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WHAT COLOR is Mozart’s Ein Kleine Nachtmusik? How about The Rolling Stones’ Satisfaction? Or Glenn Miller’s Moonlight Serenade?
Synesthesia is the experience of one sensory input leading involuntarily to another. A person who often experiences this is called a synesthete. For example, some synesthetes spontaneously associate letters of the alphabet and numbers with colors.
Research has shown, for example, that the letter A is often associated with the color red. Surely we’re not all channeling Nathaniel Hawthorne’s Hester Pryne.
Slonimsky writes, “The first scientific (or pseudoscientific) treatment of this supposed association was given by the English rationalist philosopher John Locke in An Essay Concerning Human Understanding, published in 1690.”
On perhaps more scientific grounds, notes Slonimsky, “An English ophthalmologist, Theodore Woolhouse, drew up an arbitrary comparative table of sounds and colors, asserting, for instance, that the sound of a trumpet was red.”
The color organ. Slonimsky also cites Russian composer Alexander Scriabin, 1871–1915, being influenced by chromesthesia. Scriabin’s last composition, Prométhée, 1910, has a part for a color organ, an instrument that would “inundate a concert hall with changing colors correlating to keys struck on the organ manual.”
Color hearing commonality? Perfect pitch would seem important to anyone possessing chromesthesia: For example, those affected by deuteranopia cannot differentiate between red and green; most of us have no trouble with these and other colors. But only the musically talented can recognize notes and tonality with any precision.
Slonimsky writes, “Random testing of color hearing among persons having perfect pitch, however, shows no demonstrable coincidences in color designation. There is a signal exception, however. Most musicians perceive the key of C major as white, and the key of F-sharp major as black.”
Then he notes, drolly, “The C major scale is played on the white keys and the F-sharp scale is played on the black keys, with white keys used for only two notes.”
He suggests that “color hearing is a purely subjective impression, similar to color perception by sensitive persons (particularly children) who are apt to describe natural sound phenomena in terms of color (thunder is gray, crying is red).”
Pitch inflation. Slonimsky also brings up the matter of musical pitch inflation, ‘which has been consistently on the rise for more than a century.” Middle A used to be 440 cycles/second; today, striving for enhanced sonority, conductors and orchestras have been known to tune to 450 cycles/second.
Slonimsky writes, “Should Mozart come back to life and hear the performance of his Jupiter Symphony, which is in C major, he would hear it as being in D-flat. Would he then cease to hear that work in white as proper for C major?”
Hmm. My perception of Mozart’s Ein Kleine Nachtmusik being royal purple might disagree with Mozart’s. I’m comfortable, though, with the Stones’ Satisfaction being raucous red and Glenn Miller’s Moonlight Serenade as silvery.
How about you? ds
© Dennis Simanaitis, SimanaitisSays.com, 2018