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The Spelling of Notes & Synaesthesia

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When I was a student, we had an old piano in our student house. One day I was playing through a rather chromatic Elgar part song, and discovered with some annoyance that the B flat below middle C had stopped sounding. Later in the piece I was briefly even more annoyed to discover that the A sharp in that register was also out of action. Then I remembered that actually they’re the same key on the piano.

Singers and string players are used to the idea that enharmonic ‘equivalents’ aren’t necessarily the same notes, but players of keyed instruments don’t always grasp this in the same way. I have been somewhat bemused to find myself – a first-study pianist – as pedantic as I am over chromatic spellings, but I really do experience B flats as having different meanings from A sharps, even on the piano.

It wasn’t until I did an interview about synaesthesia for Radio 4 back in May 2008 that I really grasped what’s going on here.

Synaesthesia is the tendency to perceive things in terms of other things: so, to perceive pitch or keys as colour or flavour, or to perceive letters of the alphabet as colour. For those of us who have this as part of our perceptual landscape it’s just part of how you think, but (judging by the looks I get when I talk about it) people who don’t have it find the idea most bizarre.

So, a few things to note about synaesthesia:

  • It appears to be inherent in potential: you either have it or you don’t
  • However, its manifestation is entirely culture-bound. If you don’t learn music, you don’t attach colour to keys; if you see colour for letters of this alphabet, you won’t for alphabets of languages you can’t read.
  • Associations are entirely individual (no two people will ever agree), but within each individual are very precise (we know exactly which shade of red we mean) and stable (the colour associations won’t change over time).

I kind of knew all those things from experience, but the prospect of the radio interview made me go and do a bit of reading to check what anyone else thought. (Actually, the interview was ostensibly about the key of F sharp, but we got onto synaesthesia when I mentioned that it is an entirely different colour from the key of G flat.)

Anyway, this made me realise why I get so frustrated when people show me music where the accidentals are spelt wrong: it seriously impedes my capacity actually to read the music. The colours are all wrong, and I have to piece it all together a note at a time instead of seeing complete harmonies in all their coherently coloured glory. So it’s not simply pedantry to want accidentals spelt correctly – it’s also about musical meaning.

So, having told you one reason why I care about this, in my next post I'll drop some hints about how to get it right.

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