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:

Frank Ocean

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

Stevie Wonder

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

Billy Joel

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

Kanye West

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

Pharrell Williams

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

Duke Ellington

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

Tori Amos

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

Dev Hynes

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

Charli XCX

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

Marina Diamandis

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

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

Franz Liszt

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

The Pokemon Company

Going into Pokemon Sword and Shield, I was unimpressed with the new starter Pokemon.

Gen 8 starter evos Meh.The Pokemon Company

I normally gravitate towards fire-type starters, but Cinderace was a little too humanoid-rabbit-wearing-pants for my tastes. Inteleon was just "lol no." Rillaboom hit the closest to my usual favorite powerhouse aesthetic (think Charizard, Blaziken, and Incineroar), but something about him didn't quite feel right (or maybe I just don't connect with grass types?).

Keep Reading Show less

Amber Bain Is Hanging in There

The musician behind The Japanese House is taking fame one day at a time

Jim Morgan

The day before Halloween, a sniffly Amber Bain sat aboard her dimly lit tour bus, dressed in a plaid shirt buttoned up to her neck as she got ready for her show in Brooklyn.

"I've been ill twice [this tour,] which sucks," Bain says in dismay. Sickness aside, she was rocking the hell out of a Canadian Tuxedo. "I'm supposed to be a cowboy," she says. "It's not very good. My band's outfits are much better."

Bain, who curates tempestuous dreampop under the moniker The Japanese House, has become something of an Indie idol these past five years. Her EPs, which initially were shrouded in obscurity, accumulated a passionate, cult-like following thanks to Bain's bright melodies and lyrical sincerity. "I think the impact of my music is a by-product," she said. "I'm not gonna sit and make music to make people feel good. The fact that maybe it does is just a by-product for me; it doesn't affect the way I feel about myself." Fast forward to 2019, and Bain's backstory is well known, her breakup with Marika Hackman heavily analyzed by her fans. I asked if her music has helped ease what she called her "poor broken heart." She fell silent and looked off for a moment. "Sometimes," she said. "It makes you feel both good and bad."

The Japanese House - Saw You In A Dream www.youtube.com

"Saw You in a Dream," one of Bain's most popular songs, unfortunately applies to the latter. "It's an intense song to sing every night." But that's the burden she carries for wearing her heart on her sleeve. Her contempt, frustration, passion, anger, love, depression are all on display in her music, and she admits that performing live has become slightly draining as a result. She embarked on a massive North American tour this past summer, and mere months after it ended, announced an additional 28-dates that would put her back on the road until the week before Thanksgiving. "You can take that up with my management," Bain said when I asked her about why she returned to the road so quickly.

Touring has always been a double-edged sword for Bain. She actively wanted to get on the road at the beginning of the year, but she recognizes in hindsight that her eagerness to travel was a result of her depression. "I didn't have a lot in my personal life that I could connect to," she said. "So there was something therapeutic about stepping in front of strangers that like you. When I feel more alone, I enjoy it more, but when I feel okay, I kinda just wanna go home." She snickered slightly. "I have ups and downs. The only thing that helps me connect is the crowd."

Bain admitted that drinking helps ease the anxieties of the road. "When I'm intoxicated, I can let go of the aspects of myself that truly haunt me, and I get a boost of egotism," Bain said with a laugh. "I think it allows you to be a bit of an asshole." She states that every great performer is somewhat of an "asshole." "You have to be a bit of a dick to be engaging sometimes." She frequently takes long breaks from drinking, but even that is a double-edged sword, because while she feels clear-headed, she says she's "stiff" and quick to "make herself cringe."

Press Here Publicity

As complicated as her relationship with touring is, Bain admits that Good at Falling wouldn't have emerged without connecting with her fans. "People might as well have been sitting down," she said when describing her first few years on the road. Her audience's lack of enthusiasm inspired her to push the limits of her sound, to pick up the pace and open up for air. She also gave props to Bon Iver's Wisconsin cabin, where she lived while recording the project. "Being isolated for two months really forces you to try new things. I couldn't have done that if I wasn't isolated or alone."

For now, Good at Falling is in the rearview, and she is eager to return home and begin writing again. But as noted in her latest song, "Something Has to Change," there is still healing that needs to be done. "It's basically about still being in love with my ex," she said frankly, but she assured me that everything is "all groovy." I asked if this whole process has helped her fall in love with herself for a change. She laughed playfully at the concept. "It's an ever-evolving relationship."