What It’s Like to Hear the World in Color and in Touch
Silly stories of synesthesia, music, filmmaking, and my brain
The chorus of Shape of You by Ed Sheeran makes me cringe, because it feels like cold, soggy neoprene pressing against my arms. It’s really, really uncomfortable.
In tenth grade, I had to will myself to finish reading George Orwell’s 1984, because it tasted like bland porridge. That same year, it felt like it was impossible for me to escape hearing Fancy by Iggy Azalea everywhere outside my own home. To my chagrin, the song looked like mud being lobbed at a wall. No wonder I was so cranky all the time.
On the other hand, my favorite book, Frankenstein, tastes like an earthy fruit leather that never runs out. When I listen to my favorite song, the January 1981 version of Ceremony by New Order, I see a winter snowstorm and feel a light sting on my cheek from a cold wind. The synthesizer riff during the chorus of Blood Sweat and Tears by BTS is a thick, satin red ribbon moving rhythmically. The saxophone part of George Michael’s Careless Whisper feels like an electric blanket being wrapped around me.
I have a neurological condition called synesthesia, where the sensory areas of my brain overlap each other.
When one sense is stimulated, it causes different senses to also react, producing an additional sensory experience. This is why I am able to “taste” words, “hear” in color and images, and “hear” in touch. Some notable synesthetes include Wassily Kandinsky, Duke Ellington, Geoffrey Rush, Marilyn Monroe, Lorde, Billy Joel, Mary J. Blige, and Hans Zimmer.
I found out that I had chromesthesia (sound-to-color synesthesia) when I was in seventh grade, but it took the next few years for me to learn that I also had lexical-gustatory (words as tastes) and auditory-tactile (sounds producing touch) synesthesia. It suddenly made sense why I could be so picky about the music I listened to or played on my musical instruments, as well as the things I read or the movies I watched. I was walking through life with a dimensional sensory experience, almost like watching a movie in a 4DX theater.
“It’s not you or your music taste, it’s my brain.”
My synesthesia has driven my interests in life since its very beginning
I’ve always been drawn to music. I have perfect pitch, or the ability to recognize the pitches of musical and nonmusical sounds without a reference tone. For me, this is powered by my synesthesia. I know when the D string on a guitar across the room is slightly flat because I feel a buzzing on my skin that only stops when it’s tuned properly. And while my chromesthesia and auditory-tactile synesthesia don’t only “work” for musical stimuli, I’ve found that music is a more exciting conductor for my synesthesia.
Likewise, I’ve always been a voracious reader and language learner, so my lexical-gustatory synesthesia may have made me literally hungry for words as a kid. This could also explain part of my fascination with Shakespeare. While some other lexical-gustatory synesthetes experience words or phonemes as distinct tastes, it’s the combination and ordering of specific words for me that creates a blended sense of taste when I am reading, kind of like a smoothie. This might also be because I read at roughly the same pace as the editing in Mad Max: Fury Road. I don’t really understand how it works, but Macbeth tastes like pepper flakes.
I know when the D string on a guitar across the room is slightly flat because I feel a buzzing on my skin that only stops when it’s tuned properly.
And while I listen to music for the same reasons that anyone else might, my chromesthesia and auditory-tactile synesthesia gives me an extra push to listen to artists with particularly vivid work. Thom Yorke (in both his solo stuff and with Radiohead), Bjork, Air, and Grizzly Bear are as much visual delights as they are musical ones. One of my favorite songs, Yet Again by Grizzly Bear, is a particularly immersive experience, where I feel like I’m made out of ice and standing in a frozen tundra. So basically, this makes me the Night King from Game of Thrones.
And don’t even get me started with BTS. My brain almost exploded when I first heard Anpanman, because it looks and feels like I’m getting playfully hit by giant waves of cerulean blue paint, except without the risk of drowning. My synesthesia doesn’t get as fun as this.
The most direct way that I can describe the visuals from my chromesthesia are that they appear on a miniature movie screen in the middle of my brain. In a sense, it’s like I’m seeing the world with two different sets of eyes, one turned inwardly, and the other looking outwardly. I’ve found that the timbre of a sound, which I would describe as its visual “aesthetic” while others might say “tone quality,” plays a huge role in determining what a sound looks like in my head. There’s a big difference between a toddler-sized violin playing an open E5 and a pipe organ playing the same note, and they yield completely different images and sensations.
Aside from music, I’ve found that my auditory synesthesia helps in my work as a sound mixer and sound editor for film. While it’s obvious to think of mixing sound for films as a purely aural process, it’s also a visual one for me. When working on movie sound, I use both my ears and my “synesthesia eyes” in my brain to give me an idea of what’s working and not working in the mix. I rely on the images that my synesthesia produces in order to gauge if the sound is as detailed as I want it to be, and if it’s creating the right “sonic look” that I was going for.
While my reasons for becoming a filmmaker have changed over time, one constant has been the unique way that I could share my experiences with synesthesia. Film as an art form synthesizes many of my sensory experiences, so it’s natural for me to be driven towards a medium that utilizes music, visual arts, and the written word all at once.
For instance, Michael Nyman’s score from Gattaca makes me cry every single time I hear it, whether or not I’m watching the movie. It looks like the most gorgeous, otherworldly sunrise unfurling across a sublime landscape that would put Romantic painters to shame. From listening to the score alone, the beauty is so overpowering that I get emotional. And when paired with the film’s compelling themes and narrative, I could simply explode with tears as Ethan Hawke makes his final walk down that hallway in the film’s conclusion. If this makes me sound like a baby, then that’s absolutely correct.
If anything, my synesthesia has made me obsessed with sounds and words. It can be fun to escape into a different sensory level when I’m listening to a song I love, and it can be a huge pain if someone decides to scream Bohemian Rhapsody off-key at a karaoke night. Either way, I take an odd sense of comfort in knowing that my interests are driven by an underlying neurological condition going on in the mysterious depths of my brain. I may never know what’s actually going on inside my brain, but I’m okay with knowing that it’s put me on this wild sensory journey.