Meet The Famous Musicians With Synaesthesia, A Condition That Means You Hear Colours

If you’re a musician, you could do worse than having synaesthesia, the condition the causes your brain to process sound as colour, taste or smell. In a recent interview with NME, Dr Jules Montague, a consultant neurologist at the Royal Free London NHS Foundation Trust, explained that musical synesthetes have “this multimodal experience, so when they choose the choruses and bridges, they’re based on all of those connections we can’t see.”

The condition – which Dr Jules described as “more of a difference than a disorder” – has been getting more publicity lately, with artists speaking out about its impact on their work (Lorde addressed the issue in a Twitter Q&A earlier this month). Studies have shown that everyone is born with synaethesia, but most people lose it at around eight weeks old. That’s not true of the following famous musicians, though…

Dev Hynes

The former Test Icicle and current Blood Orange man explained the condition thusly: “Imagine colour streamers just bouncing around. It’s hard for me to focus at times because there’s a lot of things floating around, pulling me away. Situations can become very overbearing and overwhelming.”

Pharrell

The writer and performer of ‘Happy’ said he’d be “lost” without synaesthesia: “It’s my only reference for understanding. I don’t think I would have what some people would call talent and what I would call a gift. The ability to see and feel [this way] was a gift given to me that I did not have to have. And if it was taken from me suddenly I’m not sure that I could make music. I wouldn’t be able to keep up with it. I wouldn’t have a measure to understand.”

Kanye West

Millionaire rapper/A-list celebrity/struggling fashion designer Kanye said: “I see music in colour and shapes and all and it’s very important for me when I’m performing or doing a video that the visuals match up with the music – the colours, y’know. A lot of times it’s a lonely piano [that] can look like a black and white visual to fit that emotion, even though pianos are blue to me and bass and snares are white; bass lines are like dark brown, dark purple.”

Charli XCX

“People would always ask me how I came up with my music and what it felt like to make music and I would always see colours and then I found out that that was synaesthesia,” the ‘Boom Clap’ singer has said. “It helps me understand songs and what I like.”

Billy Joel

“When I think of different types of melodies which are slower or softer, I think in terms of blues or greens….” the singer-songwriter explained in author Maureen Seaberg’s book about synesthesia, Tasting the Universe. “When I have a particularly vivid colour, it’s usually a strong melodic, strong rhythmic pattern that emerges at the same time. When I think of [those] certain songs, I think of vivid reds, oranges or golds.”

Mary J Blige

“I have that condition, synaesthesia,” Mary J. Blige has said. “I see music in colors. That’s how my synaesthesia plays out.”

Grimes

Apparently Grimes’ synaesthesia – and this is a bit weird – enables her to “look at a person and see what kind of animal they would be”. Asked what kind of animal Grimes would be, she said: “A hyena and a beluga. The hyena’s crazy – female hyenas have penises! And they laugh all the time – like Puck, they’re the holy fool of the animal kingdom. And the beluga is kind of the same; it’s always smiling”

Lorde

In the Twitter Q&A, the pop star revealed: “one funny thing is when I’m writing, if a song’s colours are too oppressive or ugly sometimes I won’t want to work on it – when we first started tennis court we just had that pad playing the chords, and it was the worst textured tan colour, like really dated, and it made me feel sick, and then we figured out that pre chorus and I started the lyric and the song changed to all these incredible greens overnight!”