Pharrell Williams on Synesthesia


Singer, songwriter, and producer Pharrell Williams discusses his experience with chromesthesia, or sound-color synesthesia. This is just a snippet of much longer radio interview.

You talk about your mind working like a painter. And I wanted to ask — you have a medical condition called synesthesia. What is that?

First of all, let’s dispel the connotation behind the phrase “medical condition.” Most artists have it. It’s no big deal. And there’s a lot of people who are not necessarily — they’re undiscovered artists, and they have it, too. And all it is is where — when you’re born, your nerve endings are, sort of, all melded together, if you will. And then they prune, right? So all of your sensory nerve endings are kind of connected, as I understand it, and then they sort of prune when you’re, like, 1.

Sometimes some of them stay stuck together, and for a visual and auditorial synesty, it just means that the visual nerve ending and the auditorial nerve ending are still connected. So they send ghost images to each other.

What do you mean? What is that like? What are you experiencing that I might not be?

So when you’re hearing music, you see it in color.

You’re seeing colors when you’re hearing sounds?

Yeah. Now, to some people, it’s like, “Oh, that’s crazy.” But let me explain something to you. You have no idea what you’re seeing in your mind if you don’t really take the time to talk about it.

If I tell everyone right now to picture a red truck, you’re gonna see one. But is there one in real life right there in front of you? No. That’s the power of the mind. People with synesthesia, we don’t really notice until someone brings it up and then someone else says, “Well, no, I don’t see colors when I hear music,” and that’s when you realize something’s different.

But if you go up and you look, you’ll realize that most genius mathematicians, they’re synesthetes. If you ask them what their process is, especially people that can add or divide 10-digit numbers, it’s because they see those numbers in colors, or sometimes the sizes will vary. That’s called a grapheme synesthete. That’s one who sees things, sees numbers or characters in a different way.

If you just take the time to ask supergenius people, you’ll notice that they, their learning process, the way they process information, is slightly different. None of this is to say that I belong in that category at all. I’m just telling you most musicians and most visual artists and most academics, they sort of have that thing, and if you ask them, it’s really interesting to see the people who do and the people who don’t.

I want to know how it helps your mind work in a way that we might feel with the music that you create.

It’s the only way that I can identify what something sounds like. I know when something is in key because it either matches the same color or it doesn’t. Or it feels different and it doesn’t feel right.

You can tell that something’s the same key because it’s the same color as something else? That’s really interesting.

Yeah, but I’m saying to you, I’m not special or different. You ask any musician — there’s three kinds of people. There’s people who have perfect pitch. Then there’s somebody that has a relative pitch, and that’s where you sing the melody and that person will sing the melody back the same but in a different key — it’s because they have relative pitch. And there are people who just are completely tone deaf. There’s a fair share of everyone. But for the most part, most people have perfect pitch. That’s not a condition and that’s not a rare thing. That’s a lot of people.

You can find the rest of the interview here:


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