This Man Sees Music As Color (Literally)

He was in elementary school when he first realized that not everybody saw music as color. Not everybody witnessed ribbons of green when they heard a C-note, or indigo when they heard a G sharp.

Not everybody had synesthesia like Nacho Alarcon.

Nacho Alarcon (via Musicateur)
Nacho Alarcon (via Musicateur)

One day in class, he and his peers were preparing to sing a song. His teacher played a note on the piano for the children’s reference.

“I noticed that she played the wrong note and called her on it,” Alarcon said. “She asked me how I knew it was the wrong note, and I described how the different notes both sounded and looked different to me. We talked after class, where she told me that she doesn’t have any colors associated with pitch and that she’d never met anyone before me who had.”

Synesthesia is having a sensation other than the stimulated sense, as defined by Merriam-Webster. Alarcon describes his color-tone synesthesia as an “involuntary cross-wiring of the senses” and “a multi-level experience.”

He said the wind even has a color, the tone depending on the wind’s speed.

Like his teacher, he’s never met anyone with this type of synesthesia, but he’s heard stories.

“I know it’s been rumored that Jimi Hendrix had sound-color synesthesia and that’s part of why he was so good,” he said. “Also at the same time, he was usually not sober.”

RELATED: How Jimi Hendrix Wrote “Little Wing” In 145 Seconds

For Alarcon, listening to music can be an amazing experience. Concerts, for example, are extra stimulating.

“It’s a lot of color,” he said. “When I was a kid, I never liked it. Either because I thought the colors didn’t mesh well, or because I was just distracted musically by people coughing and seeing color … being like, ‘Stop! There’s stuff going on.’ But now I’m just sort of used to it and it’s cool.”

As psychedelic as this sounds, he said it can also make everyday tasks more difficult, like driving. Imagine the tone of the engine, the turn signals, and other cars driving by. Each one would cause colors to fly into Alarcon’s view.

Why does this happen?

Nacho Alarcon (via Musicateur)

He talked about the possibility of genetic inheritance, but he said he doesn’t know of any family member with any type of synesthesia.

RELATED: Did We All Used To Have Synesthesia?

He also said it might be related to a childhood accident. When he was three years old, a rock shot from a lawnmower and hit his right eye, blinding him.

“Since I can remember, essentially, I’ve been visually impaired. So I’m blind in my right eye. And so (my synesthesia) could possibly, I guess, be trauma related.”

Whatever the case, he knows music on a different level than the average music lover because of his synesthesia.

“It heightens the experience,” he said. “It’s just a good thing.”

Originally posted on Musicateur

Book Review: Musicophilia

The book begins by telling the story of a man who discovered his love of music after lightning struck him.

Next thing you know, you’re sucked into the outlandish true stories of people thriving and people enduring torment from their experiences with music.

These people were the patients and acquaintances of the late Oliver Sacks, who was a physician, a Professor of Clinical Neurology and Psychiatry at Columbia University, and an author of many other books about the brain.

Musicophilia - Oliver Sacks

In Musicophiliahe talks about synesthesia. Many types of synesthesia exist, but Sacks focused on one man named Michael Torke who saw colors with tones.

As a boy, Torke once said to his music teacher, “I love the blue piece.” This section made me jealous of synesthetes.

Sacks also wrote about how a man named Clive forgets nearly everything but remembers music and melody without hesitation. He remembers two things in life: his wife, Deborah, and music.

Besides that, his memory was a complete mess.

Sacks writes in a layman-friendly style with a bit of doctor lingo here and there. Both the common man (like myself) and the educated, Harvard-graduate, award-winning physician can be proud to display this on his or her bookshelf.

Sacks divided his stories into four parts:

  1. Haunted by Music (stories of people hearing music in their heads)
  2. A Range of Musicality (stories of synesthesia and blindness)
  3. Memory, Movement, and Music (amnesia, music therapy, Tourette’s, and Parkinson’s)
  4. Emotion, Identity, and Music (depression and dementia)

If you’ve never heard about things like synesthesia, musical hallucinations, or music’s effect on coping, this is the first book you should read.

RELATED: Sad music warms the musician’s heart

It’s somewhat of a lengthy book, weighing in at about 350 pages, but you may not be able to put it down.

Did We All Used To Have Synesthesia?

Imagine seeing colors fly out of someone’s mouth as they sing or speak. Imagine ribbons and double-helixes of silver and gold shoot from the end of a trumpet.

This is what color-hearing synesthesia is like, and you might have experienced this as a baby, according to the theory of two gentlemen.


Oliver Sacks writes in Musicophilia about Simon Baron-Cohen’s and John Harrison’s work that led them to write,

“We might all be colored-hearing synesthetes until we lose connections between these two areas [color and hearing areas of the brain] somewhere about three months of age.”

Musicophilia, page 181

Basically, Sacks goes on to write, the two senses mesh together, colors appearing with tones. But as we develop, the two separate, no longer creating a synesthetic experience, says their theory.

For those of you who don’t remember anything from infant age (like…all of us), you can watch the video below given to me by a young man with color-tone synesthesia.

He said this is the closest thing he’s found that illustrates what a synesthete sees, but he said he sees the colors more like ribbons and less like clouds.

Update, 8/26/15: click here to read about more evidence that we all grow out of our synesthesia as we develop, according to Discover Magazine.