Sunday, 10 April 2016

Sigourney's Synaesthesia

    Recently, I made the acquaintance of the talented Sigourney Young, a woman who shares with many of us the same view of the world, all except for one big, little detail. Sigourney is a synesthete, meaning that when she listens to music she sees colours. I kid you not! And no she is not tripping! So this week you can add this word to your vocabulary – synaesthesia.
    In some instances synaesthesia is described as a condition, or even a neural phenomenon. I prefer to think of it as an amazing phenomena as there is nothing debilitating about synaesthesia. If anything a synesthete has an enhanced ability to appreciate the world around them.
    Once Sigourney realised that she was a synesthete she decided to share her view of music by painting it, so she went into production and opened her own store – Not Your Sigourney. This is how I came to know about Sigourney. To quote Jerry Maguire she had me at synaesthesia. Until this point I was not aware that such a view existed. But let's face it most people with synaesthesia don't even realise they have it, because they naturally presume that what they see is common amongst all of us. But enough from me. Let's get Sigourney's take on all this.

© Sigourney Young
listening to the music

As someone who experiences the neural phenomenon of synaesthesia, can you describe to the rest of us what this looks and feels like?
    I have a form of synaesthesia call associated chromesthesia. That means I associate the sounds I hear with colours.  I like to describe my synaesthesia like this:
Say you walk the same way to work everyday and there’s a blue house there. You know the house is blue but you don’t notice it, it’s just there and you don’t really pay much attention, it just is.
    If someone was asking you about it, or you were feeling particularly interested one day, and you really looked you could explain that it was blue. That it’s a little lighter on one wall, or that it’s a darker blue under the roof. It’s always there, and those colours are always like that, but you were filtering it out.
    That’s how I feel about the sounds around me, including music. Everything has an inherent colour, it just is. When I’m not concentrating, or when I’m thinking about something else, I don’t see anything because I’m not processing it, the same way I don’t ‘see’ the colour of every house I pass. It doesn’t mean it’s not there, just that I’m filtering it out.
    So on a day to day basis it’s not something I think about often, is just is. This means though that sometime I don’t realize that I’m processing more of it than I think I am. I get really on edge if a song is playing out of bad speakers and is missing some of the colours, or I get this vague feeling of messiness in my head when I’m in loud busy places. 

When did you first realize that not everyone quite sees the world as you do?
    I actually didn’t realise until 2014 when I was 25! Until them I thought that everyone experienced music this way and I just wasn’t describing it right. I would try and talk to friends about really loving the red in a song, or joke about how all the top hits had magenta trumpets and the same green bits as last season, and they’d all look at me like I was mad! I thought I was just using the wrong descriptions and if I could find the right words they’d understand. Turns out it was just me and that finding the right paints was the best way to get the message across!  

© Sigourney Young
responding to the music

When you listen to a piece of music more than once, does the colour representation of that song change each time?
    Everyone who experiences synaesthesia has an internally consistent experience. What that means is that the same sounds are always the same colours for me. But that my colours are different to those of other people with synesthaesia. Within my own experience, things are consistent.
    When I listen to a song of paint it more than once the colours stay the same however my interpretation on that day may change the way the painting looks. For example I may concentrate more on the blue melody than on the orange guitar and this would change the look of the piece, but not by much. Whenever I paint I try to focus on the sounds that are truly characteristic of that song and these always come through.

Do ordinary sounds stimulate the colours you see?
    Ordinary sounds do stimulate colours but not as clearly. Music is perfect for my synaesthesia because it gives me time to process the sound and pick the colour. Every sound has a colour but a lot of ordinary sounds are short and sharp, not prolonged and so it’s hard to hear enough it it to understand the colour properly. That being said - car horns are usually purple, scraping gravel is grey, and the birds outside my window are bright greens, yellows and magentas.

© Sigourney Young
let it dry

Can your emotions effect how you see the music? 
    Yes, I also have an emotion-colour synaesthesia which means I associate emotions and memories with colours. These experience how I picture the song in my head but don’t impact the colours I hear. For example I once painted a piece that reminded me of my late grandfather. I always associate the song with him and before I painted I thought it would be more sorrowful dark blues and purples. When I listened properly and painted the notes through it was bright yellows and blues so while my emotions impact my memory of music, it doesn’t impact the relationship between the sounds and colours.

Does your view of colours work in the opposite direction? IE Do you look at colours and get reminded of songs that you’ve heard before?
    This very rarely happens to me. I sometimes see colours and this of specific genres, for example when I walk past golden tall grasses I’m reminded strongly of certain indie/folksie/guitar heavy pieces. I can look at my own pieces and reconstruct elements of a song based on the colours I’ve put there but that’s also because I know what sound I must have heard to end up painting yellow, green etc.

© Sigourney Young

What prompted you to start painting the music?
    I started painting music a week of so after I discovered I had synaesthesia. That first month I thought of almost nothing but categorising the sounds I encountered. I remember doing laps at the pool and being so focused on the sound of the bubbles. I painted over 100 pieces in the first few months and was inspired mostly by a drive to share my experience with others but to also better understand my own experience.

As a topic dreams provide endless fascination for me. For instance I can tell you that there’s almost always a train in my dreams, and that my dreams are the only place I escape my tinnitus. When you dream do those music colours overlap your visual landscape?
    Dreams are wonderful topics but surprisingly I don’t experience any synaesthesia when I dream. Now that I think of it there’s never music in my dreams, perhaps my brain’s taking a break!

Whose music are you currently enjoying at the moment?
    I’m really enjoying Halsey at the moment. I love that her music is surprising. So many of her songs have this wonderful dark under layer like a hollow black while others have the bright interesting beats and highlights in the music. Each one is just wonderfully textured!

Where to find the talented Sigourney:
Etsy Shop -

    A big thank you goes to Sigourney Young for agreeing to the interview, and sharing her fascinating perspective.