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The Colours of Composition: Synesthesia as an Illustration of the Compositional Process


The study of synesthesia allows us an unconventional approach and understanding of the way the human brain perceives sound, and through this perception, music. However, music is perceived as a communicator, providing information in a different way to pure sound. Where a noise or sound typically relays information about the immediate environment, such as the dropping of a glass tumbler produces a sound, music serves to convey different information. The function of music and the information we receive through listening to music refers more strongly to a communicative role, similar to language. If the medium of communication of music is to be examined then, we find it contains illustrations of abstract ideas. Those abstract ideas often serve as the impetus for music composition and colour our musical understanding. The synesthete experience, specifically the colour synesthete could then be seen to illustrate the brain’s interpretation of the abstract, with the additional information the brain relays in response to music.

Hearing and Cognition: The Brain and Music

In looking at the way the brain perceives sound, and through this, how we understand music, it is important then that we differentiate between the measurable and the immeasurable. One can measure the physical attributes of a sound with the technology available to us, we can examine the anatomy of the human hearing system. Beyond this, we face more challenges. The perception of sound is where we find the limit of our understanding. Diana Deutsch in The Psychology of Music states that “measures of perception are not limited to the quantitative or numerical domain”. (Deutsch, 2013.) Thus our scientific understanding which relies so heavily on the quantifiable reaches an impasse with the human experience of sound. Deutsch goes on to state that the many different ways to measure perception each have shortcomings but the true goal of this research is to use these “systems-level” analysis to help us discover more about how human hearing and cognition process sound, in particular, musical sounds in ways that elicit music’s “powerful cognitive and emotional effects.” Thus there is the effect of abstraction in music, in the disconnect between the measurable (such as loudness or pitch) and the immeasurable (the emotional reaction to music as stimuli).

Music and Language as Abstract Symbolism

Music and language both serve the dual functions of communication and social bonding. This can be easily seen in a short walk through a typical neighbourhood. There are many situations when music is utilised in this way. Group singing, for instance, is often not only encouraged, but expected. We have the preschool, the church, labour songs, and national anthems. Music is used to unite people under shared emotions and often, ideals.

A song moving the hearts of the public towards social change, with the same fervour as a politician’s speech might. Studies have shown too, that a group of listeners hearing a piece of music experience physical synchronicities in behaviour, such as syncing brainwaves, breathing and heart rate.

Hellmuth Margulis in her book On Repeat: How Music Plays the Mind (2014) points out another similarity, the formulaic patterns, not merely the functional aspects found in both music and language. There are, however, elements of these concepts that overlap. Perhaps these similarities tie into their similar functions; that is, the desire to illicit, and communicate specific emotions. The link between communication and emotion is a concept Robin Dunbar touches on in her book Grooming, Gossip and the Evolution of Language (1996) where she describes the brain’s stimulation of the production of endogenous opiates connected to music and speech. In essence, we speak to each other to be happy. How does speech or music attain this? Through the expression of abstract ideas, such as emotions, affection and social ties.

Synesthesia: An Experience of the Abstract in a Physical Manifestation

In 2018 I had the privilege of interviewing Greg Jarvis, the director of the Canadian Synesthesia Association. Jarvis spoke with me at length about what he regarded as this "cognitive gift". Synesthesia is typically understood as a neurological condition in which one of the six senses is simultaneously perceived as though the brain is receiving information from one or more additional senses. Synesthesia may blur the perception of letters, shapes, numbers, words or even names with an additional sensory perception such as smell, colour or flavour. This can even affect the emotional reaction to these stimuli, such as personalities or characteristics becoming as strongly associated with these objects or concepts as much as the stimulus itself. Studies surrounding this condition have been largely focused on the intangible and intelligible nature of the condition, namely the synesthete visions experienced by many synesthetes, in particular colour specific synesthetes. In the course of the interview, Jarvis was asked to describe a synesthete experience, “how would he describe a synesthetic vision or photism?”. Jarvis directs us to his composition Symphony No.1 performed by the group Flowers From Hell. The music video for this composition, also produced by Jarvis, was meant to be a demonstration of how a photism might manifest.

Additionally, it serves to demonstrate how Jarvis, himself as a colour synesthete, experiences the timbres in the composition. The experience of synesthetic perception functions much like an additional sense rather than a blurring of senses.


[It is] no different to something like your sense of smell. Today your nose has been working all day but you probably haven’t paid attention to anything it’s picked up unless you picked up a rose, checked the milk in your fridge, or had a scent like rotting trash jump out at you.

-Jarvis, 2018 in an interview with the author.


Thus the synesthete experience allows for attenuation, much like many of the other human senses. The photisms themselves can take as many different forms as there are expressions of synesthesia. Seen through this lens, synesthesia is a concentrated experience of the interpretation of the abstract. Almost any human construct that has been created to convey an abstract meaning can be experienced as a physical manifestation of some kind by synesthetes. A composer himself, Jarvis uses this extra layer of perception musically. Behind most music composition processes, there is a desire to express something that, possibly cannot be expressed through any other medium with the same level of intensity, whereas most synesthetes are expressing their experience of the concrete-abstract. Meaning by this, the conveyance of synesthete photisms. As the experience of these visions is often misunderstood, when asked about what resources those wishing to understand synesthesia should consult, Jarvis replied:


Nearly all of the existing articles and studies on synesthesia focus on things like ‘what colour is A’ and what brain regions are activated, while utterly and totally ignoring the emotional component of the synesthetic experience and the full understanding of music that we receive from our cross-connected brains. Non-synis think what synis experience is 2D or 3D, but it’s not, it’s more like twelve dimensions or beyond, these are things that break past what the non-synesthetic mind can conceive and linguistic vocabulary doesn’t exist for us to sufficiently explain the experience and understanding we get.

-Jarvis, 2018 in an interview with the author.


Music Composition and The Intangible

One can extrapolate all these elements in a compositional approach. The act of composition itself is almost an exact recreation of the brain’s psychological response to music.

We have the “systems-level” analysis of measurable phenomena, such as chord progressions in a passage or the use of arpeggiated figures. Although there are no doubt exceptions, the vast majority of composers do not actively apply numerical or scientific research on music psychology to address their listeners. Instead, they rely on the instinctive interpretations of the music traditions to which they have been exposed. Working from this learned tradition, they then reinterpret those traditions in the creation of a work that expresses their own musical ideas. This elaboration on musical tradition creates a dialogue, as though one were writing letters to the past.

In the author’s view, music does serve a strong communicative role. If music were to lose sight of this function, it would separate from the emotional impact it has the power to effect. Through this, the role of music would come into question. If music is no longer used to connect people, why write music? Through compositions produced now, the course of music will be decided. It is for the composers and musicians of today to decide what defines music in the coming century. In writing this paper my focus had been on the synesthete experience and how understanding that experience could inform both our listening and compositional practices. Since that time, we have seen a passionate response to the isolation of musicians and a new "music of the quarantine" has arisen as a powerful force for art in the world through digital outreach. I am reminded of Jarvis' video, Symphony No.1 served to illustrate his own experience of music, in a way now, the music produced in this digital space during COVID-19 may serve as the same for us. Something which shares our experience and our emotions, in essence, our humanity. This new digital age in music may yet allow for a greater connection between peoples and the globalisation of empathy, of which music would be a most fitting ambassador.

Thank you to Greg Jarvis for his time and for sharing his experience, for more information on Synethasia please visit The Canadian Synesthesia Association.


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