Musical modes-colour

Different musical scales – in this case the seven modes, which are seven types of scales that each have distinct melodic characteristics and are called Ionian, Dorian, Phrygian, Lydian, Mixolydian, Aeolian, and Locrian – are an example of a music-related sequence that can induce synesthesia, giving rise to perceptions of different colours for each mode. It appears to be a very infrequent subtype of synesthesia and it is logical that it would only be found in people with a knowledge of music theory. It can be considered a type of chromesthesia, and it could also be regarded as an example of coloured sequence synesthesia.

It is reasonable to assume that colour is the most common concurrent, but in theory other perceptions are possible and the musical modes might give rise to shapes, tastes, smells, spatial locations or perhaps tactile sensations. However, these would be extremely rare synesthesia subtypes and I am not aware of anyone ever having reported them.

Here are some descriptions written by people with these types of synesthesia:

“Not when you’re just playing a scale up and down, but when different scales and modes are used in any genre of music. For example, Dorian mode is very blue to me like a hard blue jolly rancher, and when music mixes in a IV in minor or some other dorian-esque chord, I see blue in my minds eye. it is immediate and involuntary. If a song that’s in major throws in a bVII chord or a minor v chord, I immediately hear green (mixolydian). Using a #4 evokes purple (lydian) and when a b2 is used it evokes yellows oranges and reds depending on the rest of the music.”

“In a modal mixture  - if a song is mostly in the major mode but then the artist throws in a chord that’s from, say, the mixolydian mode - then now that part of the song is green to me.”

(Source: This post and comment on the online debate platform Reddit/Synesthesia. 2022.)

“I have synesthesia and I see

Ionian: bright yellow. Dorian: paleish blue. Phrygian: dark purple with a bit of red but not quite maroon. Lydian: deep blue. Mixolydian: bright red. Aeolian: teal green/blue. Locrian: deep blood red.

My synesthesia is a bit different though where I mostly see colors in terms of tone and EQ, not as much with pitch. These are the colors I see while playing in the modes but I don't see them as much while listening to a song. The key a song is in will change them up too. These are mostly what I see off the C major scale.”

(Source: This comment on the online debate platform Reddit/MusicTheory. 2022. The post is an interesting read in general, as the poster asks what colours people would assign to the different musical modes and a good variety of answers were received, a few from synesthetes and the majority from non-synesthetes).

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