Starring synesthetes Finneas, Brian Wilson, Rickie Lee Jones, Vladimir Nabokov, Duke Ellington & Bob Dylan
Synesthesia. It’s when someone sees colors when hearing music, the linking of sensory information with something unrelated. It’s also experienced sometimes as seeing colors in other visuals, such as letters of the alphabet.
Vladimir Nabokov, author of Lolita, wrote about his synesthesia in his memoirs with distinctively vivid Nabokovian panache, evidence of its impact on his expression:
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“In the brown group, there are the rich rubbery tone of soft G, paler J, and the drab shoelace of H … among the red, B has the tone called burnt sienna by painters, M is a fold of pink flannel, and today I have at last perfectly matched V with ‘Rose Quartz’ in Maerz & Paul’s `Dictionary of Color.’”
Synesthesia is usually described as a “condition,” as if it’s some kind of a malady. Either that or it is often framed with some suspicion, as if it was invented for self-glory, by use of the word ‘claimed,’ as in “Sibelius claimed he had synesthesia…”.
In fact, it’s not an affliction, but a natural ability for many musicians, and one which becomes more fine-tuned after years spent inside of music. Especially for composers and songwriters who might work on one song for a long time, thus living inside of that key for weeks or more, the character of each key becomes intimately known.
Though there’s no consensus about what color each key is, the experience has extended through the centuries, literally, linking great composers of the past with a multitude of songwriters and composers of modern times: Liszt, Sibelius, Wagner, Olivier Messiaen, Duke Ellington, Jimi Hendrix, Stevie Wonder and Prince all experienced it.
As do both Finneas and his sister Billie Eilish, each of whom I interviewed for our new print edition of American Songwriter.
Finneas explained that it’s not something which is calculated or intended, as much as it is a gradual recognition of something intrinsic.
“It’s in my brain for no reason,” he said. “You know what I mean? It’s like it’s already there.”
It can be a blessing and a curse, not unlike having perfect pitch, which can make hearing any out-of-tune music quite irksome.
It doesn’t necessarily make anything easier.
“Sometimes I write a song in a key,” he said, “and it’s really that color to me. Then to sing it, I realize it’s the wrong key for my voice, and I have to change it. And the song has a totally different color.”
His answers to my musical key query – in which keys are named to discover what colors are attached – follows, as do answers from a few other songwriters. Some songwriters said they never experienced it, whereas others recognized distinctions between keys but in other ways, such as shapes or textures. Rickie Lee Jones offered wonderful little character sketches of each key.
Like Finneas, Duke Ellington recognized that this ability can be both a benefit and a hindrance. In a 1958 interview he explained how for him the colors he sees are shaped by the players:
“I hear a note by one of the fellows in the band,” he said, “and it’s one color. I hear the same note played by someone else and it’s a different color. When I hear sustained musical tones, I see colors in textures. If Harry Carney is playing, D is dark blue burlap. If Johnny Hodges is playing, G becomes light blue satin.”
Though I didn’t know the word or the concept, synesthesia is something I’ve experienced most of my life. It started after playing piano and guitar for awhile as a kid, and writing songs. It wasn’t overt, but more like a subtle but constant recognition of a color I’d sense within in a key, and attached to the character of each key.
The key of A major, for example, always has seemed to be a bright, exultant key there is, and I perceived it as a vivid red, a few shades darker than cherry red.
G major seemed earthy and organic, and to me is a dark, brownish green.
D major to me is bright, whitish-yellow. D minor is silvery-grey, as is its relative major, F.
I asked Dylan if he had colors he associated with certain keys, and he said, softly, “Sure, sure. Sure.” But he volunteered no examples and I didn’t ask for any. I wish I did, though.
Some experienced various variations of synesthesia; a few saw shapes, not colors. Herbie Hancock said, “Not colors as much as textures.” And Rickie Lee Jones answered with wonderfully detailed little character sketches of certain keys. Which is here. along with the answers to my musical key queries from Finneas,
Synesthesia is prevalently described as being a disorder of the brain, in which the senses are blurring the lines between two things which should be perceived separately – sound and vision. To see red when hearing the key of A major, the thinking goes, is a dysfunction because the brain which should always segregate aspects of reality.
Yet to those of us who have experienced this phenomenon for decades, it does not feel like that at all, that is is a mistake of the brain. It feels much more like the opposite of that; more like an ability to see beyond the arbitrary separations impose upon physical reality. The sound of A major is not unrelated to the color red. Yet many experts have concluded that linking the two things is evidence of some short-circuiting in the brain.
It’s thinking aligned to the notion that musical keys do not have their own individual character or color, but are each exactly the same and interchangeable. Yet to most musicians, and to those who see colors, their individuality is overt. If they were not, each key would be perceived as the same color.
This understanding adds even more richness and mystery to this thing called music, which already contains multitudes of unlimited riches and mystery. Because it allows the musician to recognize that all of these elemental, non-physical attributes of music which move us so much are not imagined or arbitrary, but real.
Songwriting is all about the connection of things, and the inherent unity achieved in the merger of music and language. Songwriters unite the elements of melody, harmony, rhythm, poetic and spoken language, singing, instrumental textures and more into one unified being. Songwriters spend their time and focus connecting elements, not dividing them.
Recent studies at McGill and elsewhere on the neuroscience of the brain and music confirm the songwriter’s mission of unifying disparate things. Songs, they have learned, are perceived by the entire brain, unlike any other information received. Songs, as they speak to emotions and intellect both, have a unifying effect on the brain itself.
Which shows synesthesia is not an affliction but a talent. It’s a gift to be able to see beyond the sonic surface of music into its true dimensional depth.
Brian Wilson’s 1993 response to my key query remains one of the most memorable, reflecting his love of major keys and aversion to minor keys. He’s only written one song in a minor key, “God Only Knows,” which has an ambiguous tonal center.
The key of A?
BRIAN WILSON: Red.
So Brian, are all the minor keys black?”
The key of G?
Finneas: Golden, like sort of orange.
RICKIE LEE JONES.
The key of C?
RICKIE LEE JONES: C seems like it would be dressed in a nice Cowboy outfit friendly not bothering anybody it could lead to these sad it could lead to the happy it’s kind of middle-of-the-road it’s a little low in my register I think of it as a boy’s key it’s very friendly
D’s much more of a challenge. It’s got more tension in it than C. I think of my mother a little bit. Seems like a feminine key.
E is like the dirt. It’s where things fall to. E is something to lay down on. It’s a really easy key to sing and play. It’s a good resolution. Masculine.
I don’t know F very much.
Celestial. Very expansive.
A. I like A. Strength. It’s expensive but it’s consoled. It can be masculine or feminine; it can go either way.
I like it. It’s sad but it’s not without hope.
Seems much darker to me. Sorrowful. it will accommodate rock. Powerful rock. It can be a pretty dire thing.