Monthly Archives: June 2006

What Colour Is the Woodwind, Daddy?

Originally posted on Life on the Outside, 20 June 2006.

Have I mentioned that you might be a synaesthete?

Relax. In spite of the name, it’s not something worrying that the mothers and babies doctors have detected.

In fact, it’s nothing more than an oddity, a harmless quirk that may affect the way you perceive things when you get out. I say “may affect you” because it’s something that affects me, and therefore there’s a chance you’ll have the same characteristic. This is something called inheritance, a concept we’ll return to in about 30 years when you start wondering how much the house your mother and I own is worth.

Composition 8 by Wassily Kandinsky, a noted synaesthete

So, what’s this synaesthesia thing all about, then?

Well, some people, including your father, experience stimuli that are normally confined to only one of the five senses (sight, hearing, smell, taste and touch) in a way that involves another of those senses.

For instance, hearing the word “Tuesday”, for most English speakers at least, involves using the sense of hearing to decode the acoustic signal representing the idea of the second day of the week (and then realising that there’s absolutely no way they can finish the project before that deadline). But what if Tuesday were not just a sound that corresponded to an idea? What if Tuesday were also light pink?

For me, this has always been the case. The fancy explanation given by Wikipedia is that “stimulation of one sensory modality gives rise to an experience in another modality”, which I’m sure is perfectly correct as far as it goes. But it’s more than just a simple overspill or cross-wiring between the senses. In other words, it’s not just that the particular sequence of phonemes that form the word Tuesday give rise to a sensation of pinkness in my particular brain. As far as I can tell, it’s not just the sounds but the whole package of sound, word and meaning that are pink, with all the potential for kaleidoscopic interassociation that this implies.

For the record, the other days of the week have the following colours. Monday is a kind of burgundy (and not blue at all, as it turns out). Wednesday is a paleish orange. Thursday is bluish-grey and sort of watery. Friday is deep ultramarine. Saturday is almost white, but faintly tinged with pink, while Sunday rounds out the chromatic week with a fanfare of brassy yellow.

And I’m not the only one. I have a friend, called F., who is also synaesthetic. F. and I maintain a long-standing musical partnership. It is, it must be said, a singularly unproductive partnership, prone to periods of slothful quiescence lasting for several years at a time. Nonetheless, we persevere through these almost geological lacunae in the comforting knowledge that a peculiarly diligent archaeologist, if not the musical pantheon itself, may one day acknowledge our sporadic labours. In any case, this intermittent but enduring partnership has often given us occasion to talk about music and sound, and to do so at very great length. In fact, we’ve done vastly more talking about musical sounds than making them.

In the course of these conversations–many of which, it must be admitted, have been conducted late at night, in a fug of Guinness fumes, and have hence perhaps lacked a certain Athenian rigour–we have discovered that we share synaesthetic perceptions of the sounds of most musical instruments.

So, while there are areas of almost unmentionable contention (F. defiantly and perversely maintains that the clarinet is blue, when it is manifestly creamy white), we are in agreement on the strings, which shade from the ‘cello, which is mostly deep, ivy green to the violins, which are the much lighter green of a split sapling. (By way of a footnote, the Full Strings sound on my first Yamaha keyboard was patch number 47, which is itself, needless to say, a number of almost humid greenness). Most guitar sounds, we concur, are in the yellow-orange-red range of the spectrum while, as we recently confirmed, the octave of the piano around middle C is (unlike the clarinet) unmistakably blue.

Sometimes, you do suspect that certain of these associations may not be purely synaesthetic. For example, is the lustrous yellowness of the saxophone merely suggested by the colour of brass itself? Or is the thinner yellowness of September no more than a simple recollection of that month’s weakening sunlight? Perhaps a synaesthete of a purer constitution, a real hardcore case who insists that trapezoids taste of cucumber, might dismiss these as the impressions of a faker, of a multisensory dilettante?

You’ll know fairly early on if you’ve got this particular ability (or this mild but elaborate form of dementia, depending on your perspective). Vladimir Nabokov, the very brilliant (and, while we’re on the subject, deep red, although not, fittingly, that kind of red) novelist, philologist and collector of butterflies, was said to have noticed as a toddler that the colours of the letters on his toy building blocks were, well, just wrong.

Don’t get me wrong, though. There’s no pressure to be a synaesthete (or good at spelling, or a ballerina, or an eminent zoologist). The only thing you’ve got to do is arrive. Arrive and stay, and give us the grace of knowing you, that’s all.

In any event, you may be interested to know that the name we’ve chosen for you has a colour too. It is the colour of sunlight on a bee’s wing, of the radiance of summer’s own heart. It is golden.