Thursday, December 20, 2012

How I Experience Music

While I love music, I've often regretted my almost total ignorance of the art and science that makes it possible. I can't read music, nor do I have most of the vocabulary necessary to even speak intelligently about the subject.

Nonetheless, I feel compelled to throw caution to the wind and ask a question that's plagued me since junior high school: do others experience music in the same way I do?

When I listen to a song, especially in pitch darkness, my mind constructs structures of pulsing light, each piece of the structure corresponding to an element of the music. A song's bass line, for example, might represent itself as a coil of purple light stretching north and south to infinity, compressing and stretching like a spring being pulled in time with the music. Keyboard sounds (again, forgive my lack of proper vocabulary) might appear at right angles to the purple coil, again extending into infinity, perhaps represented as a jagged zigzag of a different colour: green or yellow. Drum impacts might burst like fireworks all around, while lyrics and supporting guitars might create spheres or pyramids that fade in and out of existence.

The effect is most intense with songs that, for lack of a better term, have a lot going on to my untrained ear, like "Heroes," above, or "Love and Anger," below.

It almost sounds as though I'm describing the common visualization effects that have long been seen on home computers, but my experience really isn't like that at all; it's much more vivid and three-dimensional, and there's also what I almost hesitate to call a transcendental feeling going on, a feeling of falling in multiple directions at once, like the music could carry me off somewhere if only I'd release my stubborn hold on conventional reality.

I've never spoken to anyone of this, and there's no pressing reason to do so now except that it's been on my mind for some time. It's quite possible that many people experience music this way and that I simply haven't been around when others speak of it. I'd certainly be very interested in knowing if others go through the same process, or one similar.


Anonymous said...

Hey Earl,

Music is very spatial for me. I will point at sounds and ask others whether they can hear "that" -- whatever I'm gesturing at, and it's always in a specific direction that I can see clearly. So others do have something similar to your experience. Especially with Kate Bush! :)


"Jeffrothers" said...

You're a synaesthete!!! Holy smoke!!! All this time, I've known you, and I've never known that.

Synaethesia is rare. Simply put, your senses are cross-wired. The most common form seems to be what you have, mixing sounds with colours and shapes. You should draw them in Photoshop! Other people will link smells with colours, or even numbers and letters with colours and sounds, i.e. 3's are yellow triangles that sound like distant trumpets. One theory is that your sensory nerves are cross-talking as information is being collected by the brain. There may be small neurotransmitter leaks that create your sensation.

Synaethesia is linked to autism, although it can occur for other reasons as well, usually benign. Us normies don't have any clue as to how any of this works, and most synaesthetes don't realize that their own perceptions are special. For example, I don't have any of the conditions that you or the above poster describe, and I am in the statistical majority of the aesthetic population. From what I know, synaesthetes have a wide variety of differences of perception within your population. One may know Kate Bush as green, another might describe her as northwest. Usually, the synaesthete can discriminate with language their sensations, but sometimes it's so intrinsic that it becomes a very private, personal code. Think of A Beautiful Mind, and you get the idea. Usually at that point, there's severeal other brain processes that could be involved in abnormal ways.

Maybe it's a curse, maybe you're lucky, maybe it's a genetic marker used by our unseen alien overlords. Make of it what you will, it's not normal, but it's not un-human either.

It's too bad you don't drink; I sure would like to know what your perceptions would be after a bottle of tequila.

Earl J. Woods said...

Al on Google Plus also pointed to synesthesia, so I looked it up and the description fits so perfectly that it rocked me back in my chair. I don't point at sounds like L - my experiences are more internal than external - but the music is definitely directional in addition to colourful.

This discovery isn't at all what I expected when I composed this post; it's a little thrilling and frightening at the same time. Clearly I need to investigate further.

"Jeffrothers (a)" said...

Synaesthesia = correct spelling. Us normies sometimes struggle with our typing.

A quick research indicates around 60 different synaesthetic forms. Audio-proprioceptic synaesthesia that L describes is rare, but found among music professionals for fairly obvious reasons. Also among autistics, for whom the sensation must seem like an assault. I don't want to even imagine it.

Here's what I sense when I listen to Kate Bush. I hear the music. An internal voice tells me to change the dial, because I really don't like her stuff, but that's personality and not aesthetics. That's about it.