Voice-colour and voice-shape

Subtypes of auditory-visual synesthesia

The sound of people speaking or singing can trigger very specific visual concurrents for some synesthetes. Although this is a little-researched phenomenon, it can be considered a subtype of auditory-visual synesthesia. Visual synesthetic concurrents induced by voices include colour, texture, shape, size, spatial position and direction. It can either coexist with other types of auditory-visual synesthesia (so the same person might also have timbre-shape or tone-colour, for example) or exist independently of any other sound-to-sight synesthesias. It can be considered a type of chromesthesia (a general name given to any type of synesthesia where the inducer is sound or music and the concurrent is, or includes, colour), particularly in the case of singing, as the term chromesthesia is preferably used in reference to musical sounds.

This type of synesthesia was researched in one particular study: A. Moos, D. Simmons, J. Simner and R. Smith, Univ. Glasgow/Edinburgh, “Color and texture associations in voice-induced synesthesia” 2013). The following quote is from this study:

“Some voice synesthetes “see” the voice better when the person is singing. For some synesthetes colors vary little between voices but for others, colors depend strongly on the individual speaking. Concurrents may also be influenced by familiarity with the voice or the medium it is transmitted through, such as direct personal communication vs. radio. Some voice synesthetes identify the pitch to be a strong influence whereas others cannot define any criteria of the voice that change their concurrents. In Fernay et al. (2012), the synesthete's perceptions included color, size, and location of the associations. The authors found that a higher pitch, or fundamental frequency (f0), resulted in lighter color associations and a higher position in vertical space. Male voices induced larger shapes than female voices.”

Synesthetic reactions to voices are idiosyncratic and very varied, and different synesthetes have mentioned the following:

-  brighter colours correspond to higher-pitched voices and darker, muted colours to deeper voices

-  the colour, texture or shape depend on the accent

- only familiar voices, or those of people the synesthete knows, have colour, while those of strangers do not

- the colour of the voice is the same colour as the one they associate with the person (go to the page on person-colour synesthesia)

- men’s voices tend to be black, grey or brown, while women’s voices can be any colour

- the texture corresponds to the type of emotion expressed: angry, tired, upset, etc.

As with other types of auditory-visual synesthesia, if the synesthete perceives the visual concurrent physically appearing in front of their eyes they would be a “projector” synesthete, whereas if they visualise it in their mind’s eye they would be an “associator”, this latter type being more common. As with other types of synesthesia, it is consistent: the concurrents may vary depending on different factors (see list above), but they are always the same for each particular synesthete.

An especially interesting case of voice-colour synesthesia

This is one of the most fascinating cases I’ve read about. A man describes how he perceives and has learnt to interpret changes in the colour of people’s voices that show whether or not they are being sincere. So he knows when they are lying… it bears a similarity to the purely fictional cases of synesthesia that are so popular in TV series and detective novels, but in this case it is absolutely real.

"I see the color in my mind's eye. (…) Everyone has a certain color/shape/rarely texture to their voice, and when it changes that means something is off about what they're saying. I can tell a lie when the color of their voice shifts too much.
People's voices are almost always yellow or green. Yellow for logic and green for emotion. (…) When the color shifts, it means they're changing into a different style of communication. It doesn't always indicate they're lying, but usually indicates they're hiding something.
(I’ve had it) all my life. I didn't realize that it was rare until a couple years ago, in my mid 20's.
I don't know if it's a change in their pitch or not. I just know that the color changes. It could very well be that the pitch level changes or their mannerisms change which is why I pick up on it, but for me the color of their voices just changes.
I think the most interesting anecdote I've learned through this is that it's much easier to lie as a logical person than an emotional person. I very rarely see yellow shift to green, indicating a logical person had to access their emotional side. Occasionally I'll see an increase in orange around the yellow when a person is unhappy with something, meaning that something is off with them. Emotional people have to rationalize something before they lie, and give themselves away far too easily in the process of rationalizing."

(Source: This post and comments on the online debate platform Reddit/ IAmA - Ask Me Anything. 2011.)

Another voice-related type of visual synesthesia is “ticker tape”, which is when words are automatically visualised in the form of “subtitles” on hearing people speak. Go to the page on ticker tape

Go to the page on voice-to-taste synesthesia

Go to the page on auditory-visual synesthesia in general

This page is about voice-color synesthesia
This page is about voice-colour synaesthesia

This page last updated: 18 July 2021

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