Five composers with synaesthesia
From Scriabin to Sibelius, we list five composers who claimed to see music as colour
Synaesthesia - a neurological condition in which one sense triggers another to stimulate an additional sensory response - has often been associated with certain composers and pieces. Many of us may seem to 'hear' a certain colour while listening to a particular work. Here are five composers who really did hear music in colour.
1. Alexander Scriabin
The composer was very much influenced by his colour sense, going on to write Prometheus: The Poem of Fire, which featured the clavier à lumières (or luce), a keyboard ‘instrument’ which emitted light instead of sound.
2. Jean Sibelius
The Finnish composer was apparently very much a multi-synaesthete, in that he claimed to also hear sounds in his mind when he saw colours, objects or via scents. Perhaps he truly heard the sound of silence…
3. Olivier Messiaen
A colourful composer in every sense, Messiaen once tried to describe his sensory skill, stating “I see colours when I hear sounds, but I don’t see colours with my eyes. I see colours intellectually, in my head.”
4. György Ligeti
The Hungarian composer was quite open about his synaesthesia, stating “Major chords are red or pink, minor chords are somewhere between green and brown.” He claimed to also have had the ability to see numbers as colours.
5. Franz Liszt
It’s said the composer would speak to musicians in terms of the colours they needed to achieve in their performances, and is quoted as giving directions such as “A little bluer, if you please! This tone type requires it!”
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Michael is the Reviews Editor of BBC Music Magazine. He was previously a freelance film music journalist and spent 15 years at St George's Bristol. Michael specialises in film and television music and was the Editor of MusicfromtheMovies.com. He has written for the BBC Proms, BBC Concert Orchestra, Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, Royal Albert Hall, Hollywood in Vienna and Silva Screen Records.