Synaesthesia in the Arts

The term “synaesthesia in the arts” has historically referred to a wide variety of artistic experiments in order to synthesize different art disciplines, such as in music and painting; as can be observed in the genres of visual music, abstract film, computer animation, symbolist poetry, and multimedia and intermedial art. The use of the term in the arts should, however, be differentiated from “genuine synaesthesia” in scientific research. Scientific methods to assess synaesthesia have only been developed in the last two decades, so in order to assess synaesthesia in artists before that time, one has to interpret autobiographical and biographical sources. In general, it has shown to be extremely difficult to categorize artists as synaesthetes without scientific criteria or assessment.

Many people with synaesthesia, and who are artistically inclined, use their experiences to aid them in their creative processes, whilst many non-synaesthetes have attempted to produce works of art that may help capture what it is like to experience synaesthesia. Synaesthetic art may refer to either art created by synaesthetes, or art created to convey what it is like to experience synaesthesia. The artist David Hockney (1937…) who perceives music synaesthetically as colours, used his synaesthetic colours when painting stage sets, but not in creating his other artworks. It is an attempt to understand the relationship between the sensory experiences of congenital synaesthetes, the experiences of non-synaesthetes, and an appreciation of such art by both synaesthetes and non-synaesthetes alike. These distinctions are not mutually exclusive, as, for instance, art by a synaesthete might also evoke synaesthesia-like experiences in the viewer. However, it should not be assumed that all synaesthetic art accurately reflects the synaesthetic experience. This latter category is also sometimes referred to as “artificial synaesthesia”. For example: “he is wearing a ‘loud tie’”; “she is a ‘sweet girl’”; “I didn’t like the ‘sharp cheese’”. Historically, synaesthetic art consisted of a number of contrivances, such as colour elements, musical painting, and more recently, visual music, all of which have been intended to evoke cross-sensory fusions in the audience, although the inventors of such artifices were not necessarily synaesthetes themselves, and may not even have been aware of synaesthesia as being an actual condition. “Projections+Sound” is a five-part collaboration by Cindy Bernard and Joseph Hammer, winners of the Smithsonian American Art Museum’s New Media/New Century Award in 2000, consists of five movements “Undertow”, “Woods”, “Field”, “Mountain” and “desert”, and is an example of synaesthetic art (

In a lecture presented at the Universidad de Almería, Spain, Dr. Hugo Heyrman explains:
“The human sensorium; touch, taste, smell, sight, and hearing, have synesthetic qualities in their interactive connections. We see the ‘synesthetic experience’ particularly in all forms of art – in poetry, painting, sculpture, and music. The ‘synesthetic experience’ serves as a means to unify the arts through a psychological unity of the senses.” (Art and Synesthesia: in search of the synesthetic experience, 2005).

Although synaesthesia does not appear to be linked directly to artistic ability itself, it has been suggested that individuals with synaesthesia have a heightened creativity and hypersensitivity to various art disciplines, including music, visual art, and poetry (Ward 2006). Synaesthetic tendencies have been claimed for a number of musicians, composers, artists, sculptors, writers, and scientists. Some such individuals include:

Franz Liszt (1811/1886), when first began as Kapellmeister in Weimar (1842), astonished the orchestra that he said: “O please, gentlemen, a little bluer, if you please! This tone type requires it!” Or: “That is a deep violet, please, depend on it! Not so rose!” (quoted from an anonymous article in the Neuen Berliner Musikzeitung, 29 August 1895). It became apparent from these remarks that Liszt did indeed have a form of music colour synaesthesia, and perhaps he was also influenced by texture and colour, from the very textural complexities of his keyboard writings.

Jean Sybelius (1865/1957) (as referenced by Adolf Paul (1890),
“For him there existed a strange, mysterious connection between sound and color, between the most secret perceptions of the eye and ear. Everything he saw produced a corresponding impression on his ear – every impression of sound was transferred and fixed as color on the retina of his eye and thence to his memory. And this he thought as natural, with as good reason as those who did not possess this faculty called him crazy or affectedly original. For this reason he only spoke of this in the strictest confidence and under a pledge of silence; ‘For otherwise they will make fun of me!'” (As quoted in Ekman 1938: 41-42).

