Music and synaesthesia

The Empire of Ice Cream by Jeffrey Ford

A favorite short story of mine — Ford’s books are at Go buy a couple. You won’t regret it.

Absolute pitch, I don’t have. I can get a song in the right key, and I will become disoriented when it’s not in that key especially if I’m trying to play it, but overall that’s within about a half-step of wiggle room, and I can’t name the notes. For example, I “hear” “La Vie en Rose” in AbM, and “Open Arms” in DbM for some reason. I suspect that it’s due to listening to live versions of both; in the cast of the latter song, I’m fairly sure it’s in D, and they used to move down a half-step when performing live to make it less wearing for Perry. Most bands with high-octane singers step things down a half-step when performing live; the radio rebroadcasts that stations would do when covering concerts were routinely brightened to make up for it.

At any rate, I do not have what I would call absolute pitch. Oddly, I am synaesthetic, but (and here’s where it gets really odd) not about music.

I have no clue why.

I get it with mathematics and languages. Languages have color, taste, and definitely come in small, often faceted, pieces. They will also sometimes have a sheen to them. Mathematics has more texture and scent, with some color. This may have had something to do with why I was a math and language prodigy as a kid — the more sensory channels you have to latch onto information, the more handles there are for you to grip it with. And when those handles are taste and color, they are also very beautiful and encourage the mind to leap forward for more. I think it also has to do with what forms of math and which languages I like best. Fermi-Dirac statistics was always cool, brushed aluminum whereas Bose-Einstein was friable and dingy looking. (I still dislike Bose-Einstein statistics. An unappealing, collapsible mess that leaves grit in my mental carpet.)

Statistical mechanics and thermodynamics continue to smell like nothing at all to me, which is part of why I just don’t attach to them whatsoever. Thermo/stat mech are the only branches of physics/math that I cannot retain in my head for love or money. They are like ghosts — I can see them on the page, but can’t smell a thing, so it’s like my brain doesn’t quite recognize that they are real enough to latch onto. It’s like trying to touch fog. I think it gives me an idea of what normal people feel like when they are made to learn math — instead of gripping whole chunks of knowledge and gorging myself on them, I’m stuck learning one stinking, tiny fact at a time and having to build a coherent structure out of those little pebbles painfully slowly, one bit at a time. Even thinking about it makes me want to crack open an old quantum mechanics textbook. 😦

Oddly, I don’t have it with music either but don’t seem to need it. This seems odd to me given that I tend to consider that music arises where language and math brush up against one another in the brain. At least at the low level of synaesthesia that I have, that leaning-against is just not enough to trigger things more than in the way we all seem to have. The sound is more than enough for me to replace the absence of color, taste, texture, or scent, along with the underlying structure which I adore.

Which brings me to my next point: I also tend to think that most humans are synaesthetic to some extent, but often just don’t think about it. Anytime someone has said that a cello sounds “dark” and a violin “light,” that’s a very mild form of it. When Rachel Barton Pine said that Strads were white wine and Guarneris red, she didn’t have to explain it any further for people to know exactly what she meant. We’re all more metaphorical than we think. As a result, I think that for all but the most intrusive synaesthesia, it’s just not worth thinking too deeply about.