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Music and temperature

For some synesthetes, a concurrent of temperature, i.e. perceptions of hot and cold and sometimes intermediate temperatures like lukewarm, can be triggered by sounds and music. Here I’ll be talking mainly about music, as although temperature responses to general sounds and spoken language (voice; phonemes) do exist, these variants are very rare. Involuntary, consistent “auditory-thermal” sensations are a type of synesthesia, but it is also true that non-synesthetes can perceive or link certain temperatures with music, making associations or even through physical perceptions that most people can automatically experience, such as frisson, for example. There follows a list of the main manifestations of these phenomena, both synesthetic and non-synesthetic.

When temperature forms part of auditory-tactile synesthesia

Auditory-tactile synesthesia evokes a variety of physical reactions to sound and music, and for some people these include temperature sensations.

An example:

“When I listen to music, I feel different temperatures in different parts of my body. The place and exact temperature changes with every song. For example, Pop/Stars by K/DA is a sort of microwave level of warmth sort of under my left armpit, What You Call That by Chase Atlantic is a really tropical warmth under the middle of my shoulderblades, and Bohemian Rhapsody is a icy cold in my left hip. It’s always the same place and temperature every time I listen to a song, and it’s significantly stronger if I’m listening to the music live than if I’m just listening to a recording. (...) I honestly don’t know what specific things cause it, but I find most of the time the heavier the bass the hotter the song.”

(Source: This post and comment on the online debate platform Reddit/Synesthesia. 2019.)

Go to the page on auditory-tactile synesthesia


Timbre-temperature synesthesia

This is a very uncommon type of synesthesia where timbre, i.e. the characteristic sound produced by different musical instruments, evokes different temperatures.

An example:

“Strings and piano are cold, guitar is warm, etc.”

(Source: This comment on the online debate platform Reddit/Synesthesia. 2020.)

The voices of different singers can also trigger different temperature sensations.


Song-temperature or musical genre-temperature

This is probably the most common of the types of synesthesia that involve music and temperature. For people with this type, different songs or musical genres are hot, cold, tepid, etc. It is a general perception, as if it was simply one of the inherent properties of the song or genre in question, and it is felt as a strong and conscious association or, in the case of some people, physically, with actual changes in body temperature.

It is often the case that the synesthetes who perceive this type of associations have chromesthesia (sound-colour synesthesia). In this case, the temperatures correspond to the synesthetic colours that are triggered in response to aspects like the timbres heard in the song, the key it is in, its emotional charge or the general impression it evokes. As a general rule, warm colours (red-orange-yellow) produce high temperatures and cool colours (mainly the range of blues) cold temperatures, although as synesthesia is idiosyncratic the exact “code” is unique to each synesthete.

Some examples:

“I mentioned earlier that listening to Christmas music makes me feel colder. Yes, but that's only a vague part of it. The reason it makes me feel colder, is because it reminds me of winter, and the coldness of that season. And I love it. Songs that remind you of the desert or Egypt and whatnot can make me become physically warmer to the point where my hands are red and my throat is parched. This also works for languages strangely. The Spanish language does this if I hear or speak it. I don't know why, but I prefer languages that are based more up north like Norwegian or Swedish I guess. Overall, it's the entire feeling associated with something that triggers this. It could just be the instrument in the song. The piano, string instruments, (the triangle perhaps?) those all correspond more to a cold feeling.”

(Source: This post on the online debate platform Reddit/Synesthesia. 2019.)


"Red: faster songs you could dance to; warm temperature songs

Blue: slow but not necessarily sad, songs that have a cool temperature.”

(Source: This comment on the online debate platform Reddit/Synesthesia. 2018.)


When I'm listening to music, certain songs sound cold, and certain songs sound warm. This ranges from freezing to blazing hot; for example, Guilty by MARINA is pleasantly cold, but Dumb by Nirvana is lukewarm. It's A Trip! by Joywave is almost freezing, and Heaven and Hell by Black Sabbath is oven-like. But I don't FEEL cold or warm. I just HEAR a song's temperature. Sometimes I can't listen to certain songs because they're either too cold or too hot.”

(Source: This post on the online debate platform Reddit/Synesthesia. 2020.)


Chord-temperature and key signature-temperature synesthesia

There is a case of this type of synesthesia mentioned in the picture by tylerisasmolbean on the page on chord-colour synesthesia:



We can all link temperature to sound: cross-modal correspondences

People in general, and not just synesthetes, are able to make seemingly “logical” associations between sensations produced by the different senses, and sound/temperature is a good example of this. Most people would agree that lower-pitched sounds suggest warmer temperatures and higher-pitched sounds would be better matched to cold temperatures. On a day-to-day basis we are not really aware of this relationship and do not always consciously perceive it as a synesthete would, but when we are asked which temperature matches certain songs better everyone tends to agree.

An example of a track that could be considered cold: here

An example of a track that could be considered warm: here

It has been suggested that these connections could be due to the typical sounds that are heard in a cold or hot atmosphere: those you might hear at the North Pole or in the desert, for example.

Cold: high-pitched, clear, dry, minimalistic sounds. Metal, ice, brittle materials breaking. Abrupt changes. Sharp sounds, with reverberation. Clear, precise, correct, sterile. Digital, technological. Lack of emotion.

Hot: Pleasant, immersive sounds, without abrupt changes. Muffled sounds, as if heard through a warm blanket. Warmth = wellbeing. Rich, deep, low sounds. The sound of soft materials melting. Human, analogue, non-digital. Love, closeness, emotion.


This correspondence is similar to the “Kiki/Bouba effect”. When asked to choose, most people would consider soft, plump Bouba the warmer of the two shapes and sharp pointed Kiki as the colder.



What do “warm” and “cold” mean to audio professionals?

On a forum on the pro audio website Gearslutzusers were asked what “warm” meant to them when applied to sound or music. The responses were very varied and included the following:

“Opinions will probably vary - I don't think there is an ultimate definition yet.”

“The words "warmth" and "amount of low-mids" are interchangeable for me.”

“I think a large reason why digital sound is considered cold is because it can represent much higher frequencies than typical classical analog recordings seemed to feature.”

“I feel warm or warmth are just words we use for music we connect with sonically, especially from classic analogue based recording.”

“A cold mix could be described as a clinical and precise delivery of the source.” A warm mix could be inferred as having added character beyond that of the source.”

“I associate 'warm' musically as meaning the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. Like a well composed photograph, vs a family vacation snap.”

“My definition of warmth = the presence of clear low frequencies. Not to mingle with 'the clear presence of low frequencies'.”

“Typically, it involves pleasing harmonic distortion.”

“IMO music that is recorded and performed well, with great sources, and good quality gear tends to come out as sounding "warm". Bad rooms, bad performances, bad sources and bad gear means cold music.”


Frisson

Frisson (goosebumps or shivers of pleasure on listening to music) is a phenomenon experienced by perhaps around two-thirds of the general population (Grewe et al., 2007). It is a physiological response to the emotion caused by the beauty of the music, particularly when it surprises the listener, but it is not a type of synesthesia. It can induce a feeling of cold, which is actually quite ironic as it is felt in response to concepts that should be warm, such as a positive emotion, musical appreciation, happiness, love… There is more information on frisson on the page about auditory-tactile synesthesia.


Go to the page on grapheme-temperature synesthesia (which includes an example of phoneme-temperature)


Go to the page on musical synesthesias


Go to the page on auditory-tactile synesthesia


Go to the page on auditory-visual synesthesia

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