Certain musicians are blessed with the ability to hear, see, feel, or taste music, a variant of the neurological condition known as synesthesia.
While you don't need to have synesthesia in order to be a great musician, there seems to be a significant correlation between musicians capable of creating exceptionally impactful tunes and those who perceive sound in color. Here are some of the most noteworthy musicians with synesthesia:
Anyone who's heard Frank Ocean's Blonde knows that the album exists in more than one dimension, and this isn't an accident. Ocean sees colors associated with his music, and his album Channel Orange was inspired by the color he saw when he first fell in love (which was, obviously, orange).
Pink Matter www.youtube.com
Extra Minutes | How Lorde sees sound as colour www.youtube.com
Lorde has described synesthesia as a driving force behind all her music, and like Ocean, she has sound-to-color synesthesia, which means all music has a color in her mind. "If a song's colors are too oppressive or ugly, sometimes I won't want to work on it," she once told MTV. "When we first started 'Tennis Court' we just had that pad playing the chords, and it was the worst textured tan colour, like really dated, and it made me feel sick, and then we figured out that prechorus and I started the lyric, and the song changed to all these incredible greens overnight!"
Lorde - Green Light www.youtube.com
Even though he's blind, the musical legend and innovator Stevie Wonder can see the colors of his music in his head, which might explain why his music sounds so vast and rich.
Stevie Wonder - Moon Blue www.youtube.com
The "Piano Man" singer can see the colors of the music that he plays, and it sounds like his perception is influenced by tempo and mood. "When I think of different types of melodies which are slower or softer, I think in terms of blues or greens," he said. "When I [see] a particularly vivid color, it is usually a strong melodic, strong rhythmic pattern which emerges at the same time," he said. "When I think of these songs, I think of vivid reds, oranges, and golds."
Billy Joel - Scenes from an Italian Restaurant (Official Audio) www.youtube.com
The brilliant musician and recently born-again Christian once said that all his music has a visual component. "Everything I sonically make is a painting," he said. "I see it. I see the importance and the value of everyone being able to experience a more beautiful life."
Kanye West - All Of The Lights ft. Rihanna, Kid Cudi www.youtube.com
For West, visuals need to be compatible with the colors he hears in his head. "I see music in color and shapes and all and it's very important for me when I'm performing or doing a video that the visuals match up with the music – the colors, y'know," he said. "A lot of times it's a lonely piano [that] can look like a black and white visual to fit that emotion, even though pianos are blue to me and bass and snares are white; bass lines are like dark brown, dark purple."
No Church In The Wild www.youtube.com
The "Happy" singer (a yellow song if there ever was one) has been open about his synesthesia, and he has a very in-depth way of perceiving musical color. "There are seven basic colors: red, orange, yellow, green, blue, indigo and violet," he said. And those also correspond with musical notes…White, believe it or not, which gives you an octave is the blending of all the colors…" So that means chords would be blends of different shades, and harmonies would likely involve the blending of compatible colors. For Pharrell, synesthesia is instrumental to his creative process and to his worldview at large. "It's my only reference for understanding," he said. "I don't think I would have what some people would call talent and what I would call a gift. The ability to see and feel [this way] was a gift given to me that I did not have to have. And if it was taken from me suddenly I'm not sure that I could make music. I wouldn't be able to keep up with it. I wouldn't have a measure to understand."
Pharrell Williams - Happy (Official Music Video) www.youtube.com
For the jazz great, individual notes also have different colors—but their exact shades depend on who's playing them, not the note itself. "I hear a note by one of the fellows in the band and it's one color. I hear the same note played by someone else and it's a different color," he said. In addition to associating music with colors, he also sees sound as texture. "When I hear sustained musical tones, I see just about the same colors that you do, but I see them in textures," he added. "If Harry Carney is playing, D is dark blue burlap. If Johnny Hodges is playing, G becomes light blue satin."
Duke Ellington - Blue Feeling www.youtube.com
From the sound of things, Tori Amos experiences music in a very dreamlike and psychedelic way. The singer-songwriter and piano prodigy has said that songwriting feels like chasing after light. "The song appears as light filament once I've cracked it. As long as I've been doing this, which is more than 35 years, I've never seen a duplicated song structure. I've never seen the same light creature in my life. Obviously, similar chord progressions follow similar light patterns…try to imagine the best kaleidoscope ever."
