ROSSER'S COLORED KEYS
Artist/synesthete Steen’s “Black Rainbow.”
Steen’s “Run Off in Front, Gold.”
HE SEES COLORS: Bruce Johnson closes his eyes to see the music.
JOHNSON'S COLORED KEYS
Growing up, pianist Laura Rosser didn’t give her “colored keys” too much thought. D-flat was periwinkle. Songs in the key of F-major were deep forest green, and they brightened up to chartreuse in F-sharp. But somehow, music’s rainbow-hued fantasia didn’t seem strange to Rosser. She’d never known it to look or sound any other way.
“I didn’t know this condition I had was a scientific thing,” says Rosser. Although she’s 23 years old now, Rosser still seems precocious beyond her years—poised, articulate and maternal. A swath of dark hair encircles her prim features, eyes bright with remembrance. “I remember joking about it with friends in high school. I just thought it was a quirk.”
It wasn’t until Rosser, a Central High School graduate, began studying at Nashville’s Belmont University that she discovered a name for her multi-sensory experience: synesthesia, whose Greek roots literally translate to “senses coming together.” The rare neurological condition, caused by a subtle cross-wiring in the brain, was the lecture topic of a friend’s cognitive psychology class, and its symptoms matched Rosser’s own. While some synesthetes taste shapes, smell textures, or experience other couplings of sensory modalities, Rosser perceived music as both sight and sound.
Rosser was directed to Vanderbilt University, where Dr. Randolph Blake and his colleagues research a subtype of the condition called color-graphemic synesthesia. In addition to her color-auditory synesthesia, Rosser has this color-graphemic variation, in which numbers and letters are associated with particular colors. For instance, Rosser sees the letter “R” in purple.
Blake explains, “What we’re trying to find out is if the colors are real, as vivid and as perceptually real, for synesthetic individuals as they are for us. As it turns out, they are.”
A series of tasks challenge the synesthetic individual’s sensory perception, while imaging technology records activity in different regions of the brain. Vanderbilt’s preliminary findings suggest that a primary color area is adjacent to both the auditory area and the area that handles numbers and letters. In synesthetes, the neurons in these regions may be more densely wired or strongly connected than normal, causing some people to see words, numbers and sounds in color.
“What it means is that these colors are not just metaphorical descriptions or cognitive associations. It’s a real color experience that they’re having—which implies that whatever causes us to see color, they’re having that same experience,” Blake explains.
While being diagnosed with synesthesia was considered stylish in the late 1800s and early 1900s, the empirical emphasis of 20th-century medicine caused scientists to question the condition’s validity. Recent developments in brain mapping, says Blake, allow researchers to study what was once an entirely subjective phenomenon.
“People were skeptical about it for years, but I think now it’s getting a lot of attention,” Blake says. “It’s easy to dismiss it as imagination or hallucination or metaphor, but I think that our work and work by labs elsewhere, in this country and in Canada and in Australia, is proving that this is not some sort of metaphorical disorder.”
Unfortunately, the rarity of the condition makes extensive research somewhat difficult. An estimated one in every 25,000 people are affected, and many synesthetes are either unaware of their condition or have no interest in being researched.
Bruce Johnson, a bass player and University of Tennessee graduate student in music composition, subscribes to the latter mentality. He first became conscious of his color-auditory synesthesia while attending Berklee College of Music on a talent scholarship.
“When I was actually playing live, I started noticing that the music kind of surrounded me,” he says, shyly. “It’d be in shapes, just like abstract art.”
Today, when Johnson stands before an audience with his electric band, Tease Louise, or his bluegrass quartet, The Tennessee River Dogs, he keeps his deep brown eyes shut to better see the music. When composing, he says he only writes things that “look right” in his head and correspond with certain lines or colors.
“When I think about music, when I think about a key, I’m thinking about it in a color. When I think about the key of A or even the note A, I’m thinking red and I’m seeing red,” he says. To illustrate his point, he recites a scale of notes and the colors he associates with them. “It’s always those same colors, and rhythms are the same thing. I see rhythms as jagged lines. They look staticky, almost like lightning bolts.”
Johnson is convinced that everyone possesses synesthetic tendencies to some degree, and that the innate ability to perceive sound as color can be developed into conscious awareness. “I think I’ve been given a gift, but it’s hard for me to imagine that everyone else couldn’t do it if they’d just try to figure it out.”
Some research suggests that Johnson may, in a sense, be correct; we’re all born with joined senses that separate over time. Boston University’s Vision & Cognition Laboratory has observed widespread cortical responses to visual stimuli in infants 2 months old and younger, suggesting that the primary sensory cortex becomes specialized as it develops.
Why some people’s senses remain joined into adulthood, however, is not understood. Neurologist and researcher Dr. Richard Cytowic coined the description “cognitive fossils,” referring to the synesthetic brain’s apparent resistance to evolution.
