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10 Ways Current Musicians Work with Synesthesia

by Hannah Janssen
fact checked by Darci Heikkinen

Synesthesia is a neurological phenomenon in which multiple senses are activated by a single stimulus. For instance, someone with grapheme-color synesthesia would see the letters of the alphabet in color. They may see the letter “A” as the color red or the number 3 as the color blue. Some synesthetes may hear the sound of an engine and taste rubber, or a guitar may summon the taste of chocolate. One particularly common form of synesthesia is sound-to-color synesthesia, which occurs when a person sees colors when they hear sounds.

In recent years, many musical artists have vocalized their experience with the phenomenon. For most of them, their synesthesia is a beloved, special part of who they are, as well as a vital tool in their creative arsenal. These are ten active musicians who use their mixed-up senses to their advantage.

Related: 10 Sounds Used to Influence Emotions

10 Billie Eilish

Billie Eilish Talks Happier Than Ever, Directing Music Videos and Her Synesthesia | The Tonight Show

Billie Eilish is one of the world’s most recognizable names in pop music. The Oscar and Grammy Award-winning musician first came to prominence as a teen with her debut song “Ocean Eyes” and has since stacked up prestigious awards and a devoted fanbase.

One part of Billie’s creative genius is her synesthesia. In a recent interview with Jimmy Fallon, she describes experiencing multiple types of synesthesia. For her, every day of the week has a color. Some sounds have a smell that she can think of, and most times, those sounds have a color.

She even humored Fallon by informing him that she associates him with a vertical brown rectangle in her mind.

On a more serious note, Eilish explained that in all of her work, she relies on her synesthesia to direct her creative decisions. From the color of an album to the lights on stage, everything is done according to her own vision—literally.[1]

9 Pharrell Williams

What Synesthesia Can Tell Us About Connections in the Brain

Musician and record producer Pharrell Williams is a well-known synesthete. He experiences sound-to-color synesthesia but has been quick to dismiss it as anything special.

In a 2013 interview with NPR, Williams broke down the biology behind the nerve endings in the brain that wire someone to experience both auditory and visual stimulation. He explained that for most infants, the nerve endings in the brain will define themselves as individual receptors of information. However, for some, they remain connected.

That’s been the case for Pharrell, and he has leaned on it in his career as a songwriter and producer. He very simply parses it down: “When you hear sound, you see color.” An example that he provided is that he uses colors to match a pitch. He will know when he’s in the right key because the colors that he sees will be the same.

While many folks may regard this as a superpower, the artist maintains that it’s nothing remarkable but rather just part of who he is and something many genius artists or academics experience if you just take the time to listen to them.[2]

8 Patrick Stump

Patrick Stump – Synesthesia, pranks + ADHD

Fall Out Boy frontman Patrick Stump is another artist making music with synesthesia. He describes his own presentation of synesthesia as being a “mild” grapheme-to-color synesthesia. In other words, different letters and symbols are associated with a color. For example, to Stump, the letter “W” is blue. The letter could literally be written in yellow, but in his brain, it will always feel blue.

When it comes to his music, or any music for that matter, the colors are activated alongside lyrics. When he hears or reads the words of a song, his brain associates those words with a color, sometimes even turning the entire song into a color. For instance, he says his own song, “Love From the Other Side,” feels orange. Stump shared in an interview that these colors have actually inspired ideas for merchandise and cover art.[3]

7 Lorde

Extra Minutes | How Lorde sees sound as colour

The young New Zealander is a synesthete who relies very heavily upon her sound-to-color synesthesia when crafting her music. Like many other artists, this means that her mind sees colors when she hears music. She has described her colors as something like a gas that fills the room, taking on different hues and shapes.

Lorde has been very open and honest about how synesthesia contributes to her music. For her, she uses the colors just as much as the sound to determine if a song is “right.”

Lorde herself wrote on her Tumblr: “If a song’s colors are too oppressive or ugly, sometimes I won’t want to work on it—when we first started “Tennis Court” we just had that pad playing the chords, and it was the worst textured tan colour, like really dated, and it made me feel sick, and then we figured out that pre-chorus, and I started the lyric, and the song changed to all these incredible greens overnight!”[4]

6 Billy Joel

Synesthesia: The Science Behind Seeing Sounds & Tasting Color

The prolific Hall of Famer Billy Joel is a gifted synesthete, experiencing two different forms: sound-to-color and grapheme-to-color. For him, both sounds and letters or words paint a picture.

Writer and fellow synesthete Maureen Seaberg, author of the book Tasting the Universe: People Who See Colors in Words and Rainbows in Symphonies, interviewed Joel about his synesthesia and how it has helped him craft his music over the years.

