Life in color: what it means to live with synesthesia

Photo illustration by Sarah Carlson-Mcnally

By Jess Ward
Lifestyle & Politics Editor

I was a very musical child growing up. I was singing before I was forming full sentences, and my dad taught me to name all four Beatles before teaching me the alphabet. My allowance was always spent at the local music shop down the street. I had a special connection to music that I just didn’t have with anything else.
Before long, I was taking professional lessons to indulge my favorite hobby. I started taking voice lessons at 11-years-old, and guitar lessons at 14- years-old.
However, it wasn’t until my freshman year of college that I discovered the way I experience music was not typical. I was sitting in my psychology 101 class when we started talking about a rare mental condition called synesthesia. Psychology Today defines synesthesia as “a neurological condition in which stimulation of one sensory or cognitive pathway leads to the automatic, involuntary experiences in a second sensory or cognitive pathway.”
I sat in class staring at the board in awe. I had never heard of synesthesia before and I was not one to convince myself I had every illness or condition we discussed, yet this condition felt so familiar.
After the class, I visited my professor during his office hours to get more clarification. I went into detail about how I have processed music my whole life, and he was able to confirm that what I was experiencing was synesthesia.
Psychology Today notes that people can experience synesthesia in up to 80 different ways because of all the combinations our senses can be connected. For me, sound triggers sight. I can see sound. Everyone’s voice has a unique color. Birds tweeting at the beginning of spring brings me extra joy because I can visualize the little notes they sing.
It is estimated about 3-5 percent of the population has synesthesia. For some people, numbers might have colors, or days of the week might have a specific taste. No matter how it manifests, those affected with synesthesia cannot go a single day without experiencing it one way or another. After learning I was part of this small percentage, I really started noticing the bigger ways it played into my everyday, when I used to assume everyone experienced life the same way I do.
I connect with music on a level that is almost supernatural because synesthesia makes it sacred to me. My favorite song of all time is “Landslide” by Fleetwood Mac, and it has been since I was little. When I listen to this song, I feel it in my bones. And I see a field of sunflowers in late September, shadowed by an overcast sky; the kind of sky where the sun peeks through every now and again, and for a few minutes you think the weather is starting to clear. The flowers sway in the breeze ever so slightly, but it’s probably going to be a windy autumn. I am fully immersed in what I see, to the point where I can lose myself and almost become completely unaware of my actual surroundings. Sometimes I walk to class with earbuds in, and I won’t notice when one of my friends passes me and says hi. The vision ends as soon as the music is turned off. However, when a vision is more intense than usual, it can be intoxicating and the song that causes that reaction can become addicting.
As a musician myself, I have noticed that synesthesia sometimes gets in the way of my creative process. When I write, I see things. And when I don’t like what I see, when I don’t like the experience I have, I have to change something in the song. Maybe one of the chords needs to change, or maybe I need to use my head voice instead of my chest voice when I sing it. I will continue to make changes until I like what I see. In the heat of the moment, I get frustrated and curse my synesthesia for making the process more complicated, but once I have a finished product, I’m so glad it challenged me to create something so true to my own personal experience.
Synesthesia is the reason I’m a musician in the first place. These unique visions I get with each song only make me wish I could listen to every song ever written. I crave to know what each song holds in store for me, and it saddens me that I will never be able to achieve that. Though, I’m happy I get to contribute to these experiences with my own work. And maybe someday my music will create a whole new world for someone else like me.
I recommend we be more open to these “almost supernatural” experiences. When was the last time you laid in your bed with the lights off, earbuds in, and just absorbed what you were listening to?
What song speaks to your soul? Have you truly examined why? It might be worth reflecting on that for a while.