• Miroslaw Sienkiewicz

Synaesthesia Honours Project: Classifications and Auditory-Visual correlation examples

Searching for Synaesthesia definition Part 2. Examples of cross-modal (auditory-visual) synaesthesia

Continuation from reading the book “Sensory Blending: On Synaesthesia and related phenomena” (Deroy, 2017).

Common approaches to understand synaesthesia include:

  1. Monoism (Monism is the metaphysical and theological view that all is one, that there are no fundamental divisions, and that a unified set of laws underlie all of nature (Philosophybasics.com, 2018))

  • one pole of continuous trait

  1. Dualism (Dualism is the position that mind and body are in some categorical way separate from each other, and that mental phenomena are, in some respects, non-physical in nature (Philosophybasics.com, 2018)))

  • searches for common denominators between synaesthesia and non-synaesthesia

  1. Pluralism (Pluralism denotes a diversity of views or stands rather than a single approach or method (En.wikipedia.org, 2018))

  • multiple distinct categories where one (or more) may be prototypical, a good candidate being cross-modal synaesthesia (Cross-modal perception or cross-modal perception is perception that involves interactions between two or more different sensory modalities (En.wikipedia.org, 2018))

  • Principles of cross-modal synaesthesia also characterize cross-modal perception

It looks like studies are focused mainly on auditory-visual synaesthesia:

The evocation of color sensation or color images by sound (Bleuer and Lehmann, 1881; Flournoy, 1893)

Colored graphemes: evocation of color sensations or images by (achromatic) numbers, letters or digits (Galton, 1880, 1883, Flournoy, 1893, Calkins, 1895)

Which is good as it’s what I want to focus my project on.

Research findings: how the hue and brightness, shape and motion of a synesthetic visual response depend on the temporal and spectral distributions of an inducing sound’s acoustic spectrum. Non-synesthetic perception of auditory pitch and the synesthetic perception of visual lightness and brightness are monotone increasing functions of sound frequency (Marks, 1975). The outcome implies, in turn, that synesthetic lightness and brightness relate directly to auditory pitch (Marks, 2011: 48-50).

Synesthetic tendencies in perception (cross-modal similarity):

Low notes (bassoon) evoke more likely dark colours like brown or black, while higher notes (clavier, flute) resemble yellow or white.

Most of us does not see colours while listening to music but we are able to connect, when asked for, low pitched sounds with dark colours and high pitched with bright colours.

Which means that synesthetic tendencies may be universal or nearly so.

This is a great news for me: it means that chances that my project will be completed have grown from zero to an undefined percentage. How much I don’t know but it’s a positive information.

Disclaimer: Synaesthesia and synesthetic tendencies are not identical but are closely linked. Synesthetes actually are experiencing sensory transfers: sounds evoke colour experience.


Pitch / Brightness:

Non-synesthetes systematically set higher frequencies to match surfaces with greater luminous reflectance e.g. correspondence between auditory pitch and visual lightness, analogues to the correspondence observed in auditory visual synesthetes. (e.g. Marks, 1974; T. Hubbard, 1996; Ward et al., 2006) Additional examples: (Marks, 2011)

Idea: choose note/pitch to change light brightness in the room. Turning lights on where switch is replaced with bank of sounds.

Loudness / Brightness

Louder sounds induce brighter responses in synaesthetes. Non-synaesthetes judge louder sounds as similar to brighter lights.

Note: Following Fletcher-Munson Loudness Curve, the louder the sound is the less of low frequency content we perceive which makes us hear sound as much brighter (where actually frequency curve of low end is becoming more equal, but amount of higher frequencies are dropping down only slightly). Especially in 80-100dB SPL area which we perceive as loud and very loud. So, it has close correlation to perceive of higher pitch as brighter colour.

Pitch / Size

Higher pitched sounds induce smaller-sized visual images in synaesthetes. Non-synaesthetes judge higher pitched sounds as similar to smaller sizes.

Larger objects of the same material have greater mass and resonate at lower frequencies than smaller ones.

Note: it seems that we are able to subconsciously recognise that the higher the pitch of sound is the shorter cycle time is with is not a common knowledge (most likely something that you learn when you specialize in audio, sound and acoustics). Shorter cycle time = smaller sized image.

Pitch / Shape

Higher pitched sounds induce more angular and pointed visual images in synesthetes. Similar like non-synesthetes would connect them. Example: Köhler (1947) constructed an angular figure that people readily matched to name ‘takete’, with its high-pitched consonants and vowels and a rounded figure that people readily matched to the lower pitched ‘maluma’.

