Summary of "The Visual Music of Synesthesia"

Meredith Watson, Research Analyst, Vanderbilt Music Cognition Lab
July 1, 2019

Dr. Polina Dimova, scholar of Russian and European literature, music, and visual art, was the guest speaker at the April 2019 Music Research Forum. Dr. Dimova presented on modernist artists’ experience and fascination with synesthesia -- the phenomenon of mixing the senses (e.g. perceiving sounds as colors). Dr. Dimova presented examples from the work of artists such as Annie Besant, Wassily Kandinsky, and Frank Kupka, who are all thought to have been synesthetes. She also discussed how artistic movements have shaped cultural associations – for example, how the Bauhaus movement has created cultural color associations between certain shapes and primary colors. Forum members discussed the difference between true synesthesia (automatic and consistent cross-sensory perception), cultural associations, and artistic metaphors. With forum members ranging from backgrounds in the fields of art and English to psychology and neuroscience, subsequent discussions considered what is meant by “evidence” for synesthesia and how to integrate anecdotes, case studies, and controlled experiments to understanding cross-disciplinary topics such as synesthesia.

The discussion group participated in several experiential exercises, testing their own color and music associations with different musical and visual prompts. For example, forum members listened to an excerpt of Richard Wagner’s “Prelude to Lohengrin” and shared their own color associations. While individuals varied in their specific color associations (e.g., warm colors of oranges and yellow vs. cool colors like blue and purple), all connected the colors and images in their heads with feelings of growth and new beginnings.

Reflections on the Synesthetic Experience in the Music of Richard Wagner

Youjia Wang, Undergraduate Student (Neuroscience, Music), Vanderbilt Music Cognition Lab
July 1, 2019

Commonly hailed as the “King of Opera”, Wagner is best known for his contributions to the operatic tradition. He really sought to push opera to the next level. He coined the term “Gesamtkunstwerk” or “total art work” to describe his vision for what opera is meant to be. To Wagner, the opera is supposed to be a comprehensive form of art that seamlessly blends together visual art, drama, and music. He tried to tie the music in his operas directly to the story and the events on stage. His goal was to elicit extra-musical objects, ideas, and emotions through the use of this music and thus create a more coherent experience for the audience. Wagner wanted his audience not just to hear music, but to also think of objects, colors, moods, emotions, and much more. Wagner wasn’t the first composer to write music with this goal in mind, however he was one of the most skilled at it.

Leitmotifs are short musical themes associated with a particular object, person, or setting. Wagner was particularly effective at using them to elicit extra-musical experiences from his audience. Some notable examples of leitmotifs include themes for Siegfried, Valhalla, and a simple sword in his Ring Cycle of operas. However, Wagner wouldn’t just assign a theme to each setting or character and then reuse the exact same theme over and over again. Instead he carefully manipulated these themes for specific situations. For example, shifting a single note downwards by a half-step can shift the key from major to minor and give a darker, more serious mood to what used to be a happy and lighthearted leitmotif. In a tender moment the leitmotif might be shifted into a higher range, which can give the music a softer, lighter feeling. As a result of these manipulations, the music develops along with the characters and plot of an opera. Regular attendees of Wagner’s operas can often predict exactly what will happen on stage based on the music that precedes it. Wagner created a synesthetic experience for his audience so that they could see objects and feel emotions based on the music that they heard.

The opinions expressed in materials on this website are those of the author(s) and do not represent the views of the National Endowment for the Arts Office of Research & Analysis or the National Endowment for the Arts. The Arts Endowment does not guarantee the accuracy or completeness of the information included in these materials and is not responsible for any consequences of its use. This NEA Research Lab is supported in part by an award from the National Endowment for the Arts (Award#: 1844332-38-C-18).