16 Shades of Blue www.youtube.com
After hearing Blood Orange's saturated, vivid sonic craftsmanship, it's not hard to believe that its creator is synesthetic. However, for Dev Hynes, synesthesia isn't a walk in the park. "Imagine color streamers just bouncing around," he explained. "It's hard for me to focus at times because there's a lot of things floating around, pulling me away. Situations can become very overbearing and overwhelming."
Blood Orange - Dark & Handsome | A COLORS SHOW www.youtube.com
Synesthesia helps Charli XCX curate and shape her songs, and apparently, the pop queen favors sweeter, brighter colors. "I see music in colors. I love music that's black, pink, purple or red - but I hate music that's green, yellow or brown," she said.
Charli XCX - Silver Cross [Official Audio] www.youtube.com
Mary J. Blige
"I have that condition, synesthesia. I see music in colors. That's how my synesthesia plays out," singer, rapper, actress, and legend Mary J. Blige explained succinctly.
Mary J. Blige - Be Without You (Official Music Video) www.youtube.com
The former star of Marina and the Diamonds (who now goes by only Marina) apparently can see sound as color, but she also associates certain colors with days of the week. Her synesthesia also sometimes causes her to associate music with scents. "Mine usually only expresses itself in color association but I do smell strange scents out of the blue for no reason," she's said.
MARINA - Orange Trees [Official Music Video] www.youtube.com
Billie Eilish and Finneas O'Connell
In Billie Eilish's technicolor universe, every sense bleeds into everything else, and things like numbers and days of the week have their own color palettes. "I think visually first with everything I do, and also I have synesthesia, so everything that I make I'm already thinking of what color it is, and what texture it is, and what day of the week it is, and what number it is, and what shape," she said in a YouTube Music video. "We both have it [she and brother, Finneas O'Connell], so we think about everything this way."
Billie Eilish - Ocean Eyes (Official Music Video) www.youtube.com
Alessia Cara thought that synesthesia was just something everybody had, until she realized not everyone could see sounds. "I didn't know that synesthesia was something that was, I guess, only a thing for some people," she said. "I thought that everybody kind of experienced it. So for me, it was just a natural pairing to my music. Everything audible was visual to me, and it still is. And so I think when I write, it's kind of cool to listen back and say, 'Well, this song feels kind of purple' — if a certain drum sound sounds purple and the song feels purple, then I know that they kind of match. It just really helps me figure out the whole package of a song." And like Kanye West, her synesthesia influences her visual content. "Even with videos — it helps me figure out what I want to do music video-wise," she added. "So it's definitely a strong aspect of my writing."
Alessia Cara - Ready (Lyric Video) www.youtube.com
Synesthesia isn't reserved for 20th and 21st century legends. Many classical musicians possessed synesthetic abilities, such as the composer Franz Liszt, who apparently used to ask orchestra members to make their tone qualities "bluer" and would say things like, "That is a deep violet, please, depend on it! Not so rose!" While orchestra members thought he was joking, they soon realized that the musician could actually see colors in the music he created.
Franz Liszt - Liebestraum - Love Dream www.youtube.com
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Protest music aside, there is a slew of good underground music out today
An invigorating slew of protest music hit the shelves today.
Detroit-based emcee Tee Grizzley collaborated with Queen Naija and the Detroit Youth Choir to craft a melodic ballad that attempts to open up a dialogue with police. Meanwhile, alt-Jazz pioneer Terrace Martin took a different approach in his collaboration with Denzel Curry, Daylyt, G Perico, and Kamasi Washington, with "Pigs Feet" being more of an angry f*ck you than an attempt at communication.
Del Rey's always riffed off the past, so it makes sense that she'd be so good at lending her modern tastes to songs from the '50s and '60s.
Lana Del Rey's built a universe out of her music by threading influences from the past with modern beats and startling themes.
She's extremely prolific in her own right, but every once in a while she's put her uniquely melancholy touch on some classic tunes from bygone eras.
Here's a running list of all the covers LDR has ever blessed us with, ranked from worst to best.
14. Don't Let Me Be Misunderstood
This song was the concluding track on Del Rey's spaced-out 2015 album, Honeymoon. While "The Other Woman" did justice to Nina Simone in terms of its emotiveness and stylish arrangement, this version failed to live up to the original's brilliance. The track's string section and keyboard sound artificially produced, like they're digitally manufactured effects, and the whole thing feels too wordy and overcrowded to fully communicate its intended emotional impact.
