20 Famous Musicians With Synesthesia

Musicians with an unofficial sixth sense...

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20 Famous Musicians With Synesthesia
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Synesthesia is a neurological condition, in which the origin of one sense triggers the other. Synesthetes are said to have unnatural behavior towards a lot of things, because their senses are cross-connected which allows them to apply two senses at a time. Like they can see a balloon in the air, but also get its taste in their mouth. They can see a normal black text as colorful as you can imagine, with every letter having a different color! They can taste the words coming from your mouth, and smell your name. They can see music in different colors, and hear the colors of paints.

Only about 4% of the total population has this rare condition called synesthesia. There are at least 80 (!) different types of synesthesia.

Though it can manifest in many ways, the most common are grapheme-color, in which numbers or letters produce colors, and chromesthesia (sound-color), in which sounds produce colors or shapes. People with synesthesia, for example, might see a certain color in response to a certain letter of the alphabet. Those who experience synesthesia "hear colors, feel sounds, and taste shapes" in a remarkably consistent fashion. For example, someone who sees "1" as burnt orange will always see "1" as burnt orange.

And you'll be surprised, but there a lot of famous people with synesthesia - from Vincent Van Gogh and Friedrich Nietzsche to Marilyn Monroe and Vladimir Nabokov. So we have prepared a list of 20 famous musicians with synesthesia.

Honorable mentions:

  • Alessia Cara
  • Mary J. Blige
  • Sam Endicott (The Bravery)
  • Brooks Kerr
  • Elvin Jones
  • Avey Tare
  • Dev Hynes (aka Blood Orange)
  • Sam Endicott
  • St. Vincent
  • Robyn Hitchcock
  • Itzhak Perlman
  • Frank Ocean
  • John Mayer
  • Hans Zimmer

And here's the list:

1. Billy Joel

Type of synesthesia: Sound → color and Grapheme → color

From an interview by Maureen Seaberg with famous singer-songwriter and pianist Billy Joel: "I would say the softer, more intimate songs - there's 'Lullaby (Goodnight My Angel),' 'And So It Goes,' 'Vienna' and another called, 'Summer, Highland Falls' - when I think of different types of melodies, which are slower or softer, I think in terms of blues or greens... When I [see] a particularly vivid color, it's usually a strong melodic, strong rhythmic pattern that emerges at the same time. When I think of these songs, I think of vivid reds, oranges and golds."

"Certain lyrics in some songs I've written, I have to follow a vowel color. A strong vowel ending, like an A or an E or an I, I associate with a very blue or a very vivid green... I think reds I associate more with consonants, a T or a P or an S. It's a harder sound. These [letters] are what I associate with reds and oranges."

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2. Tori Amos

Type of synesthesia: Music → color

Tori Amos, singer-songwriter, pianist and composer, explains in her autobiography "Piece by Piece": "The song appears as light filament once I've cracked it. As long as I've been doing this, which is more than thirty-five years, I've never seen a duplicate song structure. I've never seen the same light creature in my life. Obviously similar chord progressions follow similar light patterns, but try to imagine the best kaleidoscope ever."

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3. Duke Ellington

Type of synesthesia: Timbre → color

Famous jazz musician, composer and pianist Duke Ellington also was a synesthete: "I hear a note by one of the fellows in the band and it's one color. I hear the same note played by someone else and it's a different color. When I hear sustained musical tones, I see just about the same colors that you do, but I see them in textures. If Harry Carney is playing, D is dark blue burlap. If Johnny Hodges is playing, G becomes light blue satin."

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4. Pharrell Williams

Type of synesthesia: Music → color

Pharrell Williams, American singer-songwriter, rapper, record producer, and film producer: "It just always stuck out in my mind, and I could always see it. I don't know if that makes sense, but I could always visualize what I was hearing... Yeah, it was always like weird colors."

