Gareth Montanarello

Seeing Sounds, Hearing Colors

I went back and forth for a few days on whether or not to write this post but ultimately decided why not, it's my blog. So, disclaimer: things might get vaguely self-indulgent.

I have synesthesia (not anesthesia as my spellcheck keeps trying to tell me). I see colors whenever I read, hear, and play music. The same goes for numbers, words, days, and some smells and tastes. Every time I see a number, hear someone talking, look at a calendar, smell something strong or taste my food, I experience a flash of color. A is red, 5 is blue, 7 is green, F# is explicitly yellow, gasoline smells like F# but a bit whiter, Wednesday is brown, and N is burnt orange. Needless to say, things get interesting sometimes.

For those that don't know, synesthesia is, in the words of Wikipedia, a "perceptual phenomenon in which stimulation of one sensory or cognitive pathway leads to automatic, involuntary experiences in a second sensory or cognitive pathway." These "experiences" have been the same for as long as I can remember and they have certainly a profound impact on how I learn, play, and experience music.

When Did I First Notice I Have Synesthesia?

Color associations have been with me for my entire life. I remember learning cello in 3rd grade and being aware of the D string sounding light brown, the A string sounding red, 1st finger E being green, etc. I never really gave much thought to the colors until a few years later when I realized that I was remembering scales less so on the note names they contained and more so on the colors they produced when I thought of them. I remember sitting in orchestra when I was 13 or 14 and thinking about playing "the blue scale" when the teacher asked for "G Major" or "the silver one" for "C minor." This happened not just with scales, but with every piece of music I touched and still continues to this day.

Despite having these associations for my entire life, it wasn't until I was 17 or so that I first heard the term "synesthesia." The colors were so normal for me that I figured everyone had them and I never thought of mentioning it to anyone. To this day, I have only ever met two other people with synesthesia (I'm dating one...), unlike those with perfect pitch of which I have met dozens.

Self-Indulgence: +1

Has Synesthesia Helped Me Be A Musician?

It's hard to accurately say whether or not being synesthetic has made me a better musician. I can say for sure, however, that it has given me another "tool" to use when learning music. As I kind of mentioned earlier, I often recall music based on the color set I see when I hear/play it. Usually a piece has an overall color based on the prevailing key center but as the music progresses, each passing note/measure/phrase/etc. projects new colors that I use to help remember where I am in the music or how to play it in the future.

Example: I decided to pick part of every bass player's favorite excerpt to try and give an example pf the last paragraph. Ein Heldenleben, for many reasons, is mostly a greenish color in my mind. Part of this is because it starts with a greenish (the actual color is too hard to explain) Eb arpeggio and the words Ein Heldenleben sound pretty green (again, actual colors are too hard to explain). The colors of course change throughout the music, but I always come back to greenish. In this excerpt, I use the colors of the starting note of each arpeggio and the overall color of each sonority to remember how to play what's on the page. The Eb arpeggio at 9 starts off on a deep blue G, the F arpeggio begins on a very red A, and the Ab arpeggios before 10 each begin with a silverish C. These colors give me a solid reference for where to start each arpeggio, then the color of the rest of the arpeggio helps me remember which one I am actually playing. For example, after I play the silverish C in the fourth measure, I remember that maroon is the color of what comes next and that cues me to play the rest of an Ab arpeggio.

Admittedly, my explanation probably makes it sound like this is a super complicated process that I give a ton of thought to but in reality, it's quite the opposite. Things happen so naturally and instantaneously that I rarely give them active thought. I should also add that though I use colors to help memorize music more quickly, I still have to put in the work in the practice room to make sure everything sticks technically and musically.

There are other, more subtle ways in which being synesthetic has also helped me. For example, in-tune notes generate stronger color responses than out of tune ones and the same applies for notes produced with a good tone versus a bad tone. I am not really sure why this is but I do know that when playing bass, anything that allows the instrument to ring freely and produce clear overtones gives me an avenue to experience vibrant mixes of color from the fundamental and its associated harmonics. Hopefully that makes sense.

Fifty points for self-indulgence.

Can I Share Any Of The Colors I See?

There are only six notes for which I could come close to accurately describing the color- F, F#,G, Ab, A and D. Whenever I talk about my synesthesia, I tend to resort to using these notes to describe the colors I see since I can generally find an object nearby that fits each color. The other notes are bizarre mixes of three or more colors that I can't think of a good way to portray. B is the worst one to try explain since it's an amalgamation of purple, grey, brown, red and yellow. Enharmonic pitches (eg. Eb/D#) evoke different colors depending on context and there is also some overlap between notes/numbers/letters. There is enough distinction to make overlapping colors uniquely discernible, however.

F: British Racing Green/Forest Green gets you in the ballpark.

F#: Yellow/Golden Yellow.

G: Deep Blue. This water bottle is close enough. One of my favorite colors.

Ab: Maroon.

A: Red. Think the red part of Flexocor Deluxe winding. I also love this note because the open A string on my bass sounds enormous and resonant (do I smell self-indulgence?). Another one of my favorites.

D: Brown/Light Brown.

What's The Worst Part Of Having Synesthesia?

Sometimes I avoid certain words, foods, or pieces of music because I don't like their color. Explaining this to people without sounding (any more) pretentious can be... unreasonably difficult. Light shows set to music are also annoying. The colors are usually wrong.

"Wow, he's self-indulgent and pretentious!"

Favorite Musical Moments And Their Colors?

Here is a very small sampling of some of my favorite pieces that evoke vivid colors. Since red, blue and green are my favorite colors, I picked pieces that I strongly associate with each.

1. The opening of Mahler 6 is a vibrant red. Fantastic part writing and I love Abbado recordings.

2. This arrangement of Reelin' In The Years is a rich blue for the most part. Great rendition and all the solos are killer.

3. The ninth movement of Ginastera's Variaciones Concertantes has a duet for bass and harp that is a calming shade of green. I really appreciate the sound and the colors of E Phrygian and the sensitivity of this recording.


I hope that this post gave a little insight into what I experience everyday as a synesthete. Summarizing everything to the span of a single blog post is very difficult- I could about this stuff for days! Also, if you are synesthetic I would love to hear from you and learn about your experiences and what colors you associate with each note. Finding and meeting other people with synesthesia is something that rarely happens!