I’m reading Oliver Sacks’s An Anthropologist on Mars right now, and the first chapter is about a painter who, after an accident, suddenly goes 100% color blind. He sees the entire world in a muddy, dingy black and white. He dreams in black and white. His memories are now in black and white. It’s a terrifying condition, all the more so for this man for whom color was an intrinsic part of his identity.
Then, this passage jumped out at me:
Music, curiously, was impaired for him too, because he had previously had an extremely intense synesthesia, so that different tones had immediately been translated into color, and he experienced all music simultaneously as a rich tumult of inner colors. With the loss of his ability to generate colors, he lost this ability as well—his internal “color-organ” was out of action, and now he heard music with no visual accompaniment; this, for him, was music with its essential chromatic counterpart missing, music now radically impoverished.
My brilliant wife was nearby when I came to the passage and I wanted to read it aloud to her. “You know how you can sometimes see colors when you listen to music?” I prefaced. But she looked at me with a curious look and said, a little baffled, “No.”
It never occurred to me that perhaps not everyone shares this experience. There are certain bands, albums, and songs that always put a color or group of colors in my mind. Low does this to me, for instance. When I hear their early albums I inevitably see a deep burgundy, silver gray, and black. When I hear their later albums (everything after The Curtain Hits the Cast), I see washed out whites and blues with sharp punctuations of black and blood red.
I happen to be listening to Iron & Wine as I write this: right, brownish gold, like a wheat field at sunset, with stripes of a dull, flat green.
My wife asked me who else. Thinking clearly about it, I found that if I tried to call a band to my mind I’d simply see the colors of their album covers. The more conscious I was of it, the more literal I was, the more influenced I was. Later that night, as I lay in bed, I tried a psychological test on myself, which was to think of the color first and see which band or song came to mind. Some colors had immediate mental associations. Yellow: Jonathan Richman. Orange, for some strange reason, makes me think of Death Cab for Cutie (I don’t even own anything by them). Sometimes I would give myself a color, then a band would spring to mind, then the color would start to change. Ash gray made me think of Sigur Ros, and then the gray slate in my mind was dappled with specks of pure white and darker shades of black, and finally a faint blue hue would radiate from the center.
Have you ever thought about listening in these terms? Do you see colors when you listen to some songs? How conscious of it are you? Do you have to “catch” yourself seeing things when you’re listening to music? Do you see abstract images? Is it a pattern? Does it move or morph? Or does music paint actual scenes in your mind, like memories or fantasies?
[An Anthropologist on Mars was written in 1996 and draws seven portraits of people who have rare brain disorders. Sacks is also author of the recently published Musicophilia, which I posted about once before. That book is structured similarly but connects each case study directly to some relationship with music. I haven't read it, but intend to as soon as it comes out in paperback and, I hope to god, has a new cover that I can stomach having on my shelf.]