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5. Patrick Stump (Fall Out Boy)

Type of synesthesia: Grapheme → color

Patrick Stump, Fall Out Boy's vocalist/guitarist, explained: "So this isn't really news but it's come to my attention that I have a common form of synesthesia known as grapheme to color synesthesia. It is (according to Wikipedia... who are always right... right?) 'A neurologically-based phenomenon in which stimulation of one sensory or cognitive pathway leads to automatic, involuntary experiences in secondary sensory or cognitive pathway.' The shorthand is basically that your senses are crossed. Like some synesthetes can 'Taste' colors or 'See' sounds. In the case of grapheme to color synesthetia it basically means that one interprets written information as 'Colored.' For instance the letter 'F' for me is green. When I see it written in black I obviously still notice that it is black but it 'Feels' green. Or 'S' is red. Most of the alphabet and numbers from 1-10 have some sort of associated color to me. It's ultimately totally trivial but I found it fascinating that this is a documented phenomenon and not just me being a weirdo."

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6. Franz Liszt

Type of synesthesia: Music → color

A prolific 19th-century Hungarian composer, virtuoso pianist, conductor, music teacher, arranger, organist, philanthropist, author and more, Franz Liszt was a synesthete too: "When Liszt first began as Kapellmeister in Weimar (1842), it astonished the orchestra that he said: 'O please, gentlemen, a little bluer, if you please! This tone type requires it!' Or: 'That is a deep violet, please, depend on it! Not so rose!' First the orchestra believed Liszt just joked; more later they got accustomed to the fact that the great musician seemed to see colors there, where there were only tones." (Anonymous, as quoted in Friedrich Mahling)

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7. Justin Chancellor (Tool)

Type of synesthesia: Music → color

Justin Chancellor, bassist of Tool, also has synesthesia, seeing colours when hearing music.

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8. Lorde

Type of synesthesia: Music → color

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!"

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9. Brendon Urie (Panic! at the Disco)

Type of synesthesia: Music → color

Brendon Urie of Panic! at the Disco told in his interview with Rolling Stone: "'Death of a Bachelor' was a lot of bright yellows, bright reds. But it was all very Sixties, like if you've ever seen the Doors performance where there are actual doors hanging above smoke screens and the smoke is coming up. It's very Easter-ish, soft pastel colors. It's soft but bright. It's like glow-y and there are yellows and reds and dark teals that are still popping... But sometimes it's colors, sometimes it's a tornado of words and I pick one out. Sometimes it's shapes. A song could be a square and go in that perfect order. Sometimes it's a pyramid that turns into rhombus. But there are no rules and I love that. It comes from an emotional state."

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10. Kanye West

Type of synesthesia: Music → color

Kanye West explained: "'Yeezus,' though, was the beginning of me as a new kind of artist. Stepping forward with what I know about architecture, about classicism, about society, about texture, about synesthesia - the ability to see sound - and the way everything is everything and all these things combine, and then starting from scratch with 'Yeezus.'"

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11. Jean Sibelius

Type of synesthesia: Sound → color

Karl Ekman about famous Finnish composer and violinist: "For him there existed a strange, mysterious connection between sound and color, between the most secret perceptions of the eye and ear. Everything he saw produced a corresponding impression on his ear - every impression of sound was transferred and fixed as color on the retina of his eye and thence to his memory. And this he thought as natural, with as good reason as those who did not possess this faculty called him crazy or affectedly original."

"For this reason he only spoke of this in the strictest confidence and under a pledge of silence. 'For otherwise they will make fun of me!'"

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12. Chino Moreno (Deftones)

Type of synesthesia: Music → color

Describing how the music ties in with the Deftones "Gore" album's cover, Chino Moreno said: "It's got a different look. A different shade of color. I'd say some shade of purple. I don't know why, but I think it sits somewhere between pink, red and purple. Sometimes when I hear music, I see color, and when it came time to work on the artwork for this batch of songs, I knew exactly what I wanted."

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13. Richard D. James (aka Aphex Twin)

Type of synesthesia: Musical sounds and Words → colour

Richard D James - aka Aphex Twin - is using his synaesthesia to write songs, saying that certain sounds produce strong smells. In interviews with The Wire and other magazines and blogs, James has explained that his lucid dreaming and synesthesia inspired the songs on his 1994 release, "Selected Ambient Works Volume II."

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14. Ed Sheeran

Type of synesthesia: Music → color

Ed Sheeran has a mild form of synesthesia, wseeing his songs in colors. On his website, he says that his favorite color is blue, but orange for his music.

