Chromesthesia – Seeing Music in Color

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Fun fact: the German word for timbre is “klangfarbe”, which literally means “sound color”. Makes kind of sense, right? Comparing the characteristics of timbre to colors. However, to some people like Alexander Scriabin, the “color of a sound” had a much deeper meaning than this simple analogy.

What is chromesthesia?

Besides him being one of the most controversial composer-pianists of the early 20th century, he was known to be innovative. His late works, like his unrealized magnum opus “Mysterium”, were focused on exploiting senses like smell, touch and hearing. But we’re going to focus on his association between the senses of hearing and sight, for which he created a system, that assigns each note with a certain color:

Because of this system, Scriabin’s work is often considered to be influenced by a condition called synesthesia, a neurological phenomenon that couples 2 or more senses. It’s simply a trait, not a disease, just like heterochromia (having two different eye colors). Little is known about how this condition develops, but it’s suggested that it takes place when children are intensively engaged with abstract concepts. There are at least 80 types of synesthesia, meaning different association between touch, sight, hearing, smell and taste. One of the more common ones is chromesthesia: the association of sounds with colors. For some people with this condition, the colors are triggered when a musical note or key is played. According to Richard Cytowic this looks “something like fireworks” that arise, move around, and fade away when the sound ends.

Since only about 1 in 23 people experience synesthesia in one way or another, we’re happy to show you an application that lets you experience chromesthesia. Grab some headphones and click on the keys to see how Alexander Scriabin might have experienced playing single notes and chords.

What does chromesthesia look like?

You can find the source code of the Chromesthesia simulation in our GitHub repository:


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