Synesthesia Creators

Synesthesia: What “Sound Purple” Really Means

Have you ever been on the receiving end of confusing artistic direction? Whether it’s your drama teacher asking you to “be a tree,” or a director telling you to “sound more purple,” we’ve all been given creative direction that we didn’t understand that seemed entirely clear to the director.

How can this be? So far as audio goes, did you know that there are people in our midst who hear through color?

Synesthesia is a sensation produced in one modality when a stimulus is applied to another modality, as when the hearing of a certain sound induces the visualization of a certain color.

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Find out more about what the phenomenon of synesthesia is and how it can be used in today’s Vox Daily.

What Adjectives Describe Vocal Quality?

In voice over, and voice production in general, there are myriad ways that we describe the vocal instrument. The words we use to describe tone alone could be the basis of an entire article!

When I was taking voice lessons at the conservatory, my voice teacher referred to my voice as sounding like “a burnished bell.” She used other words too, but that identifier has stuck with me over the years as being the most memorable.

While I liked her word choices, I wondered what it meant to sound like a burnished bell.

Knowing what a bell was came easily, but “burnished” was a word I had to look up. Based upon my research, I understood that burnished, in relation to my voice resembling a bell, meant that my instrument’s bell-like sound was shiny, polished, and bright.

Many creatives love words, that’s a given. But was this description merely a poetic way of labeling my voice, or, was my teacher interpreting the sound of my voice through shapes and colors?

Enter Synesthesia

If you’ve not ever heard of synesthesia before, people who possess such abilities can see, hear, or feel what the majority of us don’t. There are many forms synesthesia takes, and the form I’d like to explore with you now is called chromesthesia.

Of synesthesia, Wikipedia states:

There are two overall forms of synesthesia: projecting synesthesia and associative synesthesia. People who project will see actual colors, forms, or shapes when stimulated, as is commonly accepted as synesthesia; associators will feel a very strong and involuntary connection between the stimulus and the sense that it triggers. For example, in the common form chromesthesia (sound to color) a projector may hear a trumpet and see an orange triangle in space while an associator might hear a trumpet and think very strongly that it sounds “orange”.

Someone who has synesthesia is often referred to as a synesthete.

Coloring Words

Voice artists are encouraged to color their words, creating a desired emotional response through tone, emphasis, timing and so on. The meaning of a word, and the context within it is used, often dictates how it is approached and painted accordingly. Each voice actor comes at this from a different perspective depending on their life experience and world view.

Now that we have a baseline for coloring words, how about entire paragraphs or structures? What about a novel or documentary?

Do you see words in colors?

Coloring Music

One famous synesthete was the musician, Duke Ellington. He could see music in colors. There are also composers who write their compositions based upon colours. You might hear discourse among musicians claiming that one key is brighter or darker than another or that a music key has an assigned color. To take this a step further, some musicians see individual pitches as having particular colors as is the case with people who have perfect pitch.

That said, not all synesthetes agree on what color should be assigned to a specific tone or key. To illustrate, Franz Liszt and Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov, did not see eye to eye on the colors of musical keys.

This, you’ll agree, is far deeper than the average person would think into a pitch like A440. Unlike someone who has chromesthesia, your ears may be more attuned to emotions than the colour a key might represent.

Other Examples of Notable Synesthetes:

  • Billy Joel
  • Itzhak Perlman
  • Nikola Tesla

Do You Have Synesthesia?

If any of this sounds familiar to you, you might have a form of synesthesia or you may have worked with someone who does.

Consider the following tips for clearing up creative direction.

For Synesthetes

Something you can do to make your direction clearer to those you are managing is to explain what you’re seeing and how it relates to your expectations of them.

Let’s say you want something to sound more purple or yellower. If you see an emotion or characteristic as a certain color, let people know because they won’t likely have a reference point for what you’re seeking unless you communicate it to them. This may take practice but will help others follow your direction.

What does purple mean? How about yellow? If yellow means bright or loud, write that down and create a legend if you will for how to decipher direction. You need not replicate this more than once if you print it up nicely and laminate it.

Keeping this tool on hand and providing an artist with these definitions will help clarify and communicate the vision you are after.

For Those Receiving Direction From Synesthetes

If you’re working with someone who gives direction for how ought to sound or do something using colors, ask them what they mean. Just like in musical circles, each director (or composer, musician, etc.) may assign different colors to a given sound or tone.
Realize that sound orange might have a completely different definition from one director to the next.

You might get to a point where you’ve worked together so much that you know what is meant by sound more purple or bluer. Jotting these notes down and internalizing them will make your sessions go better and give you the confidence to deliver your lines with accuracy.

What Do You Think

Do you have anything to add? I’d love to hear about your thoughts on the topic, particularly if you have personal experience with synesthesia in your work or daily life.

Take care,

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  • Avatar for Evan
    September 21, 2015, 4:35 pm

    It would be interesting to know how much perfect pitch and Synesthesia overlap; if every Synesthete has perfect pitch, or perhaps not? I wonder as well if there is actually a unique traceable quality throughout the works of Synesthete composers not found in the music of non-synesthete composers. Also, very interesting take on artistic direction for VO – I like it!

  • Avatar for Howard Ellison
    Howard Ellison
    September 22, 2015, 4:57 pm

    Nice topic! I recall Bebe Daniels’s voice described as ‘yellow’ and the BBC announcer Frank Phillips’s as ‘dark brown’.
    Synesthesia is one of those inborn phenomena we tend to lose as we depart childhood: clearly, like so much else that underpins art, we should hang on to these gifts. Use ’em or lose ’em – though it would be interesting to see what we might resurrect as we tussle with ‘authoritative’, ‘friendly’, ‘booming’ and the rest. Would we all agree on a colour vocabulary, or is it personal?
    I don’t recall colour synesthesia, but up to about ten I did find that shapes could generate spontaneous unrelated words in the mind, and for many years symphonic music conjured up abstract visuals.
    It all puzzled me no end, and of course no adults in the pre-Google era could begin to explain it, or even believe it.

  • Avatar for Gary Terzza
    Gary Terzza
    September 23, 2015, 12:15 pm

    Intriguing Stephanie; I have always seen days as colours, for example Tuesday is yellow, Friday green, Sunday silvery white. Does it help me colour words in voice overs? I wonder. Thought provoking post.

  • Avatar for Kurt Feldner
    Kurt Feldner
    September 23, 2015, 3:11 pm

    At first read, I didn’t think I fit this description. But as I thought more about it, I’m thinking perhaps I might be a fit…or a variant of it. For example, when I see red, I think of a sports car or a heart, indicating passion, intensity, love. When I see yellow, I see the sun, indicating brightness, warmth, happiness. My visuals may not get quite as in depth as some Synesthetes, but I think I’m on to something here, which will no doubt help in the auditioning & recording.

  • Avatar for Chris Malan
    Chris Malan
    September 2, 2020, 8:57 am

    I came here to see what ‘sound purple’ means. Lot’s of blah-blah-blah, but nowhere does it tell me what ‘sound purple’ means.

    • Avatar for Oliver Skinner
      Oliver Skinner
      September 8, 2020, 11:52 am

      Hi Chris,

      What it means to ‘sound purple’ is entirely subjective. As this post explains, some synesthetes have reported the phenomenon of associating sounds or music with particular colors. The colors that are associated with those sounds have everything to do with the individual synesthete’s experience.