The Playground

The Simply Music blog

What Would You See if You Heard Music in Colour?

Found in: Miscellany & Merriment



Music & colour. Of course they have things in common – they can be beautiful, they can trigger memories – but there are other more intriguing connections reported by some people.

Isaac Newton was inspired by music to add to the rainbow. According to Nature, “the medieval rainbow had just five colours: red, yellow, green, blue and violet. Newton added two more – orange and indigo – so that the colours would be ‘divided after the manner of a Musical Chord’”.

There is a condition known as synaesthesia, experienced by about 4% of the population, in which one sensory experience evokes a different one. For example, a synaesthete might experience different days of the week as different shapes, or letters of the alphabet as specific smells.  There are many types of synaesthesia. Association of sounds with colours is properly called Chromaesthesia. It can be associated with any sounds, or just music, but from the chromaesthete, music can often occur as a fabulously rich and immersive experience. The painter Melissa McCracken has expressed her musical responses in paintings, and the results are a riot of colour – maybe too much for many of us.

“It alters the way I experience music – it’s more visceral and sometimes overwhelming to be over washed by colour. I’m more passionate about music, I can’t just take it or leave it!” – Geoffrey Williams

Chromaesthesia is often associated with perfect pitch. The presumption is that the colours help clarify distinctions of pitch.

When I interviewed Geoffrey Williams for The Playground, he mentioned that he experienced synaesthesia. We went back to Geoffrey to find out a little more. He explained that he doesn’t literally see colours, he senses or feels them. He associates colours with specific chords. For example, Gmaj is red, Amin is pink, Dmaj is orange. He can focus on only one colour at a time. 

The experience is different for each person, and one might find another’s particular colour associations incomprehensible. But for each person, the associations are as natural as the sky being blue or water wet.  For Geoffrey, the combination of music and colour is an intense experience: “It alters the way I experience music – it’s more visceral and sometimes overwhelming to be over washed by colour. I’m more passionate about music, I can’t just take it or leave it!”

Jared Ficklin demonstrates that “the eyes can hear” by rendering music graphically, and even shows how fire can respond to sound.

Artist Neil Harbisson has dealt with a rare form of colour blindness by reversing the process – attaching a special device to his head which turns colours into sound. He can distinguish between yellow and blue by their sound, or at least the vibrations in his skull. He claims it allows him to create unique artworks: “I can paint what I hear, and I can also compose music from what I am looking at”.


Composer and sound designer Nick Ryan hears music in things he sees and touches.  In his work he attempts to recreate the sound he hears in, for example, wine or clothing.

This might sound all very esoteric, but perhaps these are simply examples at the extreme end of a spectrum we are all on. Maybe finding that a piece of music evokes a picture or that the sound of an instrument creates a feeling of warmth is a milder form of the same experience.  Perhaps we can get in touch with our inner synaesthete? Try closing your eyes while you listen to a piece of music and observing if images or tastes suggest themselves to you. Don’t try to force anything, just let the visuals happen however they might. I think it’s likely that there is always some visual association whenever you listen to music, but this little exercise might make it more conscious for you. At the very least, you will have been paying attention and enhancing the listening experience.  Or just possibly, you might open the door a little to a truly multi-sensory experience.