⪧ We left our life in New York City to make a new one in Provence ⪦

October 9, 2008

Color Hearing



I still teach English to a few of my Wall Street students privately. This morning, Katia (who is Russian, but has lived in France for 15 years) came over for a lesson/conversation. I always enjoy talking with Katia because she is a musician who teaches at the one of the conservatories in Paris. Her husband is also a musician - a great conductor. She was telling me about her 16-year old son today. I knew he was an impressive violinist from previous conversations, but I didn't really understand the extent of his genius.

She told me an incredible story. It started when he was a little boy - 2 and 3 years old, he would hear music playing and go over to their piano and plunk out what he was hearing. She was pleased with his obvious talent, but there was a lot of musical influence in their house since both she and her husband (and her parents) were professional musicians.

When he was around 4 years old, she gave him a tiny violin and he started playing. Immediately his talent was evident. She knew where he was headed as a musician, so she would spend 3 hours a day in those very young years practicing with him.

While they were practicing, he would often ask her if she could hear the colors. "Mama, it is blue. Can you hear it?" She had no idea what he was talking about and dismissed it at first, but he continued to 'hear colors' and talk about those colors as if they were a normal way of perceiving sound.

So, like many good musicians, this kid has perfect pitch. He can name the key of any song that he listens to. He can sing an F# without any reference point. But hearing a tonality for him also elicits the perception of a color. So, a tone signifies something totally different for him than for most people, even people trained in music.

When she first started talking about it, I was perplexed. I felt like it was kind of like the question my brother Paul likes to ask people: "On a scale of 1 to 10, who is your favorite actor." Mixed mediums.

She said that when she made the full realization of what he was experiencing, she was concerned that his ear would be debilitating. He lives his life hearing these tones and hearing colors - if the window is open and he hears the cars and the traffic out on the street - he attaches tones to all of those happenings and perceives colors. However, for him, all of this is simply automatic and always has been.

So, indeed after thinking about it, one can make an effort to associate colors, (in a sense, moods), to keys of music. Something written in C is generally cheerful, and vibrant - so the color is probably red. For me, this would not be a concrete association; it would of course also be influenced by timbres, tempos, melodies of a composition. But, I can see the sense in color association.

But for this guy, it is not thinking through and finding colors to attribute to sounds or tonalities. It is literally just involuntary perception. So, I looked into a little bit. People who automatically experience a duality in perception have what is called synaesthesia. This can take all sorts of forms.

Some people see colored numbers and letters. They see a number and simultaneously see a color. A 7 is always red or a B is always blue. Reading is colorful.

Some people see numbers in maps, involuntarily. They hear or see a number and they perceive it in a larger numerical-spatial design.

Some people taste words. When a word is spoken it evokes a taste in their mouths. Crazy.

(Props to Rothko above).

3 comments:

Jill said...

This is facinating stuff! I wish I could experience it, even just for a little while to see what it's like. I'm not sure I'd want to live with it always though. For instance, I'm pretty sure some words would leave an awful taste in one's mouth.

Side note: I like your pictures down the side of your blog. I think I might copy you on this. O.K.

Emilie said...

of course my jill! glad you like the photos...

ronco said...

I heard a short piece about this on the BBC. You can check it out here if you want.

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