Sound personification

(Personifying sequences of musical sounds)

Personification of musical sounds forming part of a sequence, such as the notes on the musical scale for example, can be considered a type of synesthesia. It is an uncommon type. It consists of involuntarily and consistently associating characteristics with these sounds such as gender, personality, human appearance, feelings and interpersonal relationships such as friendship, rivalry, love or marriage. It mainly occurs with musical notes, chords and keys, and there is also a possible variant involving timbre/melody. It is auditory, so it happens when these musical sounds are listened to. See below for the non-auditory case of personification of musical notations (graphemes) on reading sheet music.

Types of personification of sounds or musical sequences:

Tone personification (musical notes)

“The notes B, C and D are siblings. B and C are boys and D is a girl. The notes E and F are the parents of the bcd clic. E is the mom and F is the dad. They are married but hate each other, because they have nothing in common. They avoid each other by working different shifts. The note G is an interesting pease of shit. She gets along well with B and C. She is really just their friend, but is also trying really hard to impress them more, and possibly get in bed with them. The note A is just a weird old dude who likes to invite himself over to the previously mentioned family's house.

(…) It doesn't affect anything else, except notes, and it's only when I hear them.”

(Source: This post on Reddit/Synesthesia. 2019.)

Chord personification

“This happens to me more or less, but with chords. I guess F and A have the same color, and F is a sporty nice girl, but only if F is in the major scale. A is more feminine and Princess wanting to be rescued like.”

(Source: This comment in response to the previous post on tone personification on Reddit/Synesthesia. 2019.)

Key personification

The key a song is in can also evoke personification, and these two synesthetes provide interesting and slightly different takes on it:

“Most of the keys are feminine or androgynous, although C# minor and Bb minor are definitely men (or at least very masculine). B major is E major’s younger sister or cousin. D minor and F minor are allies who frequently don’t see eye to eye. F major and G major are the closest of friends and take care of F# major, the youngest of the signatures, together. C minor rarely interacts with anyone, and is kind the way an anesthesiologist is kind.”

(Source: This post on Reddit/Synesthesia. 2020.) 

“For me, someone with perfect pitch, I perceive each musical key as a distinct personality. For instance, C major is someone innocent and extremely welcoming. E-flat/D-sharp minor is someone who has been through more than their fair share of struggles but chooses to persevere in spite of everything. (…)

It’s as though I hear a tonic (key of the song) and get an immediate impression of a person with a specific emotion. The remainder of the song is them telling me their story or myself seeing how they develop emotionally/morally/etc. as the piece goes on.”

(Source: These comments on Reddit/Synesthesia. 2022.)

Timbre personification

In the book Wednesday is Indigo Blue, an example is cited of a synesthete for whom the timbres of the different musical instruments each have their own personality:

"Viola. Feminine. Warm and deeply caring. A deep thinker and feeler, philosophical and thoughtful. Wise and quite experienced. Gentle and loving, affectionate. Usually hugs the listener. Can become quite melancholy. On C-string, rather nervous and high-strung. (…)

Oboe. Masculine. Profoundly emotional and thoughtful. Withdrawn, introspective and prone to melancholy. (…)"

(Source: the book Wednesday is Indigo Blue: Discovering the Brain of Synesthesia by Richard E. Cytowic and David Eagleman, p.100. The MIT Press, 2009.)

Personification of chord sequences/parts of songs while playing the guitar

"I can recall always feeling parts of songs were people with distinct traits, characteristics and personalities. (…) How can certain chords, sequences and melodies evoke feelings of people with certain characteristics? I've no idea really but they do.

My sound personification is strongest with music I'm playing myself. It tends to be more with chord sequences and melodies rather than individual notes. Changing the rhythm or timbre also alters the personification. For instance I could play four chords in a straight 4/4 time signature and that would feel like one person and if I were to palm mute those same chords it would be a different person.

The whole thing is involuntary and I can't influence how the personification presents itself. Sometimes they are pretty vague personifications which I would struggle to describe visually but will feel a certain way like a strong masculine presence for instance. Others however can be very vivid and specific and I could describe exactly as they appear physically and also what kind of person they are.

As far as I'm aware these people do not exist unless it is on a very subconscious level and are people I have glimpsed from afar or something like that. I've never met or seen somebody and thought "that's the Em, G, D, A chord sequence person from that song" or anything like that.

Personifications seem to be strongest for me with anything in the key of E.

I'm not sure at what point the personification manifests itself, it's not something I've been able to consciously pinpoint. It could be that is appears the very first time I play a chord sequence and I only really become aware of it as I repeat it or it could be that it takes a couple of plays through to manifest. It's possibly a chicken or the egg situation."

(Source: This post and comments on Reddit Synesthesia. 2023.)

This account is also related to Images seen in creative/musical trance. 

Timbre/melody personification

This type of personification could perhaps also be considered a type of synesthesia.

“I only get it with certain musical genres. Some jazz music, but the one that is totally personality-oriented for me is chiptune. It’s like entering a world of little characters with attitude, personality, age, very basic physical characteristics, and family relationships: father, mother, children, brothers and sisters, uncles and aunts… It’s thrilling. I get it most from short, repetitive melodies played on separate instruments that interact. It’s consistent and always happens with the same tracks and types of music. What creates the character from the start is the quality, shape and colour of the sound of the little melody. They follow the movement of the music. I’d say that what they look most like are “emojis”. They’re like little balls, but at the same time they have legs, arms, expression, hair, some of them have a moustache. Male sounds are much more common than female sounds, they make up about 80% perhaps. The female sounds are usually yellow or orange and they move differently. Normally in each track there is a main character, who is male, twenty-something, and he usually has a more boring, sensible personality while the others tend to be more fun.”

(Source: Pau 365, my own experience)

Personification of graphemes representing musical notes

People with ordinal linguistic personification for graphemes (letters) can sometimes attribute personality to musical notes based on the musical notation rather than the actual musical sounds. This probably happens more when the letter notation system (A, B, C, D…) is used rather than the solfège system (La, Si, Do, Re…). In this case the personification appears on reading sheet music, or on identifying the notation (letter) of the tone on listening to it.

“Not for how the notes sound, but for how they’re written on sheet music.

C (Female): C is an enthusiastic woman who wears cat-eye glasses and is D’s mom. She doesn’t hang out with the other notes that much.

D (Female): D is a shy girl who C is always trying to help break out of her shell. She usually only talks to E (they’re half siblings and very close)

(After this all the notes are male)

E: E is a mixture of 4 and 6, he’s a quiet, smart teenage boy who is very protective over D. Wears square glasses.

F: F is the anxious companion of G.

If you add B sharp to any of the notes they get mean, and if you add an F sharp, they become more feminine and sometimes nervous. The clefs also have personalities, bass clef is kind of a hippie guy, while treble clef is a bubbly teacher who always tries to make everyone get along.”

(Source: This post on Reddit/Synesthesia. 2020.)

Go to the page on ordinal linguistic personification and personification in general

Go to the page on auditory-visual synesthesia

Go to the page on letter personification

This page last updated: 12 January 2023

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