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15. Rollo Armstrong (Faithless)

Type of synesthesia: Music → color

Rollo Armstrong, music producer, multi-instrumentalist, and a member of the electronic music group Faithless, is also a synesthete. Faithless' Sister Bliss said about her working relationship with Rollo Armstrong: "He gets on with the broad strokes, textures and colors - that's how he hears music, he's got that synesthesia (a phenomenon where sounds have color), he says 'make it really sad, like a rainy day, I want to hear thunder' - and I get on with all the anal fiddly bits."

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16. Charli XCX

Type of synesthesia: Music → color

British singer about her synesthesia: "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 synesthesia. It helps me understand songs and what I like."

"I see music in colors. I love music that's black, pink, purple or red - but I hate music that's green, yellow or brown." - XCX speaking with BBC.

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17. György Ligeti

Type of synesthesia: Grapheme → color

A Hungarian composer of contemporary classical musi, György Ligeti has been described as "one of the most important avant-garde composers in the latter half of the twentieth century" and "one of the most innovative and influential among progressive figures of his time" - and he also was a synesthete: "I am inclined to synesthetic perception. I associate sounds with colors and shapes. Like Rimbaud, I feel that all letters have a color. Major chords are red or pink, minor chords are somewhere between green and brown. I do not have perfect pitch, so when I say that C minor has a rusty red-brown color and D minor is brown this does not come from the pitch but from the letters C and D. I think it must go back to my childhood. I find, for instance, that numbers also have colors; 1 is steely gray, 2 is orange, 5 is green. At some point these associations must have got fixed, perhaps I saw the green number 5 on a stamp or on a shop sign. But there must be some collective associations too. For most people the sound of a trumpet is probably yellow although I find it red because of its shrillness..."

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18. Marina Diamandis (aka Marina and the Diamonds)

Type of synesthesia: Multiple synesthesiae. Music and days of the week → color.

Marina Diamandis, the Welsh singer and songwriter also known as Marina and the Diamonds, talks about her synesthesia: "A lot people think that it's something you experience day-to-day, or is a very strong sensory feeling. But it's not for me; it's more of an added sensitivity to color, so I associate a lot of different colors to musical notes or days of the week. That's how I experience it, but maybe it's different for other people."

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19. Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov

Type of synesthesia: Musical keys → color

Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov, famous Russian composer, experienced colors for musical keys. For example, for him, the key of C major was white, and the key of B major was a gloomy dark blue with a steel shine.

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20. Stevie Wonder

Type of synesthesia: Sound → color

Despite being blind almost his whole life, Stevie Wonder said music gives him the gift of colors. When the musician plays on his piano, he said he is able to neurologically perceive colors from his notes.

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Know more musicians with synesthesia? Feel free to share them in the comment section below.