Don't Let Me Be Misunderstood (Audio) - Lana Del Rey www.youtube.com
13. The Happiest Girl in the Whole USA
For anyone who doesn't know, Del Rey has a massive body of work from the decade she was creating music before she became Lana Del Rey. During her days as Lizzy Grant, Sparkle Jump Rope Queen, May Jailer, and several other early iterations of the star she would eventually become, she recorded at least a hundred original songs that are still accessible online, in addition to a few rare covers—one being Donna Fargo's "The Happiest Girl in the USA." She sang it live during her Lizzy Grant era, when she was performing all over bars in New York, singing in a childishly high voice, and using an oddly campy Southern drawl. Wearing her signature flower crown but still sporting her naturally blonde hair, this delicate song shows Del Rey pre-metamorphosis but just as committed as ever to her bittersweet, vintage image.
Lana Del Rey - Happiest Girl In The Whole USA (Donna Fargo Cover) www.youtube.com
12. Happy Birthday Mr. President
In her video for "National Anthem," Del Rey drew from the best of 1950s American folklore. For most of the video, she's Jackie O with A$AP Rocky as her Kennedy, but at the start of the video she appears as Marilyn Monroe, sporting a bedazzled gown and singing the classic adulteress's anthem, "Happy Birthday Mr. President." Her voice gets breathy here, in a nearly perfect imitation of Marilyn's; and her ability to pull off both Marilyn and Jackie O reveals her chameleon-like ability to switch between different characters with a change of clothing. While the cover contains less of the rich expansiveness and artistry of the others on this list, it still gets its intended job done.
Lana Del Rey - Happy Birthday Mr. President www.youtube.com
11. Summer Wine
Del Rey never actually called herself a "gangster Nancy Sinatra"—that was one of her managers—but she eventually did cover a song made famous by Nancy Sinatra. Originally written by Lee Hazelwood, the song was later rerecorded by Del Rey and her boyfriend at the time, Barrie James O'Neill. The duo set their cover to an almost absurdly nostalgic montage of cherry-eating and lounging underneath gauzy summer sunshine. (Barrie eventually went on to inspire Ultraviolence, so obviously, the buzz from the summer wine was doomed from the start).
*SUMMER WINE* www.youtube.com
10. Goodbye Kiss
Speaking of "doomed from the start," that phrase is actually the first line of one of Del Rey's other covers—a rendition of Kasabian's more upbeat track from 2012. On Del Rey's lips, the song turns almost painfully melancholy; she slows it down and gives it her classic whispery, psychedelic spin, letting the tragic lyrics speak for themselves over layers of subdued electric guitar and piano.
Lana Del Rey - Goodbye Kiss www.youtube.com
9. Doin' Time
Lana dropped this radio-ready cover in the (very, very long) interim between announcing her upcoming album Norman F**king Rockwell and actually releasing it. The song tells a bittersweet story of a romance gone wrong, pitted against descriptions of an idyllic, slow-burning summer, which is a Del Rey-style juxtaposition if we've ever seen one.
Lana Del Rey - Doin Time www.youtube.com
8. Season of the Witch
Remember Scary Stories to Tell In the Dark, that book that definitely worked its way into your nightmares when you were a kid, if only because of its shockingly terrifying illustrations? Now, it's being turned into a Guillermo del Toro film, and the trailer features a one-minute clip of Del Rey singing Donovan's "Season of the Witch." Hopefully, we'll get the full version at some point; for now, at least, we can hear Del Rey speak-singing over eerie strings while characters shriek in the background.
Lana Del Rey - Season Of The Witch (Trailer) www.youtube.com
7. Heart Shaped Box
Del Rey has long cited Nirvana as one of her primary influences. She covered this song during her Paradise tour in 2013, and it features one of her most impressive high notes (check out 2:20). This was before she evoked the ire of Frances Bean Cobain for her "I wish I was dead already" comments and well before she toured with and befriended Courtney Love. After she debuted this cover in Oslo, Love allegedly tweeted, "You do know the song is about my v-gina right? 'Throw down your umbilical noose so i can climb right back,' umm… On top of which some of the lyrics about my v-gina I contributed. So umm next time you sing it, think about my v-gina will you?"
