missed some big synesthetes, please feel free to reach out and we will include them in our “Working List of Notable Synesthetes”).

From this very brief look at the past, we can reasonably deduce that those who have extraordinary abilities to perceive their reality and are in creative endeavors like music, would naturally have a higher passion, intuition, and skill towards it — and being leaders in their fields.

But does that leave the rest of us in the dark? Is it either you are in the gifted crowd of those born with it, or in an inferior crowd of “normal people”? We definitely don’t think so. Art and artists come from varying backgrounds and many top-notch artists do not have any reported ties with synesthesia… and that is where things get interesting.

Just because it hasn’t been reported, doesn’t mean that it doesn’t exist to some degree. We believe that most artists and creatives think synesthetic-ally at least sometimes, but maybe just don’t recognize it as such. How one perceives the world is innate and personal, and a complex soup of neuroscience in the mind as well as its interplay with the body’s physiology — how can we expect artists or anyone at all to recognize and report something that is as natural, normal and automatic as a personal association of a given perception? We don’t.

We believe that most people, especially artists, have some degree of synesthesia already — it’s only a question of how developed it is. And we are not alone in this belief, in fact, one of the most prominent synesthetes today, Pharrell Williams, said “[synesthesia] is not a rarity. One of the main things I try to educate the public on is, most artists have it.”.

Another consideration is that it can be viewed negatively to have such a rare condition, so people aren’t readily admitting to it, and surely there are cases out there where it is a burden.

But Evidence has shown that synesthesia can be learned, often has environmental triggers in childhood, and some researchers think we are all born with synesthesia, though over time our brains potentially lose these associations. Albeit, it isn’t necessarily as dramatic as actually seeing sounds in your environment — that is an extreme case. Synesthesia comes in two types, projective (that which is more intense and genetic, where you actually sense those stimuli as if they were real) and associative (meaning you imagine it in your head, as a thought). If you can’t help but feel a tingling sensation every time you hear water trickle, or shiver at the sight of someone biting an ice-cube, or you think of warmth when you see a picture of the sun, you’ve experienced synesthesia. Cultural synesthesia also exists, as the arbitrary association of color, with certain feelings (e.g. in the west the color White is widely associated with purity).

Now, scientists may get uneasy with such loose definitions, perhaps referring to these milder cases as simply “cross-modal associations” (the key difference being if the response is voluntary and persistent, or not). But the human mind is very flexible and can be trained to respond automatically to most stimuli, e.g. Pavlovian conditioning. In fact, as early as 1944, a clinical study successfully taught “normal people” to make sound-color synesthesia connections. And before an internet debate erupts around technical definitions of synesthesia or who’s more of a synesthete — let’s not get fixated on the semantics of what someone experiences when they hear music and let’s instead ask — is there value in empowering people to explore their perception? We think such an inclusive approach is win-win, but more on that later.

Synesthesia is just a skill, it’s a learning mechanism, and as such, Synesthesia’s relationship to music can be reasoned to be much deeper.

Music was first made by hand (and mouth), by ancient civilizations in the form of tribal chants and drum circles, some claiming as long as 400,000 years ago. The nature of making music in these times was deeply physical, every drum beat and (live) song was a full-body experience. Drumbeats were felt deep and moved to, chanting and performances involved improvising what the performer felt at the time in their surroundings. Often these people would be under the influence of a substance, and so their minds would be overactive, likely less consciously thinking and more automatic in their associations — they’d go with the flow.

This leads us to dance — dance is arguably the most synesthetic association tied to music. If you can’t help but feel a beat and naturally step back and forth to it — that is synesthesia. Indeed, this is the most basic and earliest practice of musical synesthesia — from drum circles and tribal dances to choreographed dance routines and the social media dance crazes
- Dance is the most wide-spread form of musical synesthesia.

And then there is music and art in general. Art is meant to engage your imagination, and make you think and feel things much deeper and richer than what is present on the surface of the artwork. Art relies on your mind to make sensory associations and extrapolate you beyond your reality. Even when one isn’t an art connoisseur, they make automatic subconscious associations and naturally feel things based on the art they see. Especially when it comes to music, that invisible, ephemeral, and extremely technically complex thing… doesn’t it make sense that even more associations and intuition is used to navigate it? It’s even baked into the technical jargon of musicians — for example, sounds can be warm or cold, and bright or dark. Therefore:
Art & Music is meant to be Synesthetic.

For the majority of our history, specifically, before mass recording and distribution of music and art starting in the 1930s, music used to be an intangible thing — invisible, fleeting, and at best very subjective. At a live performance, people could enjoy it most deeply by seeing the artist and being immersed in the musical environment, but without much visual or production equipment, or a recorded version of the song, most of the richness of the experience varied over time and from person to person — it was highly subject to the imagination. For most of history, music was mainly a memory — it was small, isolated, vague and the heavy lifting was on you to imagine and fill the experience with details. Doesn’t it seem likely that music would then be tied to images or other sensations in your mind to be better remembered?

Fast-forward to today, we are in an age that has the privilege to have distributed, multi-sensory music content available to us in the form of videos, album art, and live venue productions.

This may all seem like a given, but it wasn’t until the 1980s that distributed, recorded multi-media was widely available when MTV changed the world of music forever by widely distributing visuals of it. By adding the music video to the previously radio-only world of music distribution and marketing, music videos gave people something to look at and to connect with in the physical world — with amazing results.

Whole industries now exist around materializing music, determining the intended meaning and feelings of the soundscape into the other senses, namely the visual. A song’s audio file, the complex final product of a musician (& team), is grown into something immersive or at least anchored to the physical world, to spark your imagination; you tie the music to reality and as a result, it gets your attention better and stays in your memory longer. With the rise of the digital age, synthetic musical synesthesia has been perpetuated extravagantly.

The best of these are the amazing live show productions that have become standard in the booming age of music festivals and musician tours, pre-pandemic. With the aim of being an almost spiritual event, endless resources are poured into making the ambiance or “vibe” of a venue and show just right.

Sadly, these rich immersive music experiences are among the casualties of the COVID pandemic. Some have successfully adapted to outdoor, spaced out live show productions, but can we ever expect to achieve an experience as immersive and rich as below? Probably Not.

Can we ever hope to experience something like this again?

Instead, the big push by the industry is to establish live-streaming as the alternative, due to its safety, convenience, and superior economics. This seems to be gaining some traction with even paid live-streaming growing, but is it a surprise that fans don’t want to pay to simply watch a video in their living room?

In an age with so much creativity, technology, and social connectedness, there is now a big void of immersive music experiences today. The industry knows this, with the CEO of Spotify saying “artists need new tools for remote fan engagement”. But what’s the solution to tiny flat screens and audio that just fades into the background? Augmented Reality, Mixed Reality, Virtual Reality — is this not the perfect time and place to leverage them?

We’re working on it; Synaesthetic / aloom developing immersive, remote music experiences that capture some of the magic of a live show and hold fans’ attention better than regular live-streaming.

If you’re a music professional interested in pioneering immersive music and leveraging new tools for remote fan engagement in a post-COVID world, we’d love to hear from you.

CEO & Co-Founder @ aloom.io

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