Synesthesia: Music As A Color Or A Smell?

Updated May 30, 2023by BetterHelp Editorial Team
Anyone Can Benefit From Mental Health Help

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, though: estimating that between one in every 300 people to one in every 2,000 people experiences synesthesia. 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 as awareness of the condition increases.

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. In fact, research has shown that synesthetes can perform better on memory and intelligence tests. They also come up negative on tests for mental illnesses like schizophrenia, psychosis, and other conditions involving delusions. However, the loss of a limb, such as an arm or a leg, may encourage the development of certain types of synesthesia by way of heightening our other senses, perhaps to compensate for that which we've lost.

How To Tell If You May Have Synesthesia

It may seem simple, but the best way to tell if you might have synesthesia can be by talking with other people and discovering 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 smell apple pie when they listen to a certain song.

Synesthetes may also tend to be very creative. It's no surprise when you consider the fact that their brain can already make otherwise mundane aspects of everyday life more vibrant. And 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 - like, say, the combination needed to open a padlock - a non-synesthete may have to come up with some creative way to remember those numbers, like a pneumonic 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 interesting is that some people who are not officially chromesthetic can have experiences similar to those who are. 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 synesthesia test as opposed to a person without synesthesia is that the person with synesthesia would 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.

iStock/Fly View Productions

Visually Evoked Auditory Response (vEAR)

Some people can hear sounds in a video, even though the video is silent. Psychologist Chris Fassnidge 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.

What's interesting is that vEAR is said to be more common, with an estimated 20 to 30 percent 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, then they might not feel there is anything to report. 

How Is Synesthesia Diagnosed?

Neurologist Richard Cytowic has defined the criteria by which those who believe they have synesthesia should be evaluated. However, it should be noted that 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 initial 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 the experience.
  • 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 are widely varied. 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 one deal with so many different stimuli coming at you 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. The only time when synesthesia could become distracting or unwelcome is 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 an ugly color. 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 enhanced a bit more. 

Anyone Can Benefit From Mental Health Help


Do you have synesthesia? Would you like to find out more about it? Or are you dealing with anxiety, depression, or other mental illnesses perhaps 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 heavy situation 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 and make them better.

And if you want a discreet and affordable option, online therapy is a great choice. Studies show that online CBT is just as effective as in-person CBT, and sometimes even more so.

Contact our BetterHelp counselors for more information.

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