‘That song sounds so sweet!’
‘That piece leaves a bitter taste in my mouth…’
We describe music in a myriad of ways, and surprisingly many of our descriptive terms are not related to our sense of hearing at all. And it doesn’t stop at taste - we describe music with all five of our senses!
But what does it actually mean to say that music sounds ‘dark’, ‘bright’, ‘blue’, ‘smooth’, ‘sharp’, ‘thin’, ‘cold’, ‘warm’, or ‘stale’?
A lot of what I’m about to say is inspired by Chapter 5 of ‘The Anthropology of Music’ by Alan P. Merriam. If you’re interested, do have a read!
Now let’s have a conversation to see where what we end up with.
There’s a phenomenon called synesthesia whereby stimulation in one of our senses leads to an involuntary stimulation in another sense. A very common one is when someone hears a musical note and immediately visualises a specific colour. Often, individuals who have an extremely acute pitch memory or ‘perfect pitch’ associate fixed pitches to specific colours. I’ve yet to hear of someone listening to a piece of music and tasting something in their mouth, but that would be really cool!
While synesthesia does occur and much research has been done on it, we often mistake ‘true’ synesthesia with symbolism, associations, and cultural conditioning. Take the colour blue for example - in Western culture and the English language, the world blue is associated with sadness and melancholy. In fact, the music genre ‘blues’ has its roots in emotional and physical hardships, which have informed our present association with the word and visual sensation.
However, the colour blue in itself doesn’t carry any of these emotional sensations! It is purely a visual phenomenon. If we listen to a piece of music and feel as though it creates a sensation which we associate with the colour blue, and as a result visualise the colour blue in our mind, that’s not ‘true’ synesthesia. It’s different from when we hear something and actually see the colour blue in our mind’s eye.
As opposed to ‘true’ synesthesia, Merriam uses another term called intersense modalities. Though I’m oversimplifying, it’s akin to how I described listening to music and feeling the colour of blue with all its cultural associations and thereafter visualising it in our mind. There’s nothing inherently wrong with using intersense modalities to describe music, and its effectiveness has led to many descriptive terms unrelated to the sense of hearing becoming mainstays in the professional world of music and music production.
Some common examples and their implied meanings include:
Dark or Bright: An emphasis in low or high frequencies respectively
Smooth: High interconnectedness between linearly arranged notes
Cold: Lacking in emotion - modern pianos (as opposed to violins for example) have often been described as ‘cold’ by very critical listeners due to their rigid equal tempered tuning
Sweet: Pleasing and relaxing
Muddy: A negative descriptor where individual notes and instruments blend into one another and lose their clarity
Practicing Cultural Awareness
As useful as intersense modalities are in communicating about music, we must recognise that these sensorial associations are culturally conditioned. That means we have to be extra careful to not assume others will share our associations to specific words. The colour blue, for example, symbolises a wide variety of emotions and values across various communities around the world. Perhaps to someone else the idea of brightness could be related to warmth and a full-bodied sound, as opposed to an emphasis in high frequencies. Amid these differences, it’s important to acknowledge that different associations are equally valid.
What I love about this topic is how it illuminates the interconnectedness of different art forms with their respective emphasis on different senses. We experience each art form differently but feel similar and related emotions, revealing how we can blend art forms together meaningfully! I’ve had the joy of delving deep into blending music and visual art through my ‘Journey Pieces’, where I play music along to individuals painting their life stories on canvas.
At the same time, it surfaces the importance of recognising and appreciating difference, as our personal lived experiences and cultural conditioning have shaped us in unique and diverse ways. What a joy to behold!
By Neil Chan
This piece is inspired by Chapter Five, 'Synesthesia and Intersense Modalities', of ‘The Anthropology of Music’ by Alan P. Merriam.