General sounds-vision (colour/shape)

A subtype of auditory-visual synesthesia


General or ambient sounds – a dog barking, a bird singing, a mobile phone ringing, rain, traffic, footsteps or a door closing, for example – can induce visual synesthesia, triggering concurrents such as colour, shape, texture, spatial position or movement

In response to each sound of this type one or more colours can be perceived, with or without texture or a specific shape. When shapes are perceived they tend to be two- or three-dimensional geometric figures (either known or irregular and capricious), lines, splashes, squiggles, etc. These shapes and colours can be with or without movement and can either be perceived close to the where the sound is coming from or always with their own specific position in space. So, for some synesthetes, the song of a swallow might always appear at the top left of their field of vision and move from left to right, regardless of where the swallows are flying, while others would always perceive their photisms directly above the birds themselves.

The visual concurrents are consistent (the same sound evokes the same colour or shape) but different for each synesthete: whereas one would always see small black circles on hearing applause, for example, another would always perceive green triangles.

The visual experience may be projected (the colours or shapes are seen physically, superimposed on reality) or associated (they are seen in the mind's eye, or a strong impression of the colour, shape, etc. is perceived although nothing is actually seen in external space). Associator synesthetes are a clear majority: it is estimated that 90% of synesthetes might be associators and 10% projectors.

This type of synesthesia is very similar to timbre-based synesthesia (timbre-colour, etc.), which is triggered by the sounds of different musical instruments. They could actually be considered the same thing, although the term timbre is more often used in relation to music. If colour is present in the synesthete’s photisms, their type of synesthesia can be called “Chromesthesia”.

Do you see flashes when surprised by loud or sudden sounds?
Some people report that when lying in bed with their eyes closed or in a state of relaxation, if they hear a loud, sudden or surprising noise they sometimes see a flash of white light, a bright colour or a pattern of lines or stripes. This isn’t considered synesthesia. There’s a full description of this phenomenon on the page about flashes on hearing loud or sudden sounds.

Here are some examples of general sounds-vision synesthesia:

“All sorts of "casual" sounds have visual projections for me. Most bird songs are sharp yellow angles that "stab" out from nothingness. Cars honking when they are locked are three asymmetrically overlayed circles of purple, orange, and white on a black background. The purple is the biggest circle. Doors and cabinets creaking are squared off brown cylinders rotating clockwise. My dog's barks are green, brown, and a strange blend of yellow and orange, depending on how he barks. Ceiling fans are light blue. Ovens are like a wave of orange water all traveling in the same direction. Microwaves are yellow checkerboards. Plates clinking is like a white orb crumbling. Trash bags moving around are flickers of very light blue popping in and out of a bright white void. Filling a cup is like a circular band of yellow traveling up. (…)”

(Source: This comment on Reddit/Synesthesia. 2021.)

Synesthesia Bedroom”: a short animated video by Dave Hughes that shows a clear and accurate picture of how this type of synesthesia is experienced.

In 2018, in the Facebook group “Synesthesia” a post was published asking the members to “describe the sound of a woman’s heels on pavement”. Among others, the following replies were received:
Klock sound of the heels is blue // Red, round sounding // Blue flower shaped blips // Diamond-shaped, colors depending on the pitch they make // Small square-ish bits of something that's between metal and plastic, very thin and bendy, and shiny. The corners are slightly bent upwards. Color is like dark smokey quartz but darker // Green and red splatters in the air. Color depends on the heel // A lot of people's footsteps to me look like boxes or containers // Little sharp yellow and black triangles // Looks like telemetry of tachycardia printed on clear glass // Yellow and red squares // It is a broken line. I don't see it in colours though // Depends on the setting, but if it was on a hard surface, that's relatively sound absorbing, let's say concrete, it's a thin red line that fades to black as it disappears // Something like this:
 (image: Ben Knowles)

This page last updated: 19 July 2021

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