Synesthesia: Can You Experience Music As A Color Or A Smell?

Medically reviewed by Laura Angers Maddox, NCC, LPC
Updated April 26, 2024by BetterHelp Editorial Team

Imagine if you could see your favorite song as a certain color or be able to smell it. Some people really can do this. This phenomenon is known as "synesthesia," and it refers to the way certain people perceive reality differently. Specifically, this is a condition wherein the triggering of one sense—in this case, your hearing—can trigger another sense simultaneously, such as smell or taste.

The true number of those who have synesthesia is largely debated and remains unknown. Scientists provide a wide range, estimating that one in every 2,000 people has synesthesia and one in 300 people experiences some form of the condition. Because synesthetes often don't realize they are experiencing life differently from those who do not have synesthesia, it can be challenging to gain an accurate measure of the number of people who have synesthesia.

The number of those with synesthesia seems to be on the rise in recent years. However, researchers can't be sure if this is because the number of actual synesthetes is increasing or just the number of people who are reporting it is increasing as a result of greater awareness of the condition.

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Types of synesthesia

There are two main types of synesthesia:

  • Projective Synesthesia: Seeing colors, forms, or shapes in response to hearing a song, seeing a number or letter, etc.
  • Associative Synesthesia: Feeling a strong, innate connection between the stimulus and the sense that is being activated.

For instance, someone with projective synesthesia may hear a piano and see a blue circle in front of them, while someone with associative synesthesia may hear that same piano and feel that it sounds like the color blue.

There are a number of different forms of synesthesia, including chromesthesia (associating sounds with colors), grapheme-color synesthesia (seeing numbers and letters in color), and mirror-touch synesthesia (feeling the same sensation simultaneously that someone else feels, such as a light tap on the knee).

Synesthesia is not a disease or mental illness. Research has shown that synesthetes can perform better than other people on memory and intelligence tests. They also test negative for mental illnesses like schizophrenia, psychosis, and other conditions involving delusions. Research shows that synesthetes usually comprehend that their experiences of synesthesia are not real, as opposed delusions or hallucinations in a person with schizophrenia.

How to tell if you may have synesthesia

To determine if you have synesthesia, you might start by talking to other people. You might discover that they don't always see the world the same way that you do. You may be surprised to learn that not everyone sees a color when they look at a particular letter or number, or that they don’t experience a particular smell when they listen to a certain song.

Synesthetes tend to be highly creative. Their brain can already make otherwise mundane aspects of everyday life more vibrant. Also, while synesthesia is not based on memory but is more of an innate response to stimuli on the brain, it is said that synesthesia can, in turn, improve upon a synesthete's power of memory.

For instance, when trying to remember a series of numbers without the aid of a paper and pen, a non-synesthete may have to come up with some creative way to remember those numbers, like a mnemonic device. A synesthete, however, may be able to recall that same series of numbers simply by remembering the order their colors came in, or some other such similar reference.

Understanding chromesthesia

Chromesthesia is also referred to as "sound-to-color synesthesia." Several famous artists and musicians are believed to have had chromesthesia, including Vincent Van Gogh, Leonard Bernstein, and Duke Ellington.

Also, some people who are not officially chromesthetic can have experiences similar to those who have the condition. For instance, someone listening to a piece of salsa music may describe it as "red" or "orange." However, when presented instead with an easy listening piece, one that it slower and more relaxing in tempo, the person may describe the sound as "grey" or "light blue."

The difference that would cause a person with synesthesia to stand out on a  is that the person with synesthesia would probably consistently choose the same color out of a vast color spectrum every time they hear a certain note or song. Someone without synesthesia may choose a different color each time, even if it’s only a slightly different shade.

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Visually evoked auditory response (vEAR)

Some people can hear sounds in a video, even though the video is silent.  has coined the term "visually evoked auditory response," or vEAR, to describe it, and he believes vEAR is a newly evolved form of synesthesia. Some people, Fassnidge says, claim to hear a buzzing sound or some other form of white noise when they watch a video that has no sound.

vEAR is said to be more common, with an estimated 20% to 30% of the population believed to have a form of vEAR. The number may be even higher. However, many people who hear sound on silent videos don't even realize they're doing it or don't realize that other people typically don't do this. Since they feel their response to the video is normal, they might not think there is anything to report.

How is synesthesia diagnosed?

Neurologist Richard Cytowic has defined the criteria by which he believes people who believe they have synesthesia should be evaluated. However, the criteria he included in the first edition of his book, Synesthesia, were updated in the second edition, presumably due to discoveries in the field since the publishing of the first edition of his book.

The criteria for determining if someone has synesthesia, as defined by Richard Cytowic, are as follows:

  • Synesthesia is an involuntary response to a stimulus. The individual cannot control it.
  • Synesthetes have what are called "spatially extended perceptions." This means that they often associate a sense of location with the experience they are having.
  • The perceptions of a synesthete are consistent and simple.
  • Those with synesthesia can recall synesthetic experiences.
  • The perceptions of a synesthete are often emotional. For instance, a "red" song may make someone feel excited or angry. It's not just the color; there's emotion behind it.

Triggers and stimuli for synesthesia can vary considerably. For example, the same sound can create a “blue” feeling for one person but a “yellow” feeling for another.

Synesthesia and everyday living

It may seem like a synesthete might live an overwhelming life. How does someone cope with so many different stimuli coming at them from all directions?

However, a synesthete typically enjoys the associations that can come from synesthesia and may wish everyone else could experience life the same way they do. Synesthesia may only become distracting or unwelcome when the association being made is unpleasant. For instance, there may be a word in particular that creates an unpleasant taste in the mouth, or seeing a particular number or letter may conjure up a color that the person doesn’t like. For these reasons, someone with synesthesia may ask those around them to refrain from using certain words or making certain sounds.

For the most part, synesthetes live a typical life. It's just that their everyday activities may be a little enhanced.

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Anyone can benefit from mental health help

Are you interested in discovering if you have synesthesia, or are you experiencing anxiety, depression, or other mental health concerns associated with an increased sensitivity to the world. 

Everyone can benefit from talking to a therapist. You don’t need to be going through some sort of mental illness to seek out guidance. Therapists trained in CBT, or cognitive behavioral therapy, can identify thought patterns that perhaps are no longer serving you and help you work on those thought patterns to change them. If you are hesitant to go to a therapist’s office, you might consider online therapy, which many studies have shown to be effective. For example, one study published in 2020 showed that online CBT was just as effective as in-person CBT. 

With BetterHelp, you can talk to a therapist from the comfort of your own home or anywhere you have an internet connection. You can communicate with your therapist via phone or videoconferencing, in addition to contacting them via in-app messaging as needed. 

Takeaway

If you have questions or concerns about synesthesia, you don’t have to face them alone. BetterHelp has a network of more than 25,000 therapists, so you can be matched with a licensed therapist who has knowledge of synesthesia and its symptoms. Also, you can always change therapists if needed until you find a good match. Take the first step to getting your questions about synesthesia answered and contact BetterHelp today.
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