Note.1 Synaesthetes are much more precise and consistent in defining what colour match the pitch (e.g. yellow – 12-15kHz) while non-synesthetes simply match brightest colour to brightest pitch

Note.2 Speech and music is more often the most potent triggers of visual response whereas environment noises are mostly not.

Note.3 speech may evoke colours, melodies may evoke moving patterns or shapes (Marks, 1978a)

Note.4 music-color synaesthesia may have something in common with absolute pitch perception. To a music-color synesthete a given note will have its own hue but brightness may vary with the register of the note e.g. C = blue sky, brighter in higher octaves. Correlations may vary depending on culture, musical scales and/or language (Ward and Simner, 2003).

Synesthetic tendencies in language and metaphor (cross-modal metaphor):

Similarity to perception tendencies: words or phrases referring to acoustic events that are judged as soft or low in pitch are also judged as dim, whereas world or phases referring to acoustic events judged loud or high in pitch are also judged as bright; conversely, words or phrases referring to optic events described as dim are also judged as low-pitched and soft (marks, 1982; Marks et al., 1987).

Put synaesthesia pieces together:

Flournoy (1893) suggested to denote synesthetic stimuli as inducers and responses as inductants. Auditory inducers range widely, from environmental noises and animal sounds to single musical notes, melodies and human voices including spoken numbers and words (Deroy, 2017)

Classification by Ophelia Deroy:

Perceptual-perceptual synaesthesia:

  1. Cross-modal:

  2. colours, shapes and other visual characteristics induced by sound

  3. colours (and other visual characteristics) induced by pain, touch, taste, smell

Uncommon. In test of 500 students, only 4 percent of them showed at least one form. Of the twenty-two synaesthetes only one of them showed perceptual-perceptual synaesthesia (auditory – visual).

Note for tomorrow:

Continue to read from page 20: 1.10 Cognitive-perceptual and perceptual-cognitive synaesthesia

Picture from: http://neurowiki2014.wikidot.com/individual:auditory-visual-synesthesia


Bleuler, E., & Lehmann, K. (1881). Zwangmässige Lichetempfindungen durch Schall und verwandte Erscheinungen [Induced light sensations from sound and related phenomena]. Leipzig: Fues’ Verlag.

Calkins, M.W. (1895). Synaesthesia. American Journal of Psychology, 7, 90–107.

En.wikipedia.org. (2018). Crossmodal. [online] Available at: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Crossmodal [Accessed 20 Oct. 2018].

En.wikipedia.org. (2018). Pluralism. [online] Available at: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pluralism [Accessed 20 Oct. 2018].

Flournoy, T. (1893). Des phénomènes de synopsie [Phenomena of synopsia] Paris: Alcan.

Galton, F. (1880). Visualised numerals. Nature, 21, 252–6, 494– 5.

Galton, F. (1883). Inquiries into human faculty and its development. London: Macmillan.

Hubbard, T.L. (1996). Synesthesia-like mappings of lightness, pitch, and melodic interval. American Journal of Psychology, 109, 219–38.

Köhler, W. (1947). Gestalt psychology (2nd Edition). New York: Liveright.

Marks, L.E. (1975). On colored-hearing synesthesia: Crossmodal translations of sensory dimensions. Psychological Bulletin, 83, 303–31.

Marks, L.E. (1982). Bright sneezes and dark coughs, loud sunlight and soft moonlight. Journal of Experimental Psychology: Human Perception and Performance, 8, 177–93.

Marks, L.E., & Bornstein, M.H. (1987). Sensory similarities: Classes, characteristics, and cognitive consequences. In R.E. Haskell (Ed.), Cognition and symbolic structures: The psychology of metaphoric transformation (pp. 49–65). Norwood, NJ: Ablex

Marks, L.E. (2011). Synesthesia, then and now. Intellectica, 55, 47–80.

Philosophybasics.com. (2018). Dualism - By Branch / Doctrine - The Basics of Philosophy. [online] Available at: https://www.philosophybasics.com/branch_dualism.html [Accessed 20 Oct. 2018].

Philosophybasics.com. (2018). Monism - By Branch / Doctrine - The Basics of Philosophy. [online] Available at: https://www.philosophybasics.com/branch_monism.html [Accessed 20 Oct. 2018].

Ward J., & Simner J. (2003). Lexical-gustatory synaesthesia: Linguistic and conceptual factors. Cognition, 89, 237–61.

Ward, J., Huckstep, B., & Tsakanikos, E. (2006). Sound-colour synaesthesia: To what extent does it use cross-modal mechanisms common to us all? Cognition, 42, 264–80.


Deroy, O. (2017). Sensory blending : On synaesthesia and related phenomena (First ed.).

#examples #crossmodal #auditoryvisual #colour #sound #pitch #shape

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