UCL News


Hearing colours, seeing sounds

16 June 2006

Many of us might be foxed by the lines in the children's rainbow song inciting us to "listen with your eyes" and "sing everything you see".

However, for four percent of the population, these instructions make perfect sense, as demonstrated by a recent audiovisual event at South Kensington's Dana Centre showcasing the research of Dr Jamie Ward (UCL Psychology). Visual music

Dr Ward's area of interest is synaesthesia, from the Greek words 'syn' and 'aisthesis' meaning 'together' and 'perception'. It describes the capacity to experience simultaneously sensations that are normally perceived by different senses. For example, synaesthetes 'see' specific colours when they read certain words, taste particular foods or, as in the case of the Dana Centre event, hear music.

The evening was the culmination of an experiment forming part of a research collaboration between Dr Ward, head of UCL's Synaesthesia Research Group, the animator Sam Moore and the New London Orchestra. Thanks to a Sci-Art grant from the Wellcome Trust, Sam Moore interpreted the images that synaesthetes described on listening to various musical timbres, pitches and harmonies. These fascinating combinations were shown, triggering discussion as to whether the majority of us also find these dual perceptions aesthetically pleasing.

The experiences captured by the animations showed that higher pitched sounds tend to be associated with light, bright colours and are represented by smaller, less rounded shapes than low pitch tones. True synaesthetes, including Richard Wagner, David Hockney and many other members of the creative community, are consistent in the way they experience these bonus sensations, and cannot switch them off, though each person's specific experiences differ.

"The research is designed to identify the principles that the brains of synaesthetes use to map this 'visual music' between the auditory and visual domains," explains Dr Ward. "Are there common properties across individuals' experiences? Are synaesthetes' cross-sense perceptions aesthetically pleasing to people who do not have synaesthesia? The results will lead to important insights into how aesthetic judgments are related to brain processes in all of us, and will have implications for art appreciation."

The combinations of animations and music are currently displayed at the Science Museum, bringing Dr Ward's experiment to a wider audience. Visitors can record how pleasing they find the combinations, test whether they can identify fake visual perceptions and discover whether they are a member of this elite band.

To find out more about the project and synaesthesia in general, follow the links at the top of this article.

Images: Stills from the visual music animations shown at the Dana Centre ©2006 Sam Moore