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Images seen in creative/musical trance

 

I have recently come across several cases of an interesting phenomenon that might be related to synesthesia. It consists of the visualisation of figurative images, random but usually very consistent, by people in a state of heightened concentration when playing a musical instrument – particularly if they are creating, memorising or learning a piece of music – or when concentrating on a creative task of another kind with musical accompaniment. It would seem to be a rare phenomenon, as yet unknown, although it may perhaps achieve more recognition with more cases being brought to light in the future.

The images perceived are figurative (places, people and objects) and they are usually random in nature, although in some cases they may correspond to autobiographical childhood memories. In many cases – or in all cases perhaps – they are consistent, i.e. the same images are associated with the same musical sequences. It appears to happen when the person enters a special state of profound concentration and/or relaxation induced by a creative process such as playing a musical instrument, particularly on learning to play the instrument itself or on studying and memorising new pieces of music.

It could perhaps be considered a type of synesthesia with musical sequences as an inducer: time will tell. In general, synesthetic visualisations are abstract rather than figurative; however, some figurative manifestations are usually accepted as being synesthesia (see the next paragraph below and the page on figurative images as a synesthetic concurrent), which would open up the possibility of its future acceptance. As it is not a known phenomenon at the present time there are no studies on it or, as far as I am aware, any mentions in the literature. Most of the people who have reported it say they also have other types of synesthesia, so there may be a correlation, but sampling in the general population would of course be required to determine to what extent it affects both synesthetes and non-synesthetes.

It actually bears a fairly close resemblance to sexual/romantic synesthesia (due to the type of images visualised, the similarity it appears to have with hypnagogic imagery and the special state of trance/concentration/relaxation required to experience it), although it seems to be more consistent than the latter, as the same pictures repeat on different occasions in response to the same stimulus and this is not usually the case with sexual synesthesia. It is interesting to note that there is a dual inducer of the experience: the musical sequences and also the particular mental state given rise to by playing an instrument, creating and/or memorising.

Here are some descriptions written by people who experience this phenomenon:

I'm curious to know if others and indeed if all pianists see random images or think of certain things/people when they play a piece. I get it with every piece I play, but it's nothing that's connected to the style of the piece..it's much more abstract than that. (...) The last few pieces I've learned (and it's always at the same part of the piece) I have had flashes into my head of random images such as - a crocodile, my sister, a girl I at my work who I have never spoken to, my friend's ex boyfriend (again..don't even know him that well), a boat on the water, a woman waiting for her husband to come back from war..and the word banana. (...) The only way I can describe it is as if you were recalling your dream from the night before and images flash into your head.”

(Source: this forum on the classical piano website Piano Street. 2017.)


I have musical chromesthesia and usually see colors for music, but Bach's music tends to be colorless for me. Instead of colors, I'll get images associated with some of the sections (I never see a color and an image at the same time), and I need to be actually playing the piece in order to see them. Also, once I gain muscle memory for the piece, I won't see the images anymore (but the exact images come back if I forget and relearn the piece).”

Jacqueline, the girl who experiences this phenomenon, has shared her perceptions with us in this fascinating video, “How my synesthesia interprets WTC Prelude No. 6”.  (There is also a direct link to see the video at the end of this page)


“My brother bought an electric keyboard thing (…) and he gave it to me and I had NO idea how to play it, so I would just watch those mini videos on YouTube and just copy them and then keep playing it until I remembered it. (…) Something that I didn't notice at first but was kind of weirded out by when I realised, was what I thought or saw when I played [certain songs]. (…) I would associate certain sections (I think melody might be a better word) within the song with a pretty specific image that I would see in my head.

So for an example of the song I most experienced this with, Dancers on a String, I would remember the song in sections, like 2-5 notes, with an image and when I was playing the song I would mentally be like 'okay now is the pear part' without even realising how strange that was. Some of the specific imagery I would see consisted of:

- a red barn with many black widow spiders and clocks
- tiny little cubes of pear, like the texture of a pear and were light green
- someone big with their face like squashed against the screen as if I was looking through a camera
(…)

As you can see, these were bizarre.

In Swan Lake I associated one short section of like one or two notes with an old dust lamp you would find in like a grandmas home and it was yellow, and I associated another later section with like death hounds trying to chase someone.

I have no idea why I see these things so vividly, and I don't think it's unique to a certain note, as I play the same note in different songs and I don't see the same imagery. My dad suggested that maybe its how I remember certain patterns. I don't think I have this with actual music, or anything else. Its just specific to when I'm playing the keyboard and trying to remember how to play.”

(Source: This post on the online debate platform Reddit/Synesthesia. 2021.)


I was on the midst of plotting a short story that I was wanting to write while listening to music when suddenly an image flashed for a second then disappeared. The image was a valley of white lilies. It felt as if I saw the song as a picture then vanished as quickly as it came. It distracted me from further imagining the rest of my story so I surrendered and went to listen to other songs and to my surprise, it happened again. Another song I felt / saw was a landscape of a candy land which is again, very befitting the song. The next song I played showed me a dim dark room with an endless staircase and a lone lightbulb swinging from the ceiling.”

(Source: This post on the online debate platform Reddit/Synesthesia. 2021.)


I definitely experience this every time I play. I see random images from my childhood. And I mean random. One is looking under the sideboard at a neighbour’s house which must have been from when I was 6 or 7. Several relate to particular places in my old secondary school. Another is at the top of the stairs at my auntie’s house. It’s always the same set of places but there are probably about 100 different places. (…) It’s interesting that there are no images from after the age of about 13 or 14 which is when I stopped having piano lessons.”

(Source: This comment on the online debate platform Reddit/Piano. 2021.)



The video "How my synesthesia interprets WTC Prelude No. 6”, by Jacqueline Cordes.


Go to the page on figurative images as a synesthetic concurrent

Go to the page on sexual (and romantic) synesthesia

Go to the page on musical synesthesias

Go to the page on auditory-visual synesthesia

 

This post first published: 24 August 2021


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