I had a conversation with my sister a few years back, where we ended up sharing how we represented the time of the year in our heads. I have no idea why we were talking about this, but it’s one of the reasons I like having a sister. Anyway, it turned out we both pictured ourselves somewhere on a gigantic circular calendar, with the months colored for what the weather is like at that point in the year. We even agreed on what some of the colors should be.
I think our minds are fascinating in their differences, strengths and weaknesses. Mine happens to be very visual. I correlate letters and numbers with colors. I rarely get lost in new places. But I’m terrible at remembering people’s names. In fact I have a tough time memorizing pretty much anything I can’t see, unless I can cook up some kind of visual analogy for it.
When I hear a song, colorful patterns and shapes appear in my mind. It might sound like it’s distracting, but the effect is usually pretty subtle – just a faint visual sensation that blends with the sound of the music. No matter what I listen to, this imagery is always there in the background (even it it’s the worst song I’ve ever heard).
These visuals are closely linked with the origin of paiges. They form a kind of physical foundation on which more complex and emotional ideas can start to appear. They might seem mysterious, but I think these images can be reduced to simple associations.
Some sounds match up with an image of their instrument in real life. Harps, banjos, and sitars all show me strings being plucked or strum. Drums and cymbals are impacts on a surface. When I hear a piano play, I see the disembodied keys pressing themselves down.
Sounds that my mind can’t pin to a physical contact are more interesting to me, because they’re freed from that association with a real object. Woodwinds and brass show up as colored voices that are hard to focus on. Purely electronic (synth) sounds tend to appear as glowing lights or flares of energy. Bass is a tremor disrupting everything around it. The electric guitar is one of the most fascinating sounds to me – a beautiful, shapeshifting creature, with the potential for powerful transformations and pyrotechnics.
I wish I could show all this to you, just like I wish I could show you what my story Lillian looks like in my head. But for now the best I can do is write about it.
Luckily I’m not the first to explore the relationship between music and visuals. There’s a movie, now over 70 years old, called Fantasia. It’s a film by Walt Disney featuring a number of animated shorts set to classical music. The shorts range from abstract visual narratives to familiar stories like The Sorcerer’s Apprentice. More on this beautiful movie later, but its opening chapter brings to mind the experience I’m describing:
Watching this first part of the film, it seems like it’s meant to introduce the viewer to the idea of giving music a visual representation. Notice the steady transition from reality to the abstract, all guided by the music. At first we’re shown a simple language of lights and colors matching the instruments. Then around 3:30 we’re moved into a place of pure imagination as the animation takes over.
Anyway, I realize this post was a mouthful but I hope you found it interesting. Please comment with any thoughts you might have. Have you had similar experiences? How does your mind process and respond to music? Don’t be afraid to share your ideas.