Timbre-colour and timbre-shape

Alternative names could be musical instrument-colour and musical instrument-shape

Subtypes of auditory-visual synesthesia


In this type of synesthesia, the inducer is timbre, i.e. the quality of sound made by each particular musical instrument, and the possible concurrents are colour, shape, texture, size, spatial position and movement. Depending on the synesthete in question these elements can manifest in any combination, and any number of them can be experienced: only one, two, several or all of them together.

Timbre-colour is considered a type of chromesthesia, which is a general name given to any type of synesthesia where the inducer is sound or music and the concurrent is (or includes) colour. Timbre-shape is considered a type of chromesthesia if the shapes have colour. If they are colourless or monochrome it is not.

As with all visual synesthesias, some people with timbre-colour perceive their photisms externally, as though on a screen in front of them (“projector synesthetes”) while others – the majority – see them in the mind’s eye or simply receive a strong impression of the colour or other visual aspects (“associator synesthetes”).

The visual concurrents are consistent, with the same sound evoking the same colour, shape, movement etc., but idiosyncratic, i.e. different for each synesthete.


On listening to music, the characteristic sound of each instrument produces a different synesthetic colour. The colour impressions can exist without having any particular shape, with one colour simply giving way to another or the colours coexisting to form a kind of chromatic “landscape” when several different instruments are played together. For people with this type of synesthesia, the instrument usually has one main colour, its hue varying according to pitch, so it may be lighter when the instrument makes a higher-pitched sound or darker when it makes a lower-pitched sound, for example, or nuanced with another colour.

Here are two different representations of timbre-colour:

(Image: marcaskaneon Reddit/Synesthesia. 2018.)

(Image: PULSAR_ACEon Reddit/Synesthesia. 2021.)

Here are some descriptions written by people with timbre-colour synesthesia:

“The colors don't remain constant across an instrument's tessitura--they get darker or lighter or inch toward other colors (ex. clarinet is much more pinkish in its high range).”

(Source: This comment by marcaskane, the author of the image aboveon Reddit/Synesthesia. 2018.)

Electric guitars and organs can range from orange to yellow depending on the pitch. Tambourines are also really yellow to me. Also synths can sound really blue to purple.”

“Although distorted electric guitars are a really dark grey, almost black, organs are blue, and synths are orange for me.

Tambourines are yellow though, although my yellow is more of a tan brown yellow.”

(Source: a conversation between two timbre-colour synesthetes (1 and 2) on Reddit/Synesthesia. 2019).

A historical case of timbre-colour in an eighteenth century synesthete

In the book L’Audition Colorée, written by Ferdinand Suárez de Mendoza in the late 19th century, the author lists the colours evoked by the sounds of different musical instruments for the magistrate and painter Salomon Landoit, cited in a book by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe in 1810 which in turn quoted Landoit’s biography, published in 1786 by Léonard Hoffmann.

(Source: the book L’Audition Colorée, Ferdinand Suárez de Mendoza, 1890, p24 Available (in French) in pdf here, in the Bibliography section of Sean Day's website.)


The sound of each instrument produces the visual impression of a particular shape: geometric figures, lines, squiggles, blocks or splashes, etc.). It can also have colour, texture, size, position and movement, although it does not necessarily have any of these additional characteristics.

This type of synesthesia is similar to the general sounds-vision type, and they could even be considered the same thing, although the term timbre is more often used in relation to music.

Here are some descriptions written by people with timbre-shape/colour synesthesia:

Image: xtwentyonecowards. 
“The blue lines are an electric guitar, the purple one is the voice, the yellow lines are the violins and the red (not circles but flashes of red kind of dots) are drums... they are not so clear, more like foggy flashes of light in my mind’s eye.”
(In this post and comments on Reddit/Synesthesia2019.)

I love violins, they’re a vertical line, always standing up perfectly straight, towards the left of the image. They’re usually yellow or black.

The accordion is a chunky diagonal zig-zag crossing the centre/lower part of the image, normally grey.

The harp is a series of little spheres that can either be round or oval, depending on the exact sound, and they’re white.

Cymbals are always top left and they travel through the air like a kind of spray. They’re silver in colour.

Percussion: little ticks, circles, dots, things like that. Silver starbursts falling down from the top, on the right.

And the best thing of all is the bass drum. Big round balls that roll all around the bottom part of the image.”

(Source: Pau 365, my own experience)

How a painter uses timbre-colour synesthesia to create a work of art

Artist Ninghui Xiong has timbre-colour, among other types of synesthesia. The unique sounds of the different instruments and the tempo of the music inspire him in his use of colour and form.

Ninghui has recently written a book about the theories behind synesthetic music painting and his own experience of more than 20 years, profusely illustrated with his work and with forewords by Lawrence E. Marks, Greta Berman and Pat Duffy.
Preview or buy the ebook here: Painting Music by Ninghui Xiong (April 2023) 

A video: This is a video animation by the synesthetic artist Diggery (Josh Leech) showing timbre-colour/shape.

This page last updated: 29 April 2022
This page is about timbre-color synesthesia and timbre-shape
This page is about musical instrument-color synesthesia
This page is about timbre-colour synaesthesia and timbre-shape

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