We Asked Some Synesthetes to Tell Us the Most Colourful Songs
"I want to listen to this song on repeat in a sensory deprivation tank, but I'm worried it might break my brain?"
Lead illustration by Joel Benjamin
Forgive me for sounding like a keytar player with white dreads and a polyester buddha flag from Camden Market, but for as long as I can remember, I have understood words in colour. This is called grapheme-colour synesthesia, and out of the 60 different variants of synesthesia that exist, apparently it is the most common. I’m not constantly seeing rainbows or anything – it’s more subtle than that – but to me and many others, each word has a different intrinsic and unchangeable colour property by default. For example, the word “corridor” is always coral pink, “Wednesday” is always duck yellow, “February” is always clear blue, and so on.
What is marginally less common, however, is chromesthesia, which is when people experience sound and music in colour. So, like, some guitar riffs might be electric purple, or the song “Word Up” by Chromeo might sound really silvery. What’s interesting about chromesthesia is that studies have found that both synesthetes and non-synesthetes alike associate high pitched sounds with lighter, brighter colours and low pitched sounds with darker ones. In other words: most of us experience synesthesia to some capacity, even if we don’t notice or think of it as that (when someone describes a synth line as “colourful” or “bright” you know what they mean, right?).
Anyway, because chromesthesia is a weird and unusual phenomenon, and nobody knows ~ exactly ~ why it happens, we decided to gather a bunch of synesthetes (the sort that experience sound/music as colour) to talk us through the one song they find the most colourful.
THE 1975 – “PARIS”
“The colours and vibrancy of “Paris” has been the exact same the entire time I’ve heard it: in general, it is twilight purple-y blue – the best comparison is the colour of the sky in that scene in Virgin Suicides when Kirsten Dunst wakes up in a field alone. My synesthesia is really texture/shape-based as well though, so colours are never just flat. "Paris" is that shade of violet, but it's gaseous or smoky, and tunnelling in a narrow, cylindrical space as if the colour were being pumped in from somewhere else.
Within the violet, there's a hint of white light coming from somewhere, but it's not *part of the colour* itself, as if the white light exists within the same universe of the song but is in like, the next room or underneath it. There aren't any really particularly colourful parts of the song, because the melody is so repetitive as to induce this weird state of hypnosis every time I listen to it – so much so that I once listened to it accidentally for nine hours straight on a transatlantic flight. I want to listen to this song on repeat in a sensory deprivation tank, but I'm a bit worried it might break my brain?” ALLYSON, 24.
RAE SREMMURD – “GUATEMALA”
“I don’t know why but when you asked what the most colourful song is, my mind immediately went to Rae Sremmurd. All their songs are colourful – like “No Type” is very colourful. But this one particularly pops. Especially because it’s mainly singing (rapping is usually quite monochrome and plain to me). This song is full of colours like lilac, yellow, pink, orange and sky blue. It’s hard to differentiate what bits are what colour, but it just feels like every sound is almost fluorescent, it’s so bright, and also 'spatially bouncy' too if that makes sense. I love listening to it for that reason.” LUCY, 23.
MINA – “NESSUNO”
“This song is a kaleidoscopic mix. It starts as a sequence of blue shades at the initial guitar chord progression, quickly turning to a bright red attack as the vocalist begins to sing 'Nessuno...' and fading into the oranges and purples of the saxophone. All tied together by the baby blues and pinks of the piano line.” RONI, 29.
CHRISTINE AND THE QUEENS – “COMME SI“
“It’s not just that this song's got loads of colours, but also that the colours are very rich, silky and swirling, like dark velvets and postbox reds and bright purples (the kind you associate with Prince, in fact the colours between these two artists are very similar which is weird because they have been compared). When you say you have synesthesia most people think you actually see the colours but it’s more like you associate that song with those colours, and you experience that association in real time when it plays. I love having synesthesia because I think it makes my sensory experiences richer – I can’t imagine what it would be like otherwise, but I imagine everything seeming very flat.” MAY, 23.
BONOBO – “STAY THE SAME FT. ANDREYA”
“This one of my favourite tracks to experience with my synesthesia. Their whole album Black Sands has very calming visuals for me, which means I can listen to this track while working. The track begins as a deep dark blue colour – contained within a small space and it has the texture of oil paint. The blue expands throughout the song and I dive deeper into the different shades of teal and navy as they mix together.
The song feels very three dimensional, like there is a lot of space in the visuals. Usually in music this makes me feel uneasy, but the warm yellow colour of Andreya Triana’s voice makes it comforting. The Brass instruments used also give a yellow hue to the song while rest of the melody creates a blue, ultramarine, teal mix that fills the space. The drums generate a periodic charcoal colour that underline the blues. Overall it is beautiful to experience.” LILY, 22.
KOOL & THE GANG – “FRESH”
“I love listening to disco, funk, soul, anything like that, because the songs are always the same brilliant colours – usually purples – especially ones that were released in the 70s and 80s. “Fresh” is particularly enjoyable to listen to because it's a glossy, rounded, pure purple, with white licks and flourishes that make it even shinier, occasionally veering into pinks and lilacs, like an oil painting. Weirdly, Rockwell's “Somebody Watching Me” is almost exactly the same colour, apart from it's a bit darker in places, with splashes of Navy.” CHARLIE, 27.
WHITE WIVES – “SPINNING WHEELS”
“Since I started painting songs on commission I found dozens of songs that struck me as captivating and beautiful, not inherently for their lyrical content, but for how they appear to me. One that particularly springs to mind is “Spinning Wheels” by White Wives. It appeared as more than just colour to me, it felt like a huge 10 foot wave frozen at its tallest point, arching over me. The top/outside of the wave being a mid-dark silver colour and the bottom/underside of the wave, stripes of metallic dark pink, dark teal, mustard and baby blue. It was really hard to convey into a 2D image.” LIBBY, 21.
This article originally appeared on Noisey UK.