53 comments sorted by best / new / date

    Zan595
    It's impossible to prove one way or another, but I don't believe a lot of them. It's sort of a "cool" thing to say as a musician to have this, way back in the day half of my high school band would try to tell you they have synesthesia . Duke Ellington, Patrick Stump, Gyorgy Ligeti, and a few others gave some really believable and really specific answers, but I'm not buying the "Yeah I like songs that are green, but not songs that are blue" answers. That might just be perceiving the "vibe" of the song, not necessarily having synesthesia. I went to college with a guy who could tell you any musical note immediately by ear; when you asked him how he knew, he would say "It's a 'D' because it sounded blue." Now THAT, is believable to me.
    N-D
    I agree - it's hard to believe - at least in all cases - especially because it's almost impossible to prove it in a scientific way - you know, even it's really true - it's only in your head, it's YOUR vision. On the other hand, for most musicians it can be a real temptation to call themselves synesthetes to look special - for a publicity stunt, etc, especially for modern "stars" when the knowledge of synesthesia is almost common. But anyway - though I personally can't believe in ALL cases - I think that the most musicians from this list tell the truth and really have such... vision. Again, you know, human's brain is really an unpredictable and still unexplored thing.
    triface
    Agreed. Based on the definition of synesthesia used here, all of us here possess some form of synesthesia. I (and I suspect a lot of others) associate certain words with different colours, like the obvious red for "fire." 
    Nuxx00982
    I don't believe Kanye on anything. But I feel like Buckethead might feel some crazy shit
    soundsabbath
    I bet Kanye's is bullshit. Just seems like the sorta shit he'd almost certainly make up!
    jmezzo
    If I remember correctly (which is rare), he also claimed to be a rockstar and tried to show off his guitar solo skills. So this would make him 0-3 for being truthful.
    metalchozen
    Don't underestimate that guy. He is surprinsingly smart and open-minded. But the way he talks about synesthesia sounds more like "I read things about it and I found that cool" to me.
    Steve51
    Dude, don't even try. Most users in U-G are really closed-minded and don't give a fuck about how talented someone like Kanye West really is. They will just keep downvoting you everytime you say something good about him. 
    zack2k
    A lot of people knows he's a genius in music and hear music beyond sample. the problem is just his personality and his ego. That's why some successful rapper heard a lot of different thing, like Nas, Game, Snoop and Dre. They know what they were doing, unlike other wannabe who struggle in the game.
    OneEyed
    Was any one else reading this like "20 Famous Musicians with Synthesizers."?
    JorshWarsh
    The only one I believe is Stevie Wonder.  That dude is a fucking musical genius.
    Batmantera
    I totally believe Ed Sheeran. He says his music is one color, orange, and all of his songs are the same 3 chords toooo... he must be telling the truth.
    iAmYourCat
     "I totally believe Ed Sheeran. He says his music is one color, orange, ..." You spelled 'ginger' incorrectly. 
    WhatMade
    Ha, same with any country singer. G,C,D probably have a good color they all like.
    Shavyi
    Interesting how nobody speaks about Devin Townsend.  He's often asked about it, and I remember that time when he simply answer "yeah I have that thing, and it has always been like this, I didn't even know it was a thing".  For having watched a lot of interview, masterclasses, etc., it really seems that he works around that thing, that is completely included in his creative process. 
    ofthedead420
    Damn I was hoping someone would smell sound. Perfect set up for a fart joke
    metalme31
    Can you imagine what bands sound smells like shit? Lol "This band sounds like shit!" "What?! They're very talented!" "No, I have synesthesia. I can smell and see the colors of sounds. This band is very brown and smells like shit!"
    ErnestoFidel
    Jimi Hendrix was the first famous musician to be linked with synesthesia that I could think of. He supposedly wrote different chords as colors when he didn't know their names, also using different colors for minor, major, dominant etc. Can someone explain, why he's not on the list, confirm this or tell me if this is a myth? 
    N-D
    The Jimi's case is debatable - it has never been neither confirmed nor refuted by Jimi himself, only some mentions about "purple chord". But to be honest it's almost impossible to check all of these cases
    iAmYourCat
    This doesn't sound bogus, I think synesthesia certainly exists. There are still things about the human brain, and how it perceives the world, that we will never truly understand. So, the only way for us to explain it is through something that we already know -- like colour, taste, hearing, shapes, etc. Having said that, most of this just sounds like a bunch of self-absorbed celebrity twats finding another bullshit reason that makes them "special" or "I was born to be an artist". 
    metalme31
    Like with Psilocybin. That's the active ingredient in shrooms that gives you the ability to experience all that good stuff. They've done amazing studies on it and it has so much potential to help us in many different ways. Music takes on a new life that way. Some claim to be able to see the shapes and/or colors of sounds while on shrooms. These people probably have access to that part of the brain without needing the drug to help get them there like most of us. I think we all have it, it's just we get so caught up in the outside world and other people, that we lose what's in us.
