Simanaitis Says

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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.

How someone with grapheme-color synesthesia might perceive certain letters and numbers. Image from User:Mysid.

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.

The Scarlet Letter (Bantam Classics), by Nathaniel Hawthorne, Bantam, 1981. This image is of the title page, first edition, 1850.

Chromesthesia is synesthesia involving sound and color. Musicologist Nick Slonimsky discussed what he calls “color hearing” in his entertaining book Lectionary of Music, McGraw-Hill, 1989.

Nikolai Leonidovich Slonimsky, 1894–1995, Russian-American musician, conductor, musicologist, and self-professed “failed wunderkind.

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.”

A caricature of Louis-Bertrand Castel’s “ocular organ,” by Charles Germain de Saint Aubin, eighteenth-century French draftsman and embroidery designer for King Louis XV.

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.

A sample of sound-color associations in Scriabin’s Clavier à lumières, appearing in the score of his Prométhée, 1910.

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.

Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, 1756–1791, Austrian composer extraordinaire. His C major isn’t today’s C major.

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,, 2018


  1. Michael Rubin
    April 16, 2018

    Time for a bit of Oliver Sacks, perhaps.

  2. Kym
    April 17, 2018

    Interesting stuff, although I think you’ll find that 440 cycles per second is ‘A’, not ‘C’ for most tuning purposes.

    I wasn’t aware that orchestras were taking it still higher: there is already considerable controversy for baroque musicians, who like A on their harpsichords and such at 415.

  3. simanaitissays
    April 17, 2018

    Thanks, Kym, for your correction, now fixed above. (What was I saying about “the musically talented”? I confess, it ain’t me.)

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