Music to your Ears, Eyes, and Tastebuds
Leigh Dayton, The Austrailian,
links dissonant intervals to unpleasant tastes and consonant
ones to pleasant tastes...."
nothing like a bit of Messiaen, or Sibelius, or Liszt to
soothe the soul and stimulate the senses. If the music of
these composers seems especially evocative, it's probably not
by chance. Each experienced "coloured hearing", an
involuntary mingling of the senses in which individual notes
trigger specific colours.
A young Swiss musician, known as E.S., goes one better. Not
only is she a "tone-to-colour synaesthete" – as
the composers' condition is known - she's also the first-known
"interval-to-taste synaesthete". According to
neuropsychologist Lutz Jaencke and his colleagues at the
University of Zurich, E.S. has the remarkable ability to
"taste" musical intervals on her tongue, as well as
seeing tones as colours.
To her eyes, ears and tastebuds, for instance, a major sixth
is low-fat cream and a minor sixth is full-fat cream, while C
is red and F sharp is violet. Surprisingly, these sensory
links only go one-way: the 27-year-old does not hear tone
intervals or see colours when exposed to tastes.
Unsurprisingly, she uses her uniquely linked sensations to
identify tone intervals, doing so faster than five other
musicians the team tested.
"We found that E.S.'s tone-interval identification was
perfect," the researchers report today in the journal
For University of Melbourne cognitive neuroscientist Anina
Rich, E.S.'s case is instructive. "It reminds us of how
inherently subjective perception is," says Rich, who has
compiled a database of 270 Australian synaesthetes.
Roughly one in 2000 people worldwide have some form of
synaesthesia, from coloured hearing, letters and numbers to
sounds with shape and weight. The condition is inherited and
favours women three to one. Although Rich doesn't focus on
musical synaesthesia as Jaencke does, she recently found that
synaesthetes often end up in the arts.
"Musicians, visual artists, sculptors and so on – we
found many more synaesthetes involved in artistic professions
than you'd expect based on Australian census data," she
Since synaesthesia was first identified by Charles Darwin's
cousin Francis Galton in the late 19th century, numerous
artistic luminaries have been thought to have experienced the
phenomenon or at least been influenced by it.
That includes poets Charles Baudelaire and Arthur Rimbaud,
artist Wassily Kandinsky and writers Vladimir Nabokov and
Anton Chekhov. Composer Alexander Scriabin wasn't a true
synaesthete but he used colour and sound synaesthete-style in
orchestral works such as Prometheus. Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov
was supposedly the real thing.
Among contemporary synaesthetes are post-minimal composer
Michael Torke, drummer Manu Katche, oboist Jennifer Paull and
electronic musician Richard James.
Like all synaesthetes, their sensory blends are consistent.
For example, the letter H may be green or the sound of high C
pink. Still, individual associations vary between people . . .
with one wrinkle.
Rich and colleagues have just found that there's a
"striking consistency" in the colours induced by
certain letters and numbers among 150 synaesthetes: R often
triggering red, Y yellow and D brown. That fits with E.S.'s
reactions. She links dissonant intervals to unpleasant tastes
and consonant ones to pleasant tastes.
The brain plasticity behind such mixing-and-matching is what
drew Jaencke to study the intellectual, or cognitive, skills
of musicians, especially those with synaesthesia.
"For instance, many [non-synaesthetic] musicians are
mentioning that they use concurrent perceptions for memorising
– though not as automatic and implicit as synaesthetes,"
"In some ways, synaesthesia can be used as an analogy for
learning memory," he adds, noting that scientists have
long-known that people remember things better if they're
associated with other items. The classic case is the memory
trick of linking a person's name with an object or action. The
association is an artificial synaesthesia.
Jaencke also thinks synaesthesia may be useful in other
cognitive activities. What are they? "This is the $1
million question," replies Jaencke, who's trying to
discover the answer.
According to Jaencke, E.S.'s unique sensory blend was
discovered by accident during a study of 12 synaesthetes,
conducted by his doctoral student Gian Beeli.
Beeli measured brain waves and discovered that synaesthete
brains work fast, connecting a stimulus (tone) with a
perception (colour) virtually instantaneously, in just 100
That's fast. It also poses the final question: Did Messiaen
and co instantly know when they created a musical masterpiece?
Leigh Dayton is The Australian's science writer.