Do You Hear In Color?

Vier Tänzerinnen auf der Bühne, Edgar Degas, c.1885-1890.

This week’s Daily Post Challenge is about color. To paraphrase William Gibson’s Neuromancer: color is “a consensual hallucination experienced daily by billions.” He was talking about cyberspace, of course, but it applies just as well to color. The sky is blue, grass is green, oranges are orange. These are accepted facts, correct? But, how do we know that your orange doesn’t look blue to me? I could see oranges as blue, but still call that color orange, because that’s what I was taught.

I’m a graphic designer. Color is woven into my thinking. I can’t help it. Like plumbers need wrenches, graphic designers need color. It’s a tool of my trade. Color is probably as significant a part of my design work as layout is, if not more. One of the first things our brains notice about an item is its color. We’re taught colors very early on in school. When I was a kid, I wanted my name to stand for something just like Roy G. Biv. He was a colorful chap.

There are great gooey gobs of marketing people out there in the world whose business it is to find out what people within a certain demographic are drawn to and repelled by. “What’s your favorite color?” isn’t just an idle question; it’s big money and big business. There’s a well-researched reason that Coca-Cola is packaged in red and Oreos in blue.

Colors have trends, which is weird to think about. How can a color be trendy? It’s color. In the 1970’s, it was mustard yellow, chocolate-brown and avocado green, while the 1980s were about neon and pastels. There are people out there whose job it is to decide what color everything should be in 2013. These are the colors for right now (I actually had this image sitting my desktop because it’s my job to know these things.):

Pantone Fall Colors 2012.

Who names these colors? Paint, car, makeup, home furnishing, fashion companies, etc. all have people responsible for naming that brown up there “French Roast” and turning fuchsia into “Pink Flambé” (Really? Flambé? Someone got paid a lot of money to come up with that.) Unfortunately for me, I have to pay attention to ridiculous names like Pink Flambé if I want to stay current.

To me, that kind of color is superficial though. It doesn’t go any deeper than visual. You can’t feel, smell, taste or hear it. Most people only see color; they don’t have an intimate relationship with it. It doesn’t reside within their brains like it does for me and for the thousands like me. I have narrow-band music -> visual Synesthesia. I’ve written in detail about my particular brand of Synesthesia here, but to summarize, I see music as color, pattern, movement or all of the above. I can put some music on, close my eyes and see a show.

As I said in the Synesthesia post, it’s really impossible to describe it to those who don’t have it. The easiest way is to take something you are already familiar with like synesthetic words. When non-synesthetes think of colors, they sometimes conjure synesthetic definitions or imagery that have little to do with the actual color. For instance, if you think of the color white, words like clean or pure come to mind. Red could be described as hot or passionate, and blue as cold or melancholy. Those descriptors are vaguely synesthetic. That’s about as close as synesthetes can come to describing what we experience and it’s hardly even close. Adding to the difficulty in describing it is the fact that no two synesthetes see exactly the same way.

Some pretty famous people are synesthetes. A very high percentage of synesthetes turn out to be creative. It’s interesting to me just how many classical composers have been synesthetes since it’s visually the most beautiful form of music. Synesthete writers often try to incorporate it into our writing, although it is the most difficult medium to use for that purpose. Most prolifically and to greatest effect, many artists throughout history have tried to put their synesthesia on canvas.

Edgar Degas assigned emotions to colors. You can clearly see it in his work. It’s as obvious as the difference between this:

Ballet Dancers in the Wings, Edgar Degas, 1900. (

And this:

Four Ballerinas On Stage, Edgar Degas, c.1885-1890. (

The artist Kilford, who has a similar synesthesia to mine, paints along to live music performances. Here is his interpretation of Deep Purple:

Deep Purple, Kilford, 2008.

French artist Gabrielle Thierry translates music into music scores on canvas (which is something I used to do when I was young, but not as well). Here is her interpretation of a string quartet performing Anton Bruckner:

Le Parc, sur le Quatuor à Cordes de Bruckner, Gabrielle Thierry, 2010.

Depending on which experts you listen to, the Russian artist Wassily Kandinsky may or may not have had synesthesia. I’m not an art expert, but as a synesthete, looking at the painting below, it’s patently evident to me that he did. He is widely credited with painting the world’s first truly abstract paintings, which in my opinion, are comprised of what he saw when he listened to music:

Composition VII, Wassily Kandinsky, 1913.

There are endless examples of synesthetic art from Munch’s The Scream to Whistler’s Nocturnes. If I were to paint along with the same music as these artists did, my interpretation would look entirely different, although Kandinsky’s is probably the closest. Not only does he have the symphony of color, but he has almost captured the movement and three-dimensional effect. To me, his painting nearly looks three dimensional, as if the lower left is the ground and a tower of music is growing out of it towards the right and top. It can’t even be contained within the frame; it must be orchestral.

I’ve tried to paint my synesthesia before, but I am never happy with the results. The music I see is constantly changing, expanding and moving. It would be impossible to paint an entire song; I could only paint a snapshot and that’s just not good enough for my perfectionist brain. Not to mention that the music I see is in three dimensions and paint is flat. It’s a poor excuse for the real thing, but I love looking at what other artists have done with theirs.

I’m not all that fond of most hues of brown, bright orange and yellow. This means that I don’t like brown, orange and yellow music. A hint of them as part of a larger work is fine, e.g. in a classical piece, but I don’t like songs that are strictly those colors. It might be just as valid to say that I dislike bright orange and yellow music because I don’t like the bright orange and yellow. I love music with deep jewel tones–rich purpley reds, velvety royal blues, deep emerald greens–and those, coincidentally or not, are also my favorite colors.

I’ve often wondered whether the music I like is a result of what colors I like or if it’s the other way around. I wonder whether the fact that I listen to music all day while designing influences my designs. It probably does. How much effect does it have on other aspects of my life? What must it be like to hear music and not see it? I guess I will never know since it’s such an integral part of me. I can’t separate it from the rest since it’s all I’ve ever known. I suppose it’s the same with the rest of you though. None of us really has a good reason for why we like or dislike what we do, and we can’t see the world any other way than our own.

Paintings from