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Seeing Music, Hearing colour.

Updated: Apr 27, 2022


I was listening to a piece of Debussy and turned to a friend, asking him if he thought green or grey was the most prominent colour in the music. He looked at me with a blank face and a look of bemusement. I was 20 and up until that point I thought that everyone experienced a sense of colour when listening to music. I had never really discussed this with anyone and it was a shock that this was something unusual. Further research led me to the discovery of synaesthesia*; a blending of the senses that aren't normally connected.

The word “synaesthesia” comes from the Greek words: “synth” (which means “together”) and “ethesia” (“perception"). There are many types of synaesthesia which include tasting words, assigning colours to words or numbers, hearing colours and feeling the sensation that another person feels. I predominantly experience Chromesthesia; I associate colour with sound (and sometimes taste) and often a chord or timbre will trigger a very clear image of a landscape or place. I have also recently discovered I experience another rarer strand of synaesthesia called misophonia; certain noises trigger negative emotion and irrational annoyance, for instance the squashing of a can, or the sound of someone rattling crisp packets and pens clicking!

To put some of this into context, there have been many well known artists and musicians who have experienced synaesthesia, with this becoming an intrinsic part of their creative process.


WASSILY KANDINSKY - Is synonymous with his colour / sound association and once said, “the sound of colours is so definite that it would be hard to find anyone who would express bright yellow with bass notes or dark lake with treble.”

DUKE ELLINGTON had synesthesia and it affected him in a rather unique way. he claimed that certain notes from one musician would be one colour while the same notes played by other musicians would be different colours.

OLIVER MESSIAEN is perhaps one of the most widely documented contemporary composers to experience synaesthesia. Colour was heavily connected to scales and modes. In the Excerpt of La Rousserolle Effarvatte below, the composer’s colour indications are literally written within the score.

Along with birdsong, colour was of huge significance in Messiaen's world

Editions Alphonse Leduc.

David Hockney, Billy Joel, Mary J Blige, Lorde and Pharrell Williams. Pharrell is quoted as saying he’d be “lost” without synaesthesia:


This project has been in the making (in my own head!) for many years. I was writing a commissioned opera when Covid-19 hit and all funding was withdrawn as the performance could not go ahead within the allocated timescale. At this point I was reflecting more on my experience of synaesthesia and how this informed my creative process. I was also very curious about how non-synaesthetes may experience colour as sound, if indeed this was a consideration at all. I wanted to work with a cross section of individuals and use colour and music as not only a stimulus but as a therapeutic tool. Funding bids were successful and I teamed up with an art therapist and a group of amazing musicians who I knew would work well with the individuals from the schools and community groups I wanted to include. The process has been amazing, inspiring, challenging, informative, emotional and highly enjoyable. As a team we have experienced our own personal journeys and we look forward to exploring our thoughts and processes throughout this series of blogs.

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