Chords Become Colors: Inside Synesthesia

CHIKA, Dr. Dog and XTC on this little-understood neuropsychological phenomenon.

by
Image of CHIKA courtesy of the artist.

When CHIKA was in her senior year of high school, she asked a friend if music had temperatures. It was a given to the young rapper that sounds could be hot or cold just as they were loud and soft — and the fact that they actually weren’t led to some cognitive dissonance.

“My friend [told me], ‘That doesn’t make any sense,’” the 23-year-old rapper, born Jane Chika Oranika, recalls. “I was like, ‘OK, so this is a weird thing.’” One day, she heard the term synesthesia mentioned on TV. Thrilled to put a word to what she was experiencing, she made a beeline for Google.

Synesthesia is a genetically linked neuropsychological attribute in which the stimulation of one sense simultaneously triggers another sense. While published inquiries into the condition date back centuries, hard data on synesthesia is scant — despite the fact that 2 to 5 percent of the global population is estimated to have it.

“I was like, ‘Yo, this is a thing!’” CHIKA exclaims with a laugh. “I had no language for it for the longest time.” Today, she says her new EP, Industry Games, carries colors and temperatures, from “Songs About You” (“parts of it feel very warm … riding-in-a-car type shit”) to “On My Way” (“a purple and blue song”) to “Crown” (“a bright, warm yellow”).

“I don’t know anyone who has the same experience,” CHIKA admits, but as it turns out, the music industry is full of synesthetes. From indie rock to R&B to orchestral music, from Billie Eilish to Blood Orange to Charli XCX, musicians have been increasingly vocal in recent years about their capacity to perceive sounds as colors, shapes and smells.

Boston-based composer Mary Bichner, too, wasn’t able to name her mental sensation until she was a teen, when she read about synesthesia on Radiohead’s official message board. “It described what I experienced perfectly,” Bichner writes in an email. “When I play piano, the individual keys light up in their respective colors.” Ditto for letters and numbers: “A typical phrase looks like this,” she demonstrates, typing those words using a kaleidoscopic array of letters.

In 2017, Bichner composed “Synesthesia Suite: Constellations” and premiered it at the planetarium at the Museum of Science in Boston. “The keys, melodies, motifs and harmonic components are carefully selected,” Bichner explains, according to her perceptions of “various constellations found in the New England night sky in spring.”

Eric Slick, who drums for Philadelphia psychedelic rockers Dr. Dog, says that in 6th grade he discovered he had both perfect pitch and synesthesia. “My dad was driving me around while I was sick with a sinus infection, and we heard ‘Santa Monica’ by Everclear on the radio,” he says. “I told my dad, ‘That’s a G chord!’ He almost pulled the car over and asked, ‘How the hell do you know that?’”

Later, “when I was convalescent, I played my dad’s Les Paul often and learned some chords from a Led Zeppelin songbook,” Slick remembers. “The G major chord was the first one I was able to play, and in my mind, it was a combination of red and yellow.”

Prior to joining Dr. Dog, Slick was accustomed to the colors their songs evoked on record. Because of this, during his first rehearsal with the band, he argued with leaders Toby Leaman and Scott McMicken. “I get emotionally disturbed when people change the keys of their songs,” Slick says. “I realized that a lot of their songs’ keys/pitches were altered by tape speed [after] I insisted ‘The Way the Lazy Do’ was in E flat. [Imagine] arguing with the person that wrote the tune!”

Slick also makes solo records with a synesthetic bent, like 2017’s Palisades and 2018’s Bullfighter EP. “I always make the artwork of my LPs coincide with the synesthetic match of the project as a whole,” he explains. (Palisades, an atmospheric pop album, was released on gold vinyl with grayscale artwork, and the orchestral Bullfighter was packaged in severe browns, reds and blacks.)

Ever since Andy Partridge, the co-leader of defunct English rock heroes XTC, was a toddler, he has experienced intense synesthesia. “I remember being frightened by reverb, or finding certain chords comical,” he says. “Why does that chord sound yellow? Why is that trumpet an orange-y sunflower yellow? Why is that chord turquoise-blue?”

Growing up on the spectrum with a mentally ill mother who limited his contact with the outside world, Partridge was forced to play alone as a child. “This frantic scrubbing around in my brain, inventing things and making entertainment and making worlds to wander around in — I think that’s why all of the barriers got smashed,” he says.

When asked what colors he associates notes with, Partridge picks up a guitar and strums over the phone. “It’s not so much individual notes; it’s more of the conversation that chords have with sounds,” he explains. “[The chord] A is rather blue. But A6 tends toward the turquoise — there’s a G flat in it, so there’s a little splash of yellow in the blue.”

As far as his scientific understanding of synesthesia? “I can guess it’s all down to wirings that you make in your brain pretty early on,” Partridge says. “But I don’t need to know, just as I wouldn’t need to know about the mechanics of a machine. I can use the telephone without telling you how to take it apart and reassemble it.”

CHIKA is more enthusiastic about digging into the subject. “Apparently the brain is overactive,” she says. “Mine [certainly] is. Not only are you susceptible to certain mental illnesses and depression and all that, but you’re also in a position to probably experience synesthesia.”

So far, the limited data hews close to CHIKA’s observation. In 2018, a Dutch team led by neuroscientist Simon Fisher discovered that a set of 37 genes thought to be shared by synesthetic family members carried six variants related to axons, or connections between neurons, which are expressed in the brain’s auditory and visual cortices during childhood development.

“[That study] provides a fascinating suggestion of a link between particular genetic variations and hyperconnectivity in the synesthetic brain,” cognitive psychologist Romke Rouw told Science magazine that year.

“If you ask synesthetes if they’d wish to be rid of it, they almost always say no,” Simon Baron-Cohen, PhD, who studies synesthesia at the University of Cambridge, told the American Psychological Association in 2001. “For them, it feels like that’s what normal experience is like.”

Slick concurs, saying he doesn’t want to jinx what he sees as a mysterious gift. “I think if Carl Jung was intercepting this conversation, he would tell me to listen to my dreams and my gut,” he says. “Knowing it too well is going to spoil the fun for me.”

That said, CHIKA may be pleased to know she’s in good company as a synesthete in music. “I’m really excited to read your article because there’s a limited amount of information on it,” she says as our conversation wraps up. “I’m stoked because apparently I’m not crazy, and that’s always a good thing.”

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