For Pianist, Music Unleashes Rainbows of Color

Pianist Laura Rosser says one her great fears is that she will lose the ability to hear color.

Pianist Laura Rosser says one of her great fears is that she will somehow lose the ability to hear color. Courtesy Laura Rosser hide caption

itoggle caption Courtesy Laura Rosser

When pianist Laura Rosser performs, she hears more than sounds. She hears colors — each note has its own associated hue. Rosser has a rare neurological condition called synesthesia. Stimulation of one sense produces the sensation of another.

Synesthesia is rare. Perhaps one person in several thousand has it. Most of these people don't have the form that allows them to perceive sounds as colors.

Yet a number of famous composers appear to have been synesthetes. They include Franz Liszt, Alexander Scriabin, and Nicolai Rimsky-Korsakov. Some research suggests musical synesthesia is more likely to come with perfect pitch.

Each synesthete has a unique system of associations. That means the periwinkle that Rosser associates with D-flat might be purple for another synesthete. Other synesthetes associate colors with letters and numbers. Rosser has this type of synesthesia as well.

Randolph Blake, a researcher at Vanderbilt University, says the brains of synesthetes appear to be wired in a way that allows signals from one sense to trigger brain circuits usually associated with another sense. But it's unclear how this alternate wiring takes place.

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