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Chord-colour

A subtype of auditory-visual synesthesia and a type of chromesthesia


On listening to or playing music, each chord is automatically associated with a colour (or a combination of colours). If the colours are seen physically in external space on hearing the chord it is considered “projective” synesthesia, while if they are seen only in the mind’s eye or the synesthete just “knows” that the chords are that particular colour it is considered “associative” synesthesia.



Chord-colour is a type of chromesthesia, which is a general name for any type of synesthesia where the inducer is sound or music and the concurrent is (or includes) colour.

Synesthetes with tone-colour synesthesia (i.e. those who associate colours with musical notes) sometimes also have chord-colour. In such cases the colour of the chord can basically be that of the main note, slightly nuanced by those of the other notes making it up, or it can be a combination of the colours of all its different notes: a gradient, or with a relationship or pattern that varies according to each synesthete.

The author of this image, Tylerisasmolbean, explains that chords – shown at each side of the picture – are sometimes more than the corresponding colours of the notes they contain: they take on a specific atmosphere with a particular temperature and with some colours dominating and altering the colour scheme.

For some people with this type of synesthesia, chords have not only one or more colours but also shape, a spatial location or their own characteristic movement.

The French musician and composer Olivier Messiaen (1908-1992) had chord-colour and tone-colour synesthesia:

"[One of the great dramas of my life] consists of my telling people that I see colours whenever I hear music, and they see nothing, nothing at all. That’s terrible. And they don't even believe me.

When I hear music – and it was already like that when I was a child – I see colours. Chords are expressed in terms of colours for me – for example, a yellowish orange with a reddish tinge. I’m convinced that one can convey this to the listening public."

(Oliver Messiaen, quoted in the book by Russell Hoban The Messiaen Companion)


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