Joel shares that different sounds or styles of music elicit different colors. Ballads and slower songs are shades of blue and green, while more rhythm-driven, upbeat rock songs show up on the other end of the color spectrum as reds or oranges. Words, letters, and symbols—particularly vowels—also conjure up colors for the artist, so he has both the guiding hues of melodies and lyrics to help him craft the perfect tune. “Certain lyrics in some songs I’ve written, I have to follow a vowel color,” he says. Much like soft instrumentals, vowels carry blues and greens, while harder consonants, much like hard rock, carry the “louder” colors of oranges, yellows, and reds.

It’s certainly obvious that Billy Joel has produced a rainbow of work, but he says his favorite color to work with is green. “Hunter green, kelly green, royal green, deep green…” Perhaps the next time a song of his comes on, listeners may be able to tap into the workings of the artist’s mind and try to “feel” the color, too.[5]

5 Kanye West

Kanye West FULL Banned Ellen Interview HD May 19 2016

The eccentric public figure may have found himself in the center of endless controversies, but first and foremost, he is a trailblazing artist. Part of what helps West create his music is his ability to see color with sound.

He says, “Everything I sonically make is a painting. I see it. I see the importance and the value of everyone being able to experience a more beautiful life.” The context of this particular declaration of his condition had nothing to do with his musicianship or creative process. Instead, it was a part of his famous seven-minute rant on Ellen in 2016, in which he waxed on about his attempts and dreams to help the human race in the next 100 years.

Regardless of where West and his synesthesia take his career next, his artistry and innovation will always be a hallmark of our culture.[6]

4 Olivia Rodrigo

Olivia Rodrigo talking about her synesthesia

The international pop star revealed that she has “baby synesthesia” upon the release of her 2021 album SOUR. Rodrigo explained that when she hears music, she sees colors. When it comes to her own work, she says that most of the songs on the album are a shade of purple, including “driver’s license” and “good 4 u.”

This led her to make the creative decision that purple would be the color for her album cover and tour, even donning purple for the Met Gala that same year.[7]

3 Hans Zimmer

Do You Hear in Color?! Explaining Synesthesia | Mayim Bialik feat. LifeNoggin

Known for his recognizable scores in films like Pirates of the Caribbean and Inception, German composer Hans Zimmer is a legendary musical force. The man is a genius when it comes to his craft, and part of what contributes to his skill set is his ability to see color when he hears music.

What makes Zimmer’s synesthesia so interesting is that his musical work is already paired with the visual medium of film. Since his mind creates color associations, he has been known to essentially reverse engineer his scores based on the colors in the film.

When asked by director Terence Malick to score the film The Thin Red Line, Zimmer struggled to create the “right” piece because the film had not yet been shot. He said, “I need to see how you light this scene. I need to see how green the grass is in the valley you’re asking me to write about. On The Lion King, I had black-and-white drawings to work with, and I’m still kicking myself about one scene because I got the color in the music wrong. I didn’t get the emotion right because the colors were clashing.”[8]

2 Charli XCX

What’s It Like To Hear Colors? – A VR 360° Synesthesia Experience

The British pop star, born Charlotte Emma Aitchison, is known for hits like “Boom Clap” and “Speed Drive.” She’s also known for penning Icona Pop’s massive hit “I Love It.” When asked about why she gave the song away, Charli XCX explained that it just wasn’t the right color for her.

As strange as it sounds to most people, it makes perfect sense to the synesthete.

The singer sees colors when she hears music, and she uses the palettes that the songs create to inform her creative decisions. Her favorite songs—including all of her own—are various shades of pinks, purples, and reds, while her least favorite songs are greens and yellows.

For Charli, if she doesn’t like the color of a song, she knows it’s not for her, and given her success, the system seems to work![9]

1 Dave Grohl

Dave Grohl Sees Songs As Legos In His Mind

Beloved rock star Dave Grohl has a very unique experience with synesthesia. In his book The Storyteller, Grohl reveals that since he was a kid, music has taken on a visual element to him.

What makes his “colors” unique is that they are in the form of LEGOs, as he puts it.

During an appearance on The Kelly Clarkson Show, he elaborated on his building-block visuals. He briefly explained synesthesia, describing how “sensory pathways are sort of mixed up” before distinguishing his own “LEGO” experience. Basically, Grohl understands the composition and arrangement of songs by literally seeing how the colorful blocks fit together in his mind based on the sounds he hears.

It makes one wonder what kind of colorful “tower” is behind every Foo Fighters song…[10]

fact checked by Darci Heikkinen