There’s anecdotal evidence that synesthetes have more in common than the condition itself. They’re two times more likely to be female than male, suggesting a genetic component. A study at Cambridge proposes that synesthetes are eight times more likely to adopt a creative career—art, writing, music, film, etc.—and a number of artistic figureheads are thought to have been synesthetes: painter Vasily Kandinsky; composers Olivier Messiaen and Franz Liszt; and poets Charles Baudelaire and Arthur Rimbaud, to name a few. Synesthetes usually also perform higher on cognitive assessment tests, but lower on spatial function.
By these standards, Rosser is a textbook synesthete: a standout student with an admittedly “terrible sense of direction,” and a prodigious musician. Her mother Robin reports that she “started humming on pitch before she could speak,” and she became the staff accompanist at Smithwood Baptist Church at age 14. Mary McDonald, Rosser’s childhood piano teacher of eight years, recalls that her student could sight-read pieces that should’ve taken weeks to learn. “She had a knack for being able to improvise and ad lib to the music and make it look effortless. She had the ability to take music to the next level,” she says.
College challenged Rosser to test her limitations, culminating in a 2004 performance of the first movement of Rachmaninoff’s Third Piano Concerto with the Belmont University Orchestra. The piece, popularly known as the “Rach 3,” is considered one of the most difficult in all piano repertoire. But instead of becoming a concert pianist after graduation, Rosser decided to devote her musical talents to the ministry.
Rosser is a devout Christian, and she connects her synesthetic condition with her spirituality. “There’s a strong sense of God’s hand being at work,” she explains.
There is something supernatural about watching her listen to a piece of music, sit down at the piano, and immediately play it back without falter. “Playing by ear is something God gave me and something I’ve always been able to do. I think a lot of it just comes with having perfect pitch,” she says, referring to her ability to identify the pitch of any given tone without any external reference pitch. “It’s just a gift I’ve received and can’t take any credit for.”
Like Rosser, Johnson describes himself as a spiritual person, but not necessarily in a Christian sense. “I’m kind of a Zen type person. Definitely when I’m playing music I feel like I’m in that Zen state.” He also believes that he’s inherited some psychic tendencies from his mother, an artist.
“I’ve always been hypersensitive to everything. I react sensitively to everything from caffeine to people’s comments,” he explains, and talks familiarly of the precognitive dreams, frequent déjà vu, instances of synchronicity and strong intuition that Rosser also reports experiencing.
“Sometimes I get sensory overload because synesthesia is connected with a high level of perception in general. I’m very aware of what’s going on around me emotionally,” Rosser says. “I’ll get déjà vu several times a week, and the synchronicity happens when some random thought I’ve had lines up with something that actually happens.”
Both sound and color are composed of energy, or vibrations, so their connection is not a new idea. Subtle differences in wavelength give rise to our perceptions of different tones and colors, and several theorists have aligned the diatonic scale’s natural seven-note organization with the visible spectrum’s seven colors, as they are divided in a rainbow.
In this context, Johnson’s assertion that he’s “just seeing energy” when he hears music makes sense. It’s questionable, though, why synesthetes’ color associations with different tonesvary. For example, Rosser and Johnson might get into an argument over whether the key of B is sparking silver or navy blue.
Sounds, letters and numbers aren’t the only synesthetic triggers. For Carol Steen, a New York City artist and co-founder of the American Synesthesia Association, visuals result from smell, sound, touch, taste and pain. She uses the color palate of her sensory experiences to create paintings and sculptures.
Many of her works are inspired by acupuncture sessions. “I can tell which points on my meridian are connected because they’re the same color. When the needles are in place, I see the most amazing movies of color, and the movies stop as soon as the first needle is removed. I run home and paint what I saw, but I always want to remember more,” she says.
She associates orange with pain, and sees different musical instruments as having different temperatures: Fiddles are red-hot orange, while banjos are a cool ultramarine mixed with cobalt. She rarely forgets phone numbers because she remembers their color combinations.
Steen considers her condition a gift, “just one more tool in the toolbox” to help her navigate through life. “It makes life very rich. It’s like perceiving the world in multi-media.”
Rosser agrees. “It’s really kind of a fun thing. It helps me to put things together and see associations that I might not otherwise. Even with memory—if I had trouble remembering your name, I might remember that it starts with a purple letter. And it helps you intuit a lot about people.”
Sensory overload, however, can be overwhelming. Rosser says she’s especially sensitive to what’s going on around her emotionally, and that if she finds herself in a place with “a bad aura, with a lot going on emotionally and a lot of sounds,” she has to leave.
In Johnson’s experience, the only frustration of hearing music in color is translating it into words. “Sometimes Dr. Jacobs [his composition professor at UT] tries to get me to describe things, but I kind of see music as if it were a Monet painting, so I have these impressionistic descriptions: I want it ato be pillowy, or soft, or have a hard edge here.”
Perhaps synesthesia’s ability to make us question the way we view and talk about the world is its beauty. As Steen puts it, “People are fascinated with synesthesia because our relationships with other people are all based on this question: Do you see what I see? And I’m beginning to think that we don’t.”