The Art of Synethesia

"Synesthesia is a condition in which one sense (for example, hearing) is simultaneously perceived as if by one or more additional senses such as sight. Another form of synesthesia joins objects such as letters, shapes, numbers or people's names with a sensory perception such as smell, color or flavor. The word synesthesia comes from two Greek words, syn (together) and aisthesis (perception). Therefore, synesthesia literally means "joined perception."


from: http://faculty.washington.edu/chudler/syne.html


I’ve read that one of the things about synesthesia is people don’t usually notice that they have it because they feel like everyone experiences things that way. It’s only when they investigate things do they realize that there is something different about their experiences.


Most of us have heard about the more common forms of synesthesia, like seeing colours in relationship to numbers, or tasting words, etc. It’s only through investigation that I discovered how I perceive music (and the world in general) may be a synesthetic experience. I just assumed all people had the same experiences. For as long as I can remember I’ve been a square peg in a round hole sort of person. Traditional education usually mystified me and was a rather painful experience. The same can be said for music, as I apparently experience it in a very different way than most people.


For one, I’m a highly visual person and alway have visual experiences to match other sensory input, like sound. I see pictures not just in my mind, but in the space around me (I’m also a very spacially aware person). Imagine if everything you think about is in front of you like a 3D heads up display in a car or fighter jet. It’s very difficult to explain, but I will endeavor to put it into words. I remember a few years ago trying to explain things in an interview and not being able to find the write words—how do you describe pictures that are very personal and have their own sort of codification?


A good place to start is the other side of things: I happen to be very clare-sentient, which means I experience the world/Universe around me through my feelings. These can be both emotional and physical feelings. Again, I thought this was how everyone was. Let’s look at sound—I experience sound as both a feeling of pressure and as a visual image of that pressure (I said this wouldn’t be easy). For example, take a bass drum sound. To me, a very muffled rock type bass drum feels flat and I see a sort of image of a flat surface in my mind. A more open, jazz type bass drum feels very round, and I see an image of a rounded surface in my mind. Sharp, staccato snare drum notes are just that: sharp, short feelings and a picture of small dots floating in front of me.


This is all the more interesting when I try to explain things to my students. I realize that they experience the world differently and I need to translate my thoughts into a language they can understand.


Another aspect of music are the notes themselves. I see/feel standard quarter notes, 8ths, 16ths, etc. as being square, whereas triplets always are round to me. In composing music (or performing it), I experience the music as different shapes. So my criteria for composition is often moving between shapes as much as pitches/notes. I also see patterns in the groups of notes (triangles, squares, hexagons, circles, etc.) and often memorize music by the shapes it makes, even more than the actual notes. When I improvise, I often look for shapes of rhythm instead of thinking about notes. In fact, part of the reason I set up my Gongs/Metals/Percussion like I do is because of these musical shapes I experience.


Part of my attraction to Gongs is that they make a big sound, filled with many frequencies. To me, the Gong is a total immersion experience. I can sense its every vibration, every nuance. I also see various colours and lights in my mind.  I have hard Gongs & soft Gongs, sharp Gongs & round Gongs, convex & concave Gongs—all types. At times a performance can almost be a sensory overload. It keeps the music interesting.


Welcome to my world…


~ MB

Comments

  1. Wonderful account of the experience. I'm not very visual myself, but the "pressure" feeling is very much something I can identify with. I get a lot of tactile/emotional feedback. Like you, I too love percussion, especially metal-on-metal, like old 1980s industrial and 90s industrial-metal.

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