Musicophilia, musical hallucinations and synesthesia

It recently dawned upon me that something I thought was normal all my life is not. For as long as I can remember I’ve always had music playing in my head – during literally every waking moment and frequently in dreams too. I’m not talking about ear worms (when one gets a song stuck in their head, although I get that too). I mean like a constant soundtrack that only you can hear.

In my case it’s often about three quarters of a bar looping over and over, changing gradually. Often it will start as a longer phrase but will progressively narrow into just a handful of notes, often looping around at an odd point. Or the next bar will fade in over the top of the previous one while it’s still playing.

I’m aware that it’s in my head rather than a real sound occurring in the room. The timbre is usually somewhere between humming and breathing mixed with an orchestra. It gets extremely vivid when I’m tired or stressed, to the point where it can keep me awake. Sometimes at moments of extreme emotions (positive or negative ones) I start to perceive colours too, in the same way that anyone can see anything in their mind, but it’s always the same colour (a neon green on a background of very pure white and black).

I also have synesthesia – the sensation of perceiving colours and textures in relation to music. I wrote about it for Guitar World here.

I know I’m not alone with this stuff, but I know that not everybody has it either. There’s a book called Musicophilia: Tales Of Music And The Brain by Oliver Sacks which talks about a lot of these topics. You can order it here. It includes a lot of case studies of people with various music-related problems, quirks or sensations.

I don’t really consider this stuff to be a problem, although it can be kind of annoying when I’m stressed out and need to focus my mind but instead there’s this constant and ever-strengthening stream of sound happening in my head. But for the most part it’s just a welcome little companion. It’s kind of nice to have your own internal soundtrack.

5 Replies to “Musicophilia, musical hallucinations and synesthesia”

  1. So this one time at a Phish concert I saw a bunch of sounds as colours…

    Anyways, back on topic… synesthesia is far more wide ranging than simply seeing sounds as colours. Imagine TASTING sounds – That would be cool, except if you were EVH and were stuck in the “Brown Sound” ;)

    I do however suffer from your first problem… Repeating rhymths of no song i’ve ever heard, I’ve tried a couple of times to tab them out but focusing on them never works…

  2. That’s a great book… Read it two years ago and found it very interesting !! I like the case studies in which he kind of shows that most music geniuses are/were somehow affected by a perception problem.

    I don’t have synesthesia… I don’t know if it’s frightening or cool to be able to taste music or see the colour of a music!!.

    But I have that “music playing in my head” thing… Unfortunately I ‘ve never found the way to turn it into something creative !! Bummer :-)

  3. imagine ‘tasting’ the song Sweet Child of Mine..

    though… i don’t mind ‘tasting’ Purple Haze at all!

  4. That’s actually really interesting…I mean, that not everyone has this!

    I once dreamt entirely in audio, which was really weird. I have always seen sounds as colours (and I was aware that not everyone had that), but I was unaware that its unusual to constantly have music playing that you’ve never heard before!

    I’m exactly the same, though- it gets worse if I’m tired or stressed! Will have to check out those links you mentioned…

  5. Roj, my synesthesia goes goes a bit deeper than musical stuff – for instance I’ve always associated colours with numbers. One is white, two is blue, three is jade, four is red, five is yellow, six is kind of aqua, seven is mustard, eight is a darker blue than two, nine is sort of rusty, etc. They all have their own textures too, but I associate even numbers with smooth textures and odd numbers with rough ones. Weeeeird.

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