Tone-colour (musical note-colour; pitch-colour; pitch class-colour)

A subtype of auditory-visual synesthesia

With this type of synesthesia, hearing each individual musical note or categorical difference in pitch triggers a visual perception of colour, or is automatically associated with a particular colour.

It is considered a type of chromesthesia, which is a general name that can be given to any type of synesthesia where the inducer is sound or music and the concurrent is (or includes) colour.

If the colours are seen physically in external space on hearing the note it is considered “projective” synesthesia, while if they are seen only in the mind’s eye or the synesthete just “knows” that the note has that particular colour it is considered “associative” synesthesia.

The colours induced by musical notes are consistent, usually remaining unaltered throughout the synesthete’s entire lifetime, and they are highly specific. It appears that each tone normally has one single colour, although occasionally combinations of two or more colours are reported, as are patterns and textures. The correspondences vary so much from person to person that it would be an odd occurrence if two synesthetes had exactly the same colours for all the notes. They do not follow a specific order (the colours of the rainbow, for example, or hues changing in a balanced fashion, going from darker to lighter as the pitch of the notes progresses from low to high): each note simply has its “own” colour.


There is a connection between tone-colour synesthesia and absolute pitch, and many people with this type of synesthesia – although not all – can name a note if it is played in isolation, identifying it by the exact colour it makes them perceive.


When reading music triggers colour

There are some variants, which could be said not to be tone-colour synesthesia at all, even though they involve synesthetic correspondences between musical notes and colours. Some people, for example, receive colour impressions on reading music but not on hearing it, and the inducers are the names, symbols or letters for the notes (Do, Re, Mi/C, D, E etc.). This type is called pitch class-colour synesthesia. It could perhaps be considered related to grapheme-colour rather than being an auditory-visual type of synesthesia, and it is the case for the second of the examples shown below (Icantstephen says that the sharps and flats "don’t really change” the colours, which “attach to the letters so for instance C# would still be yellow."). Other people – who are often synesthete musicians – need to know which note is being played before they can perceive its colour, as their synesthesia is more connected with the concept of the note than its actual sound.

Here is an interesting research study on pitch class-colour synesthesia by Itoh et al. of Niigata University in Japan (2017). The authors note that most of their subjects with this type also have absolute pitch, and they further study this relationship here.

Here are some examples of the tone-colour associations of different synesthetes (for C, C#, D, D#, E, F, F#, G, G#, A, A#, B):

From left to right:
1. Anonymous, on Reddit Synesthesia (2015)  
2. Icantstephenon Reddit Synesthesia (2020) 
3. Tracey Roberts, on her website (2014)

So what does someone with tone-colour synesthesia actually see?

The manifestations vary from person to person. In the case of projector synesthetes, they might see a transparent colour covering their whole field of vision, or perhaps splodges of colour with no particular shape that change from one to another as the music progresses. Associators see something similar, but only in the mind’s eye. If a synesthete has tone-colour in conjunction with other types of auditory-visual synesthesia, the colours might also have different heights or positions, movement, different textures according to the musical instruments being played, or they might appear as geometric shapes that assume the colour of the note in question.

In this blog,, Karen Rile gives a very interesting account of discovering her daughter's tone-colour synesthesia.

And this - Twinesthesia - is a fascinating short study by Miles Kredich where he compares his own tone-colour variants with those of his twin brother.

Go to the page on auditory-visual synesthesia in general

Go to the page on musical synesthesias

Go to the page on chord-colour synesthesia

Go to the page on musical mode-colour synesthesia

Go to the page on musical note-texture synesthesia

Go to the page on personification of musical sounds or sequences (includes musical note personification)

Go to the page on tone-taste (musical note-taste) synesthesia

This page is about tone-color synesthesia, musical note-color synesthesia or pitch-color synesthesia
This page is about tone-colour synaesthesia, musical note-colour synaesthesia or pitch-colour synaesthesia

This page last updated: 10 October 2022


  1. I've created a synesthetic musical notation system in case anyone is interested. I believe that it would be useful to teach this to children when they're first learning music. and