Can you teach yourself to hear colors or see music?
For a long time I have been asking myself whether it is possible to teach myself to hear colors or see music. Yesterday, I stumbled upon an interesting TED Talk that answered my question to some extend. But before we jump right to that point let us talk about hearing colors, seeing music or synesthesia a for a while.
What is Synesthesia?
Synesthesia is the condition to connect two or more senses together. A friend of mine is able to see number, which is a typical form of synesthesia. As she was young it took her quite a while to realize that other people are not able to see numbers like she does. It feels so normal to her. She is pretty smart and good at mathematics but seeing numbers doesn’t make you a genius right away.
There are many other forms of synesthesia than just seeing number. Some people link colors to taste. Others are able to see music. In my eyes, it is a really an interesting field. Check out Wikipedia for more information about the different forms of synesthesia.
Hear colors and see music
I always wondered how it would feel like to see music. Does it change your perception of music? Do you connect specific frequencies to specific colors or just overall sounds to colors. Does it raise your abilities to make music?
It is a two-way road. If you perceive colors when listening to music then it is logical to say that you also hear music when you see a painting.
Maybe, it would make it easier to remember and recognize harmonies. You wouldn’t have to rely on your ears only, but you could use your inner eyes to differentiate a half-diminshed seventh from a diminished seventh chord. There is so much more I could think about here, but what is most interesting for us “normal” people is the question, “can we teach ourself to hear colors or see music”?
Can we learn it?
Studying composition and music technology I tought myself to recognize chords, harmonies, scales, instruments, rhythm, frequencies, compression, equalization and much more. I never attempted to teach myself synesthesia, but after watching this TED-talk, I am convinced that with the right amount of training everyone could do it to some extend. Take a look.
Neil Harbisson isn’t a synesthete in the common way. He is color blind and still doesn’t know how orange or purple looks like. Neil though made it possible for him to hear colors by means of technology. With his device he connected color with a specific pitch. After years of using that body extension in his everyday live he also learned to see sound as he describes in his talk. Now he is able to experience sound or music in a different way than we do it.
What we can conclude is that we are able to connect pitches to mental constructs. The step that Neil misses due to his color blindness is to use shapes or colors as representations for frequencies. Nevertheless, I still don’t think that we can ever teach ourself to perceive music colors as intense as synesthetes do, but we surely can enhance our abilities to see sound in a different way.