What Is It Actually Like To Taste Music? A Synesthete Explains
What do Duke Ellington, Franz Liszt, Billy Joel, Vincent Van Gogh, and Vladimir Nabokov all have in common? Well, aside from being some of the most influential artists in history, they were all born with synesthesia. If you look it up in the dictionary, synesthesia is defined as "the production of a sense impression relating to one sense or part of the body by stimulation of another sense or part of the body." But what does that actually mean? Well, it can mean a lot of things.
Duke Ellington saw sound as colors—a type of synesthesia known as chromesthesia. The timbre of D, to Ellington, was a "dark blue burlap." Billy Joel is a chromesthete as well. Softer, slower melodies appear to him as blues and greens. But he's also a grapheme-color synesthete, so he sees letters as colors, too. For him, vowels like A, E, and I appear as "very blue," or "vivid green," and consonants like T, P, and S are red or orange.
Not to be outdone, Vladimir Nabokov's grapheme-color synesthesia actually paired each pronunciation of a letter with an incredibly specific shade. He described the experience in-depth in his autobiography, Speak Memory:
"The long A of the English alphabet … has for me the tint of weathered wood, but a French A evokes polished ebony … Passing on to the blue group, there is steely X, thundercloud Z, and huckleberry K ... Dull green, combined somehow with violet, is the best I can do for W … among the reds, B has the tone called burnt sienna by painters, M is a fold of pink flannel, and today I have at last perfectly matched V with 'Rose Quartz' in Maerz and Paul's Dictionary of Color. The word for rainbow, a primary, but decidedly muddy, rainbow, is in my private language the hardly pronounceable: kzspygv."
Grapheme-color synesthesia and chromesthesia are two of the more common types of the condition. The ability to taste sound is actually one of the rarest forms. (If you want to sound fancy, the technical term for it is lexical-gustatory synesthesia.)
I tried to guess what a sound taster would experience when listening to Adele's "Hello," and came up with creamy butterscotch and hot toddies. Pink Floyd's "The Wall," I was certain, would leave an aftertaste of burnt toast and resentment.
Turns out I wasn't even close.
Decluttr tracked down a real lexical-gustatory synesthete and treated him to a musical feast of the most popular songs and albums of all time. James Wannerton, president of the U.K. Synaesthesia Association, is part of the estimated 0.2 percent of the population with this particular version of synesthesia.
So, what's it actually like? Wannerton, who has had the condition as long as he can remember, experiences "involuntary tastes and textures whenever I listen to a piece of music... These tastes come from both the sound of the instruments being played plus the sound of the lyrics... They arrive one after another, a little like a fluorescent light being repeatedly switched on and off."
Awesome, right? Well, maybe—or maybe not. After learning what James tastes when he hears some of our favorite jams, it sounds more confusing than anything else.
Toni Braxton's "Unbreak My Heart," for example, tastes to Wannerton like Mounds candy bars and jelly doughnuts. OK, not bad. The infamous "Macarena" has a flavor profile of Starburst, key lime pie, "large Gobstoppers," and potato chips: That's a junk-food lovers dream. But 10-time Grammy winner Adele doesn't fare quite so well. Her chart-topping single "Hello" tastes to Wannerton like Orange Pips, Snickers, fresh melon, and... "big rubber bands." Oh, and "Rolling in the Deep"? That one goes down as toffee, caramel, and yet again, rubber bands.
But easily the least appetizing song on the list is Boyz II Men's "I'll Make Love to You." Sorry, R&B lovers: It may sound sexy AF, but this slow jam tastes like sweaty socks, pound cake, and cucumber. Yikes.
On the other end of the spectrum, Pink Floyd's The Wall tastes nothing like the tough-as-nails diner breakfast I'd imagined. Instead, Wannerton says the anthemic album has flavors of ice cream sandwiches and bubblegum.
If those amuse-bouches didn't ruin your appetite, you can taste test the top 50 songs of all time here. As for me? I plan to mix up a batch of hot toddies, crank up Adele's 25, and try to get the taste of rubber bands out of my mouth.