I have synesthesia.
Synesthesia (or synaesthesia) is a neurological phenomenon in which stimulation of one sensory or cognitive pathway leads to automatic, involuntary experiences in a second sensory or cognitive pathway.
Picture from MUSE - The 2nd Law
1 out of 2000 people experience synesthesia in a way or another. Many people actually don’t know they have synesthesia. It took me a while to understand I was experiencing music differently from “most people”.
How I experience synesthesia
In my case, I can see and feel the music I am listening to. Also, when writing and producing, I am actually kind of a painter and a sculptor. I think of the colours I want to see and where I want these to be in space (space as the environment, the whole track is the environment). These things also move and I want them to move the way I want them to. So that said, the type of sound, the EQs, the compression, the panning, etc — all those things will influence this and I don’t do this randomly.
To me, a very sharp sound (lead guitar, lead synth, crashes) are yellow. They are like the sun, they shine. A more “bassy” sound or a more mellow sound (filtered bass or drone) will be blue, like the ocean. See the difference? The yellow ones got to move fast in space and they are aggressive. They are the energy of the track. The blue ones have to float around like water.
That said, when I listen to others music, I don’t “experience colours” in a random way. For example, most of the old Infected Mushroom music sounds purple to me. Because most of the old Infected Mushroom tracks have those bass leads with a bit of low pass filtering to them. Even the lead synthesizers are filtered or sine wave based. Also sometimes effects like reverb can help to add colour (massively shades of blue for me). Also the kicks are mostly clean and they are sine wave based with a good pitch effect to it. When there is distortion on any instrument it is mostly filtered (again). The result is that everything is not too harsh.
When and how I knew I had synesthesia
I always listened to music this way from what I can remember. Music has always been very important in my life. One day I was on the road with my father and we were listening to Infected Mushroom. (Yes I converted my father to the magic of electronic music!). I told him (in French of coarse but here’s a translation): "Isn’t it funny how every single track of the older Infected Mushroom sounds purple in some ways and the more recent ones are more yellow?" And of coarse my father was like: “What the heck are you talking about!?” Unfortunately I can’t remember the whole discussion that followed but at that moment I understood I had something going on. Even if I was laughing with my father in the car about this I was a bit afraid. I though there was something very wrong. Add to this the fact that back then (early high school years) I was a bit socially awkward. I didn’t have many friends.
It took me a few years before I found myself reading an article about synesthesia. Then I made the connection. I was experiencing exactly what the article was stating. (Unfortunately I couldn’t find back this article)
The good and the bad
Synesthesia is awesome. You get to listen to music and experience it in unique ways. You can really feel it. You are one with the music. Every song is special. Most people love music because of the lyrics, you love the music because of the painting and the shape of it. You love every kind of music (at least I do). I have a crush on rock music when it comes to modern music especially because they tend to incorporate more melodies (and melodies are very important) than electronic music. Electronic music tend to be monotone (mostly the mainstream). This is sad since it should be the perfect type of music to make people experience new things. Still many artists are good at this, take for example Aleksander Vinter. But from what I heard most artists are copying others and making monotone music. This is one of the many reasons why I am producing electronic music. There are so much possibilities. I just need to add the good melodies that I personally think it is missing (but that is just my opinion).
Unfortunately there are things that are quite sad with synesthesia. First, most people think you are weird. Most people will never understand what you mean when you explain how you feel about a song or a track. You are also very picky on the music you listen to. You also become very harsh when you critic music. You get to believe if you don’t experience something it means it isn’t good music (Which is not something that I am proud of). So I tend to not critic some of the music my friends like because I fear they would think I am just a hater with no reasons.
Second, you might be a perfectionist like me. I can work hours only on EQs or even on the different rhythms of the instruments.To me a track is never completely done nor perfect. It is like the opposite of Aleksander Vinter who wants to finish everything. He has to complete everything because of his savant syndrome but he also experiences synesthesia. My music is never completed. I have to force myself to stop at some point. At one point I was working on a tribute to Infected Mushroom and after 5 years I wasn’t done with it. To this day I never finished it.
But on the other hand my music partner Francis in AXIMETRIK once said that after the music is written and most of it is produced he has to actually leave me alone in the studio for a day because some of the magic only appears then. It is really one part of our process at producing music. We need those very complex drum rhythms or synths. It is part of our sound.
If you have some kind of synesthesia I hope you also have a passion because anything you will do will be some kind of art. You have the soul of an artist. There are many ways to be an artist in my opinion and experiencing synesthesia is sure one. Music or not, I think it is a great gift and can be also seen as part of your many talents. You just need to learn how to live with it.
This article was mostly about the music/sound/sight form of synesthesia but I encourage you to look around for the other types of synesthesia (related to touch, tasting, etc) because it is truly something fascinating.