Lorde, Kanye West, and Dev Hynes all have a neurological condition that allows them to visualize music – but is it real?
On Thursday, something serendipitous happened when Lorde sat down with radio host Ryan Seacrest in his LA studio to discuss the conception of her new album Melodrama. While there, she spoke about the quasi-rare neurological condition she has, called synesthesia. Essentially, it’s a condition wherein the senses are intertwined. Synesthetes can often see things – letters, numbers – as colours.
“If I didn’t have it, I would say that it didn’t exist,” she told Seacrest, voicing how many people feel about it, before delving into a layman’s explanation of what it is. In Lorde’s case, she sees days of the week, sounds and words as colours. What luck, then, that Seacrest is a synesthete too! “I’m a very visual person,” Seacrest admitted on air.
The last few minutes of their interview is hilarious, as Seacrest compares notes with the singer. He asks Lorde what colour Fridays are. He echoes her answer of “Green!” split seconds after she says it. Weekends are “brown” for Lorde (“Yeah, Sunday’s brown!” adds Seacrest). This total eyeroll continues as the two synesthetes bond over their sensory elitism for nearly a minute with the other host whimpering, “I’m jealous” into her mic.
“Making music is very visual for me. I can see it. Sometimes it can be really overwhelming colour-wise, and we’ll have to sort of dial it back through the music” – Lorde
While there is no way Seacrest is a synesthete, synesthesia evidently played a huge factor in making Lorde’s new album. And I don’t doubt that she has it. “A lot of sounds and a lot of words have some sort of visual counterparts or textual counterparts. So a lot of colour, a lot of texture, especially with music but with words, generally,” she said in the interview. “So making music is very visual for me. I can see it. Sometimes it can be really overwhelming colour-wise, and we’ll have to sort of dial it back through the music.”
Like seeing too many words on a page, this allows many artists to pare down their sounds until the composition is just right. It’s the difference between an overcooked Timbaland production from the mid-00s and a sparse, post-industrial beat.
Lorde doesn’t suffer in silence, either. Other self-diagnosed synesthetes include Kanye West, Pharrell, Dev Hynes, John Mayer and Alessia Cara. This seemingly rare condition (one in every 2000 people have it) affects a lot of musicians who create their music based on their abilities to put together sonic colour palettes. For them, making music is like loading a canvas with paint. But why does it seem like every musician suddenly has synesthesia?
Is synesthesia #trending? Actually, no.
Synesthesia has been a known and documented condition for over 200 years. The first documented case was in 1812, from an Austrian doctor named Georg Sachs. Sachs wrote a medical dissertation charting the colours he associated with numbers and letters. Famous synesthetes of yore include early 20th century philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein, who saw “the vowel e is yellow”; the psychiatrist Eugen Bleuler, and Lolita author Vladimir Nabokov, who described the letters “kzspygv” as creating the spectrum from red to violet.
As reported by Live Science, synesthesia is seven times more common in artists, poets, and novelists than in the rest of the population. Still, there is no way that all of these musicians have synesthesia. I mean, John Mayer? C’mon.
That said, there is such a thing as “synesthesia in the eye of the beholder”, which, according to Dani Cavallaro’s book Synesthesia and the Arts, “is neither the product of an actual synesthete’s creativeness, nor a self-conscious attempt to simulate synesthesia by recourse to formal or rhetorical devices.”
“I tend to use the same chords over and over again, which a lot of people do call me out on. But the reason is pretty intentional, because they’re my favourite chords, my favourite colour palettes” – Dev Hynes
In reality, this third state of synesthesia (the other two are legitimately having it) might be what many musicians are blaming their creative genius on. “Nevertheless,” Cavallaro continues, “they approximate synesthesia to the extent that the work is capable of triggering particular emotional trajectories which, in turn, are conducive to cross-perceptual engagement.”
In a 2014 TED talk, Dev Hynes spoke about how synesthesia was the catalyst for a lot of music he has written for artists like Kylie Minogue and Solange. “For the last 10 years when writing music for people, I tend to use the same chords over and over again,” he says, “which a lot of people do call me out on. But the reason is pretty intentional, because they’re my favourite chords, my favourite colour palettes. So I don’t feel the need to change them for people.”
Without literally testing every person who comes out in the press as a synesthete, it’s exceedingly difficult to tell who has it and who is lying through their teeth for cultural cachet. Hynes viscerally describes his experience with it – how some notes are brown, some red. And while it’s perhaps an affectation that some are reluctant to bring up in interviews – it is a condition, after all – it does make for a more mysterious, impenetrable creative process.
But did Lorde make “Green Light” on a Friday? We’ll probably never know.