    OriginOfFeces
    Isn't this VERY normal among, say, every-fucking-one with a little bit of imagination or common sense..?
    Vampire_State
    Eddie Van Halen supposedly has it, too. Which honestly I always thought may have factored into his paint schemes.
    N-D
    Eddie Van Halen confirmed that he HASN'T a synesthesia - it were just rumors: "To me, music is all about feeling. But in terms of trying to visualize the feeling? I don't know. "
    cannibaladderle
    don't be forgetting olivier messiaen now
    N-D
    Thanks for the suggestion!..
    zakaye
    Also, I'm pretty sure Scriabin had synesthesia
    N-D
    As a lot of researchers claim, Scriabin was INFLUENCED by "synesthesia" term, and associated colours with the various harmonic tones of his atonal scale based on this, but actually he wasn't a synesthete.
    rootsofmy
    Wasn't Adam Jones the synesthesiac of Tool? Not Justin, whom we all love and care for nonetheless?
    sean_getchapu
    Calling bullshit on a few of these. Chino saying 'sometimes' he sees colour for example. Any knowledge on the subject knows its never 'sometimes', its ALWAYS. You can't pick and choose when you use it. It's like me saying 'Master of Puppets' is a kind of red album because its got a reddish front cover that informs me subconsciously. Kanye saying he has it is laughable too, considering he thinks he's Jesus or something like that. A few of the classical composers are possibly questionable due to how little was known back then, and some are surely assumed. If thats the path this article took then the omission of people like Scriabin is odd. Hell there are sources that discuss Rimsky Korsakov used to have arguments with guys like Rachmaninov (if I'am not mistaken) and other Russian alumni about their different interpretations of colours to notes/scales, which is more theoretical in nature than them all having synaethesia, which would statistically be next to impossible. Even guys like Devin Townsend have been known to have the synaethesia trait labelled upon them, but he would be the first to say he doesn't have it. I did an art degree with someone who was diagnosed with it, and when you see how they perceive things its way way wayyyy past simply saying you get a 'blue' vibe or a certain 'hue' when you hear or write something. Most of us can assign colours to music based upon our emotions, psychological traits/tastes and surroundings, but saying its synaethesia is highly questionable given how rare it is.
    CPWKruger
    It sounds like this would be a trait for any creative person. Ever since I can remember I have always attached not colours to certain to certain events--but genders to numbers, letter and lists of words--like colors. And they have never changed. For instance. Red, orange, yellow, and purple are girls--blue and green are boys. 1,3,5,8,10 are boys. 2, 4, 6, 7, 9 are girls.  A,E,F,H,M,N,P,R,T,U,V,W,Y,Z are girls. B,C,D,G,I,J,L,O,Q,S,U,X are boys. And for some add reason K remains without gender.
    henrihell
    Not strictly a musician, but I think Bruce Swedien should be on the list. In an interview in "The Mixing Engineer's Handbook" by B. Owsinski, he discusses his approach to EQin that he sees different frequencies as different color. So if a color is missing or there's the wrong amount of it he knows something's missing or wrong in the mix. In case you don't know of his work he's mixed and recorded most of Michael Jackson's discography and everything Jennifer Lopez has released. Other notable acts he's worked with are Paul McArtney, Duke Ellington, Muddy Waters, Quincy Jones etc.
    JorshWarsh
    I'm surprised they didn't include John Frusciante.  He used to talk about seeing colors when he plays.  It might have been the smack though, but still.
    Shadow-Michel
    I think I can feel sounds in some way, some sounds like vacuum cleaners piss me off since they feel like my mouth becomes numb and filled with cotton balls.. Only have it with things like that though
    pressureproject
    Hell, I guess I have it too.  I don't see anything odd or strange about any "condition" described above.  I'd say it's just normal but most people don't think about it or worry about it too much.
    DrGonzo82284
    For Jimi to not make this list is absurd. I bet they polled Devin Townsend, Maynard, and Corey Taylor for this dumb shit
    tonello
    I've thought I had this in the past. I tend to interpret numbers or notes with colors. But a lot of times, I do it on purpose. I feel like that's what a lot of these people do as well. 
    macphisto0
    A lot of them see color, but they make shitty music. so Im wondering if they see everything brown?
    eatfresh1736
    Synesthesia gets even weirder when people feel that certain objects are supposed to be a certain color, but the actual color that they are. For example, someone with this condition might say "That cloud should be blue. That's a blue cloud." Even though it's white.
    ShaneTheCreep
    The topic of this brings up a point about our minds, we don't know how others see or perceive things, to someone else your green may be their red, and neither of you could know because neither of you share the same brain.
    .:!j.man!:.
    We can all have Synesthesia with psychedelics... Should all these people be put in jail because there consciousness is more aware than our own? Just something to think about.