We Asked a Guy with Synaesthesia What a Bunch of Songs Taste Like
"Pianos always have the taste and texture of pineapple chunks. Usually, they’re the sweet tinned ones, but in this case, they were fresh.”
(Lead image by Jrv73 via Wikimedia)
Ever since I can remember, I've seen words in colours. These colours are constant and unchangeable, and as much an intrinsic property of the word as the arrangement of the letters. The word "pal", for instance, is always neon green. The word "bollocks" is always light blue. The word "agreeable" is always pillar-box red, and so on.
I had no idea this wasn't the way everyone perceived language until I once mentioned to my mate that "Wednesday is so obviously yellow," and she looked at me as if I'd just offered to sacrifice my first-born child. After some frantic googling, I discovered I had a mild and relatively common form of synaesthesia – "grapheme-colour synaesthesia" – and not an incurable brain tumour, as I'd briefly suspected.
What's less common, however, are other forms of synaesthesia. Lexical-gustatory synesthesia, for instance, is experienced by less than 0.2 percent of the world's population, and refers to when people can taste sounds. In other words, that new Stormzy track might taste like ginger biscuits and barbecued meat, or your fave Aaliyah jam might conjure up the sweet deliciousness of blueberry pie. We wanted to know more about this very strange, almost super hero-style phenomenon, so we contacted the UK Synaesthesia Association. They put us in touch one of their committee members, James Wannerton, who can taste sounds to a pretty extreme level, and who has collaborated with musicMagpie for research surrounding this phenomenon in the past. As such, we sent him a playlist, he listened to the tracks, and then he kindly told us the flavours of each.
Dave and J Hus – "Samantha"
Noisey: So, let's start with this Dave and J Hus track.
James Wannerton: Ah yes, this one had a very strong piano introduction. For me, pianos always have the taste and texture of pineapple chunks. Usually, they're the sweet tinned ones, but in this case, they were large, fresh pineapple chunks.
What about the lyrics?
I don't usually like lyric-filled songs because they give me too many flavours, but in this song the vocals were mumbled so it wasn't too much. What I did get from the vocals were a really strong taste of Garibaldi biscuits. Also, there was some Madeira cake in there.
So it was quite a sweet song? Not unpleasant?
It wasn't unpleasant, but I'll tell you why it wasn't one of my favourites: it was relatively bland. I know it had pineapple chunks, but after that, it wasn't that strong.
The Lemon Twigs – "These Words"
I'm interested to hear about what this Lemon Twigs song tasted like, as there's so much going in here.
Ah yeah. Funnily enough, and this must have something to do with the semantics, it gave me the taste of lemon sorbet, and a few lemon pips. The whole thing didn't have much texture or substance, though. Although actually, from the lyrics, I got toffee sensations and a few fruit gums; you know Rowntree's Fruit Gums? I got them as well.
From what I've heard so far, you've got quite a sweet palette.
So far, yeah. When there are lyrics they're sometimes less so.
What about my name? What do I taste like?
Big chunks of butter. When you speak to me, it changes slightly, and it goes somewhere between butter and margarine. If I met you, it would change depending on what you look like, but the base note would always be that buttery taste.
I'm not sure how I feel about that.
Piero Piccioni – "Camille 2000"
What are your thoughts on this Piero Piccioni song? Obviously, it has no vocals...
An orchestral introduction is usually very nice for me; I get some meaty tastes in there, but it's usually sweet. In this case though, as it sounded muffled, it downgraded. It tasted like a wine gum that you'd had for too long, so it lost most of its flavour … maybe my hearing's going.
What about when those beats come in?
There were processed peas in there. It must have been the sound of a drum, which was quite tinny. There was also pineapple chunks in there – very small ones – so there must have been piano in there somewhere too.
Slipknot – "Wait and Bleed"
And now for something completely different: Slipknot.
This song tasted weird. There was lots and lots of chocolate – solid, hard chocolate, probably a Yorkie bar. There was also brown bread crusts in there, just the crusts.
I guess that makes sense. Did the flavour change throughout the song?
Definitely. There was a lot of marzipan in there, which was related to the vocals. The lyrics didn't mean anything to me because the singer was shouting. But, I tell you what was really strange about this, I got the taste of these sweets I used to have for sore throats when I was a child. I don't know if that's because the singer yelled a lot, so it triggered that memory. That ruined the whole thing for me, to be honest.
If you try a new dish, will it pop up in a song later?
Yeah, that happens. But sometimes, I can taste something and I won't have a clue as to where it came from. It's like, 'what's that?' Those are the really distracting ones because I sit there trying to work it out for ages.
Alice Deejay – "Better Off Alone"
What did you think about this Alice Deejay song?
I liked this one! I used to go to nightclubs in the 80s and 90s and this sort of stuff was what I loved. This kind of music – and I'm talking about the introduction here rather than the vocals –is really nice and clean and clear; the over-production gives it a lovely flavour. This kind of song is what I would listen to all day because it's the best kind of synaesthesia experience.
So what did the synth at the beginning taste like?
It was all very sweet, although having said that, there were peas in there, so maybe that was the beat. But mostly, it was like munching through a bag of mixed sweets; opal fruits, wine gums, fruit gums, fruit pastilles with sugar on top … oooh lovely!
What about when she repeats the lyric "better off alone"?
All I got was lettuce.
Johnny Cash – "Hurt"
I'm very interested to hear what Johnny Cash tastes like…
This was one my favourites, mainly because there was a guitar introduction, and that tasted like apple slices. Some of them were cooked, but some weren't. Also, get this: with Johnny Cash, I often taste the carbon fur you get in the bottom of kettles. He's got a gravelly voice, so maybe it comes from that.
Ew. Did you taste anything else from his voice?
So I had apple slices, the carbon in the kettle – which sounds horrible but actually isn't that bad – then I got liquorice as well, and then I got minced beef and potatoes. Overall though, it was very apple-y.
What kind of potatoes were they?
They were mashed, and I wonder whether than has something to do with his name "Cash". There is often a link between the actual word and the taste. Food, for instance, usually tastes like what it is. The word "cheese" tastes like cheese; it's a particular kind of cheese – one which I have never been able find – but it does taste of cheese.
Stefflon Don & Giggs – "Real Ting Remix"
What was the taste of this "Real Ting" Remix then?
This was absolutely bloody awful. It was like sucking on a very sour tangerine, or an orange. It was awful! To be honest, I had to turn it off, it was too much.
Oh no! I love this song.
There was a blob of coffee in there, too, which was its only saving grace.
Whose voice tasted the worst? Stefflon Don or Giggs?
Stefflon Don's. It was awful. I couldn't get beyond the sour tangerine, it just smothered all the other flavours. It was disgusting. It's not funny.
Smash Mouth – "All Star"
Let's end on Smash Mouth. I really hope this tasted a little better than the last track.
This was one of my favourites! After I listened to it, I thought, 'I'm going to listen to more of this.' The introduction, or at least the version you gave me, had a long verbal beginning. The taste of that introduction then carried on into the song itself.
What was the flavour? Why did you like it so much?
There were digestives biscuits in there, there were walnut whips, lots of cream and chocolate, and there were a few wine gums in there as well. The reason I liked it was because it was splitting all those flavours very nicely and cleanly because it had such a precise sound. Also, the American accent is often quite well elocuted, so the flavours come through very strong.
Thanks for chatting to me, James. Hope you enjoyed your meal.
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Click here to find out more about the UK Synaesthesia Association