Lana Del Rey - Heart-Shaped Box (live) - Oslo Spektrum, Oslo - 10-04-2013 www.youtube.com
6. Once Upon a Dream
LDR was chosen by Angelina Jolie to cover this classic '50s tune for Disney's Maleficent. If this song was a piece of clothing, this tune would be a satin gown draped in cobwebs, worn by a vampire queen as she descends down the stairs of her abandoned, vine-covered mansion. Filled out by droning synths that summon images of a misty, moonlit forest, it's one of her most moody, mystical, and half-dead-sounding tracks, and that's saying something.
Lana Del Rey - Once Upon A Dream (From Maleficent)(Official Audio) www.youtube.com
5. You Must Love Me
Anyone still insisting that Del Rey can't sing needs only to listen to this cover of the classic track from Andrew Lloyd Webber's musical theatre masterpiece, Evita. While musical theatre might not seem exactly in Del Rey's wheelhouse, the role of Evita fits her surprisingly well. Eva Perón was a woman who amassed a cult-like following in Argentina, despite her fraught legacy that made some absolutely enraged. While her legacy exists on a different scale than Del Rey's, one might say that there are similarities between these two women, who have both generated slavish adoration and cold-blooded rage. This cover finds Del Rey singing with the higher part of her range; if she played the evil queen in "Once Upon a Dream," here she fully embraces the Disney princess part of her voice, while a lush arrangement of strings and woodwinds plays on in the background.
Lana Del Rey, Andrew Lloyd Webber - You Must Love Me (Audio) www.youtube.com
4. Blue Velvet
This song was featured in Del Rey's ad for H&M when she was still sporting a stratospherically high beehive hairstyle. Slow as molasses and sung almost entirely in her low range, this song feels apocalyptically ominous and sultry at the same time, making it the perfect soundtrack for, say, a montage of atomic bombs exploding, or for grainy footage of a ghost dancing alone in an empty swimming pool, or something along those lines.
Lana Del Rey - Blue Velvet (Official Video) www.youtube.com
3. Knockin' On Heaven's Door
Another live cover, this one finds Del Rey lending her wispy vocals to the famous Dylan tune, made famous by Guns N' Roses. As someone who sings about God, death, and heaven with surprising depth and frequency, the song was a natural fit. So far she's only sung it at concerts, accompanied only by tremolo-laden guitar. Transmuted through her world-weary voice and sung out over fields of lighters as crowds chant along in the distance, it's chill-inducing and one of her best live covers by far.
Lana Del Rey Live @ Frankfurt - Knocking On Heavens Door www.youtube.com
2. The Other Woman
Del Rey concluded the official version of her third album, Ultraviolence, with a cover of Nina Simone's "The Other Woman," a song that fit perfectly with that album's theme of being irredeemably in love with a careless, damaged, drugged-out man. Her version of Simone's tune is ragged and elegant, a mix of grand orchestrations and desolate-sounding guitars. On it, she sounds about a thousand years old, and the song itself sounds like it's being beamed through a transistor radio from an alternate universe into our own, making it one of Del Rey's finest (and saddest) covers.
The Other Woman www.youtube.com
1. Chelsea Hotel No. 2
In 2013, Lana covered this famous Leonard Cohen piece, which tells the story of the time that Cohen spent a night with Janis Joplin at New York City's legendary Chelsea Hotel. The hotel also happened to house Patti Smith, Allen Ginsberg, Madonna, Arthur Miller, Dylan Thomas, Sid Vicious—who killed his girlfriend Nancy Spungen there in 1978—and many more luminaries, and though it's been under construction for years, it's expected to re-open in 2019. With its beatnik history and dark, drug-addled, Old Hollywood-style lore, the Chelsea Hotel is a natural landmark in Del Rey's melancholic, nostalgic universe, right alongside the Chateau Marmot, Coney Island, and the back of every motorcycle owned by a man older than 60. Later on, she sang this cover at a Leonard Cohen tribute event with Cohen's son, Adam, making that version doubly meaningful. This cover is so heart-wrenching, so vintage New York, and so glamorously faded, it ranks among her best work.
Lana Del Rey - Chelsea Hotel No 2 (Official Music Video) www.youtube.com
Del Rey has also covered Oasis's "Wonderwall" and The Doors' "Roadhouse Blues" during live shows, but the recordings aren't quite good enough to merit them a place on this list. Still, check them out below:
Lana Del Rey covers Leonard Cohen, Oasis, The Doors & Kasabian www.youtube.com
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