Synaesthesia and the Musician

With the development of brain imaging in the 1990s, it became possible to actually visualize the brains of musicians, and to compare them with those of non-musicians. A skilled and trained musician is reported to have a larger than average brain with more enhanced neural pathways, as compared to a non-musician (Sacks 2008). A professional musician’s auditory cortex contains 130 percent more gray matter than that of non-musicians ( Ramey 2005; Hotz, par 5), and musicians show more symmetrical brain blood flow between the hemispheres than the non-musicians (Kellett 2008). This may suggest that exercise of the auditory cortex, as induced by the necessary rigorous and regular music practice for a professional musician, increases its growth. A study carried out by scientists at the University of Chicago, demonstrated that motor skills in musicians were far superior to those of non-musicians, as well as possessing skills otherwise lacking in non-musicians. For example: a violinist possesses far more advanced hand motor skills with the brain than, for instance, an organist, who possesses those skills between hands and feet and the brain (Gaser_Schlaug_JNeurosci 2003).

Research carried out at the University of Amsterdam, Department of Psychology, identified increased structural connectivity in individuals with grapheme colour synaesthesia (Nat Neurosci 2007). Diffusion tensor imaging allowed scientists to validate for the first time the hypothesis that hyperconnectivity causes the added sensations in synaesthesia. This may suggest their findings also to be apparent in individuals with music colour synaesthesia, other colour related types, and perhaps even non-colour related types.

This is what they claim:
“Greater connectivity in the inferior temporal cortex was particularly strong for synesthetes who see synesthetic color in the outside world (‘projectors’) as compared with synesthetes who see the color in their ‘mind’s eye’ only (‘associators’). In contrast, greater connectivity (as compared with non-synesthetes) in the superior parietal or frontal cortex did not differentiate between subtypes of synesthesia. In conclusion, we found evidence that increased structural connectivity is associated with the presence of grapheme-color synesthesia, and has a role in the subjective nature of synesthetic color experience.”

As mentioned earlier, synaesthesia is reported to improve learning and memory skills. This, coupled with the fact that a synaesthete will also have their preferred learning style/s – visual, aural, and/or kinaesthetic – there is a strong argument for the additional cross-wiring of their sensory modalities to also enhance certain learning activities by the ways in which the information is perceived, memorized, and recalled. We already know that our senses do not work in isolation or in parallel, but in concert, for instance, what we taste is informed by what we see and smell. Synaesthesia allows for information to be interpreted in ways not possible by a non-synaesthete, by use of spacial and physical mapping, giving rise to additional memorization techniques. For example: a musician who perceives chord structures as coloured sequences is more able to memorize and recall that information because their synaesthetic colours will be fixed, i.e. the colour for each group of notes will remain the same until a single note is altered.

“The process of learning requires not only hearing and applying, but also forgetting and then remembering again” (John Gray 2008), but does synaesthesia contribute to this process? We simply can’t be sure at present, although this is currently an active area of scientific investigation. Researchers are only just beginning to unravel the effects synaesthesia can have on cognition, and much exciting work remains to be done. One thing is clear however, the impact of synaesthesia on learning and memorizing is likely to be as individual as synaesthesia itself. A questionnaire based study, compiled and conducted by Angela Purll (2009), was intended to reveal some of the synaesthetic traits shared by musicians, similarities and differences for learning and memorizing concepts, and to ultimately distinguish whether or not synaesthesia plays a part itself in the life and work of a musician. The results revealed that those musicians questioned, who had a form of music colour synaesthesia, were able to learn their music more quickly, and to play from memory more easily, due to their unique synaesthetic relationship with sound, with particular reference to the colours they associated with each note, chord, or key within a piece of music, along with the shapes and patterns formed by the directions taken by those musical elements, for instance, the rise and fall of a melody, and the textural construction of a sequence of chords.

Angela intends to explore this subject area further, in support of her own music colour synaesthesia, and her unique learning/memorisation of music.