This Artist Paints The Colors She Hears In Music09:49
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Artist Melissa McCracken lives with a neurological condition that causes her to see music as color. (Kelly Kuhn/Courtesy of Melissa McCracken)
Artist Melissa McCracken lives with a neurological condition that causes her to see music as color. (Kelly Kuhn/Courtesy of Melissa McCracken)

Between 5 and 15% of people have experienced some form of synesthesia, according to the National Institutes of Health. The cross-wiring in the brain causes a second stimuli not associated with the first — some people visualize shapes when they hear sounds, for instance.

People with chromesthesia "see" color in sound. Lady Gaga, Pharrell and Kanye West have all talked about having the condition. So does artist Melissa McCracken, who creates paintings based on the colors and scenes evoked by her favorite music, from Jimi Hendrix to the Spice Girls.

"To be honest, I grew up not even thinking about it at all," McCracken tells Here & Now's Robin Young. "It just was something that was natural, and [I] never second-guessed it, never even considered that someone might not be experiencing it as well."

McCracken recalls a memory from when she was a teenager that shed light on how she saw things differently than others: She had a navy blue phone, and wanted to find a ringtone that would complement that color.

"I found this Michael Jackson song, and I turned to my friend and I was like, 'Oh, my gosh, this is perfect. It's an orange song. It matches my phone perfectly.' And he jumped in and he said, 'What do you mean it matches?' " McCracken says. "That was kind of the epiphany moment of, 'Oh, my gosh, I might be experiencing things differently.' "

Interview Highlights

On how she experiences chromesthesia

"The best way that I can describe it is that it kind of sits where my memories sit, but kind of floating in space a little bit. It doesn't inhibit my sight in any way. But it's almost like a filter, kind of above my eyeline a little bit."

Melissa McCracken's painting "Little Wing," inspired by the Jimi Hendrix song of the same name. (Courtesy of Melissa McCracken)
Melissa McCracken's painting "Little Wing," inspired by the Jimi Hendrix song of the same name. (Courtesy of Melissa McCracken)

On her painting "Little Wing," inspired by the Jimi Hendrix song of the same name

"I really wanted to make a focal point on the guitar. And it's always had this kind of gold effect to the electric guitar, and it sits in this kind of heavenly blue-ish and kind of pink and purple cloudy-like area. That's kind of what comes up every single time I listen to it.

"It is a lot of color going on, and in the experience itself, there's a lot more movement. It's kind of translated into this static image, but there's a lot more movement going on, a lot more fading and new images coming in. So it's kind of a picking and choosing process of what elements I feel are most vital to the entire experience."

"I honestly love it. Being an artist, I love color anyway, so it is a nice little added little surprise to my world."

Melissa McCracken

On her painting inspired by John Lennon's "Imagine"

"The piano chords kind of have this sort of marble-draped effect of different blues and golds, and they're kind of melting into each other. And then he also has more of a yellow voice, that's kind of floaty and comforting-looking. It also kind of resides in this cloudy-like space, similar to the 'Little Wing' painting."

McCracken's painting inspired by John Lennon's "Imagine." (Courtesy of Melissa McCracken)
McCracken's painting inspired by John Lennon's "Imagine." (Courtesy of Melissa McCracken)

"Different songs I guess start with different canvases. Sometimes I would say that my blank mind or the mind at the beginning of a song is more white or cream or just kind of a cloudy-like space. Other times it feels like I'm in the depths of space, and that it's a navy blue kind of celestial sort of background. So that all is dependent on what song I'm listening to, but it varies for sure."

On an in-progress painting inspired by the Spice Girls song "Wannabe"

"I don't know which came first, the colors or the song itself and my love for the song. But it's a lot of pinks and purples and oranges, and they kind of have smaller shapes to them. But it is more like a kaleidoscope effect, and more little bits are happening in it that don't overpower the entire image."

On the difference between "graphing" synesthesia and "sequential" synesthesia, and how they manifest

"The graphing synesthesia is letters and numbers that are translated into color, and then the spatial sequential synesthesia is where you have anything that comes in a sequential form, like numbers or months of the year or days of the week, they sit in a designated point in space around your body. So I have those forms as well as the chromesthesia.

"So if I'm making plans to meet someone, I might think of Monday kind of to the far right top of my right eye, essentially. I think that it's a fairly common form. My mom also has that form, and my dad does a little bit, too."

On whether she sees synesthesia as entirely positive

"I mean, I honestly love it. Being an artist, I love color anyway, so it is a nice little added little surprise to my world, I guess. The only distraction is that I think sometimes when I meet someone and I know that their name starts with a blue color — that could be an A or an F or something like that, so that gives me too many options for remembering what their name was. But yeah, it's definitely mostly beneficial."


Marcelle Hutchins produced this interview and edited it for broadcast with Todd Mundt. Jack Mitchell adapted it for the web.

This segment aired on June 5, 2019.

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