For most of us, we perceive many senses at one time; seeing trees swaying, hearing birds singing, smelling freshly cut grass and feeling the wind in your hair. Some people also perceive senses that aren't really there. These people have a condition called synesthesia, where experiencing one sense may trigger them to experience another sense alongside it.
Synesthesia comes in many different forms; for some, a word may trigger a taste, for others, a day of the week may be a distance and for others, a sound may be a colour. A lot of people with the condition live unaware that they have synesthesia, as they believe that everybody tastes cola when they see the number '15' or sees pink when they hear a car horn.
Other synesthetes use their alternative perceptions of senses to enhance their talents or to give others insight into their mind. One upcoming musician, Grace Bland (18), is releasing a series of short originals which use music to try to express her boyfriend's synesthesia to the world. Her latest project, 'Originals In Colour', consists of a collection of one-minute songs that she has written based around the colour her boyfriend sees when he hears the chord progression.
"I call my boyfriend and play the chord progression to him over the phone. After he tells me which colour he perceives when listening to the chords, I start writing the lyrics and the melody based on the connotations I associate with the colour he sees."
When asked whether she believes that using synesthesia in song-writing could change the way an audience receives music, Grace said. "I think that exploring the combination of colour and music is really exciting! It can provide a new layer of interest for an audience as they gain a glimpse into how others may perceive a song in a different way to themselves. To me, this is one of the most exciting things about music."
Usually, when writing her Alternative Pop songs, Grace will begin with a chord progression before writing the melodic elements in chronological order and composing the lyrics. For this new project, Grace interrupts her usual process to gain colourful insight from her boyfriend and steer the direction of the song.
What is Synesthesia?
Synesthesia is a neurological condition which causes the synesthete to perceive two senses at once. For example, hearing a certain word could activate their taste, causing them to experience a certain flavour.
Although this condition relies heavily on self-diagnosis, it is thought to affect 2-4% of the population. Those affected can have synesthesia with any combination of senses, however, it is directional. This means that while the number '8' may be perceived as yellow, yellow isn't associated with '8'.
While scientists were trying to understand this phenomenon, they did some studies which allowed them to determine that synesthesia is nothing to do with memory. A synesthete that tastes burnt toast when they hear the word 'garden' hasn't necessarily eaten burnt toast in a garden before.
The current theory of how synesthesia works is simply a cross-wiring in the brain. This is almost like a one-way chain reaction, so when one sense is activated, another sense is activated at the same time. Some scientists suggest that synesthetes may have more neural connections, or perhaps increased grey and white matter.
Grace's boyfriend is one of the many synesthetes who didn't realise he had the condition until he recently discovered that not many other people experience sound in colour as he does. As he is not a musician, Grace is working to translate his perception into music, while he is focusing on the ways it can influence his creative work in the theatre and fine art.
The first song in Grace's 'Originals In Colour' series is now available to listen to on her social media (@graceblandmusic). This first song is based around the colour 'Light Blue', which is the colour her boyfriend saw when he heard the soft piano score Grace had written, inspired by the film 'Call Me By Your Name'. The outcome is absolutely beautiful.
There are also many musicians who have synesthesia. Izzy Mawdesley, an 18-year-old singer-songwriter, discovered she had synesthesia when she heard a Maggie Rodger's interview; "...until then I hadn’t realised it was an actual condition. I just thought everybody saw shapes and colours when they heard music...".
Since synesthesia is something she has always experienced, Izzy isn't sure how different her music would be without it. Despite this, she says that "...just changing the key of a song by a semitone completely changes the way I see it in my mind, which allows me to hear the song with a fresh pair of ears. It makes the process of writing and producing quicker, as I’m able to see where the music is going and how it could look before I’ve actually created it."
As somebody without synesthesia, it's really difficult to imagine how the condition manifests itself. It's almost like trying to imagine a colour that's not on our spectrum. Izzy tried her best to explain what goes on in her mind when she hears music; "It’s as if your senses have gotten a bit jumbled up; every time I hear something, I involuntarily see it as well. I don’t literally see it in front of me, but I see it in my mind's eye." She went on to explain that; "every sound has its own innate colour, texture, shape, and size that I have no control over. It also affects the way I perceive people, words, numbers, and periods of my life in memories."
Izzy's sister is also a synesthete, which isn't unsurprising as the condition is thought to be genetic. While there is yet to be a confirmed genetic link, around 40% of synesthetes report that a direct relative also has the condition.
"...exploiting [synesthesia] creates a much more immersive experience for the listener. Musicians such as Jack Garrett and Billie Eilish have definitely used it to this effect," explains Izzy, showing that having synesthesia can be a bit of a superpower if you know how to use it.
While synesthesia may be a difficult concept to wrap your head around, it's great to have artists like Izzy and Grace who are able to translate a synesthetes perception of the world into a language we already understand; music.
Be sure to go and follow Izzy (@izzymawdesley) and Grace (@graceblandmusic) on social media to hear exclusive songs and to stay in the loop with the 'Originals In Colour' project.