Synesthesia, Memory, and the Context of Culture

  • Posted on: 23 July 2014
  • By: Anonymous (not verified)

As a music educator I am constantly exploring ways to help my students learn more effectively. There are few shortcuts in life and most of the time the answer to a student's question includes the phrase "and you should practice more." But there are good habits to cultivate and bad habits to avoid, and there is the general truth that you will progress faster if you pay attention to what you are doing.

Paying attention is not as simple as it sounds. The Buddhists call it "mindfulness." Progressive educators call it being "fully awake." It is more than just not being distracted (though that is a big part of it). Ideally, paying attention means using all your senses and your brain together to fully experience and make sense of the world around you. I say "ideally" because not only is this impossible for most of us, it's also pretty exhausting for any great length of time. But most of us have moments of being fully awake, sudden flashes of inspiration, revelation, or appreciation, which remind us how full and beautiful life can be.

Notes from the WoodshedMindfulness is something we can cultivate and build upon, so that in our practice, whether it is music or another art or any kind of focused endeavor, we do things more effectively and with more complete enjoyment. The first step is to notice things. For example, with saxophone students, I remind them to notice how they hold the instrument, are the hands tense, is the breath coming from the stomach or just the chest. This first step is non-judgmental; you don't tell yourself what you should do, you just notice what you are doing. Then, later, you can make decisions about changing, correcting, refining your technique.

As we practice our art, the discrete experiences build on each other and move from short-term to long-term memory. We have all experienced the frustration of learning something one day only to forget it the next. Through practice, repetition and patience, our technique and knowledge get locked into long-term memory (both conceptual and muscle memory). The job of a teacher often focuses on helping the student with this process.

This is where the concept of synesthesia can be helpful. The standard definition of synesthesia refers to an involuntary multisensory experience: the stimulation of one sense triggers an accompanying response from another sense. Seeing a color causes the experience of a smell, hearing a sound causes the experience of a color, and so on. Researchers have documented this involuntary condition in many artistic people. As an involuntary condition it may be pleasurable or not, so we should not be too quick to envy those sensitive souls who experience a lot of involuntary synesthia.

In my teaching, I am exploring ways to use intentional synesthesia. The idea is to pay attention to a sense experience and notice if there are any associations involving other senses. The classic exercise in music appreciation classes is to listen to a section of music and write down any other sense experiences, such as colors, pictures, smells, textures, that may pop into your mind. I take this a step further, in that I encourage the student to imagine sensory experiences and link them mentally with the piece of music being practiced. The purpose is to use all our senses to help deepen a musical experience, so that it will move more readily into our long-term memory. This is becoming a fairly common pedagogical technique.

Lately, and for the purposes of this article, I have been thinking about how intentional synesthesia, as part of the goal of cultivating mindfulness, may be affected positively or negatively by our surroundings. Some obvious examples relevant to music: Music played loud in noisy clubs. Generic monochromatic music played as soundtrack to movies and TV shows. Thrash metal soundtracks to ultra-violent video games.... What kind of synesthesia is going on here? The social uses of music may shape the way musical sounds are linked to other sensory experiences and affect the way we think about and remember things. This can have important ramifications for the environment children grow up in and the way they perceive, understand and remember music.

Finally, on a positive note, I'll revisit a theme I've described before: the reworking of old musical forms in new social contexts. Teachers of classical music worry that the tradition is waning in social significance, that children don't listen and appreciate the older music because we as a society no longer think it is important. The main use for orchestral music, classical repertoire, the works of major composers, is now as soundtrack music for movies, TV shows, and video games.

While this is true, on a synesthetic level generations of children grow up with vivid sensory connections that help them remember the music. For the boomer generation this occurred through cartoons: Elmer Fudd and Bugs Bunny singing Wagner; Tom & Jerry performing Hungarian Rhapsody. For younger generations there is the added vivid aural-visual connection of video game soundtracks.

For me as a music teacher this media-induced synesthesia actually helps me introduce young students to more challenging music. They know the music from their games and movies, they have vivid and positive associations with it, and they are eager to translate the memory into their musical instrument. They make faster progress learning a fairly challenging piece like the Star Wars theme because in their minds the notes are accompanied by the smell of popcorn, the sight of light sabers, or other sensory experiences along those lines. Of course, I still find myself saying, "And you should practice more!"


Paul Klemperer works as a bandleader, teacher, composer and writer.  His team at P.K.S.A.X. provides a variety of music for all events, as well as educational classes, workshops, and lectures, and many other products and services. His website can be found here.