Brain Pickings

Synesthesia Spotlight: 3 Visualizations of Music

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What Vivaldi has to do with motion graphics, John Coltrane and skyscrapers of color.

Synesthesia is a rare neurological condition that leads stimulation in one sensory pathway to trigger an experience in another. Basically, a short-circuiting in the brain that enables such strange phenomena like perceiving letters and numbers as inherently colored (color-graphemic synesthesia) or hearing sounds in response to visual motion. More than 60 types of synesthesia have been identified, with one of the most common being the cross-sensory experience of color and sound — “hearing” color or “seeing” music.

These neurological eccentricities, however, can often be a source of tremendous artistic inspiration. Today, we look at three mesmerizing near-synesthetic ways of experiencing sound and color.

MICHAL LEVY

Israeli artist and jazz musician Michal Levy (who also happens to be a dear friend) is an actual synesthetic: When she listens to music, she sees shapes and colors as different tones, pitches, frequencies, harmonies, and other elements of the melody unfold. Her fantastic animated film, Giant Steps, captures this unique experience, visualizing the iconic John Coltrane masterpiece as Michal sees it in her mind’s synesthetic eye.

Michal’s latest film, One, is yet another vibrant journey into sonic color. Her creative process is quite extraordinary, like peering into a mind that functions on an entirely different sensory plane.

LET YOURSELF FEEL

Let Yourself Feel is a mesmerizing animation by Argentinian motion graphics designer Esteban Diácono, visualizing “Slowly” by composer Ólafur Arnalds in spellbinding colorful smoke.

MUSIC ANIMATION MACHINE

Since 1985, composer, inventor and software engineer Stephen Malinowski has been bringing an intuitive, visceral understanding to classical music’s greatest masterpieces. His Music Animation Machine, which we have featured previously, distills some of the most complex compositions in music history into digestible, beautiful visualizations.

Music moves, and can be understood just by listening. But a conventional musical score stands still, and can be understood only after years of training. The Music Animation Machine bridges this gap, with a score that moves — and can be understood just by watching.” ~ Stephen Malinowski

Malinowski has made the MIDI player available as downloadable freeware (alas, no Mac version) to encourge people to create their own visualizations. There’s even a free visual harmonizer for iPad — a wonderful educational tool exploring the relationship between pitches.

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