Joyce Yang brings colour to music and music brings colour to her.
She is a synesthete; someone who experiences involuntary sensory experiences when stimulated by a different sense. For her, hearing music produces colours from velvet red, to bright yellow, lavender to pastoral green. And she sees shapes from “squiggly lines”, to clouds and bright bursts.
Colour is so important to Yang that she feels she couldn’t play without it. “I’d be so scared to play a note if I didn’t see anything,” says the pianist who is in New Zealand to perform Rachmaninov with the New Zealand Symphony Orchestra.
The 31 year old first starting incorporating colours into her music at age eight, when she would draw over her scores in different colours to reflect what she saw. Her teachers weren’t discouraging of the practice, but suggested she learn the musical notes before she added colour.
But it wasn’t until her teenage years when she started to talk openly about her synesthesia. “I thought everyone had ways of remembering things. And this was just my way. I didn’t think anything of it,” she says. “But I had a personal relationship with different colours. They [colours] are so much easier to remember than black and white dots.”
Each key has its own colour. “F Major to me is like a walk through a National Park,” she says. “Each key captures something special in my mind.”
The second movement of Mozart’s Piano Concerto No. 21 evokes a green which Yang describes as pastoral. “[It’s] the green you find in nature. A budding green,” she says. “It’s not like a forest green… but the first leaf that comes out.”
Haydn’s Piano Concerto in D Major is the ultimate bright piece for her. When she was a child she’d describe the piece by its colour rather than its name. “That has always been yellow,” she says. “It’s the epitome of a bright yellow piece.”
For some synesthetes they can have more than one sensory response. Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No.5 evokes velvet burgundy in colour and texture. “It’s grandeur, regal,” she says.
Lavender, both in smell and colour feature in Schubert’s Impromptu in G Flat Major. “Any G Flat Major is Lavender,” she says. “That’s the most fragrant.”
Those with synesthesia experience perceptions that vary from person to person. Other notable people with synesthesia include Leonard Bernstein, Messiaen, Sibelius, Hans Zimmer, and Lorde.
The Kiwi singer/songwriter Lorde told Kim Hill in May that she sees music as colours. “Certain lines of melody kind of present as different colours … for me it’s sort of these, I almost see it as clouds of colour, they sort of hang in the air, in the way a gas would if it could be visualized,” she says.