Olivier Messiaen (1908/1992), who flourished in the 1940’s, was self-admittedly a synaesthete, as is quite well detailed in his own manuscripts and literature, and in interviews (Samuel 1994 (1986). He had a complex form of music colour synaesthesia, where chords and tonal progressions formed very specific colours and patterns, so too did bird song, for which he travelled extensively around the world collecting. Many of his compositions, such as ‘Oiseaux Exotiques’, ‘L’ascension’, and ‘Couleurs de la cite celeste’, are directly based upon his, in a sense, trying to “reproduce pictures” via sound, writing specific notes to produce specific color sequences and blends.

Wassily Kandinsky (1866/1944) discovered his synaesthesia at a performance of Wagner’s opera ‘Lohengrin’ in Moscow: “I saw all my colours in spirit, before my eyes. Wild, almost crazy lines were sketched in front of me.” Kandinsky, known as “the man who heard his paintbox”, was able to hear musical sounds to colours and painted images, and the correlation between sound and colour was a lifelong preoccupation. He recalled hearing “a strange hissing noise” when mixing colours in his paintbox as a child, and later became an accomplished cello player, which he said “represented one of the deepest blues of all instruments.” Sean Rainbird says, “My feeling is that he was quite a natural at it. To have painted the largest work he ever made, Composition VII, in just three days, shows that this language was quite internalized.” The period 1911/14, known as “The Blue Rider”, gave birth to works of intensely intricate relationships between colour and shape, strongly influenced by his connection with music. Kandinsky sometimes used musical terms to designate his works; he called many of his most spontaneous paintings “improvisations”, while he entitled more elaborated works “compositions”.

Vladimir Nabokov (1899/1977), who had grapheme colour synaesthesia, which he described at great length in his autobiography “Speak, Memory: An Autobiography Revisited” (1966), and which he sometimes portrays in giving his characters synaesthesia.

Arthur Rimbaud (1854/1891) was an author of literary and decadent movement and symbolism. He wrote poems which focused on synaesthetic experiences, although was not evidently a synaesthete himself. Other works include the hypnotic, gradually shocking “Le Dormeur du Val” (The Sleeper of the Vale), and “Voyelles”, which was perhaps more important than Baudelaire’s “Correspondences” (which introduced the Romantic notion that the senses can and should intermingle) in popularizing synaesthesia, although he later admitted, “J’inventais la couleur des voyelles!”, (“I invented the colours of the vowels!”).

Dr Sean Day, a neuroscientist currently working at the University of California, is the president of the American Synesthesia Association. He is a fairly unknown composer, who has written a number of works in his spare, hobby-time, including the “Rainbow Suite”, a work consisting of ten movements, each named after a different colour, and which depicts a different style or atmosphere. He synesthetically “sees” colours corresponding to musical timbres, and each instrument has its specific colour . “Absence”, a duet for flute and cello, depicts two lovers separated by long distance, talking to each other, living on hope that, one day; they might once again be together. For Sean, flutes appear synesthetically as off-white, with shadings of blue and silvery flashes; and cellos are dark cherry wood with green flecks. Sean Day has put together a comprehensive web site dedicated to the subject of synaesthesia, ( including current research articles, and videos of interviews with other synaesthetes.

Music, art, and literature, have always served as a way of channeling one’s thoughts, feelings, and experiences, in order to fulfill emotional needs, and achieve personal fulfillment and reflection. In today’s society, with the development of impressionism, and the increasing focus and demand on creativity and expression, the qualities unique to these art disciplines can only advance further. Perhaps therefore synaesthesia might occur in individuals more commonly, as a result of these heightened perceptual modes, and exposure to multiple sensory experiences (?).