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Life in Color

Honestly, he's done it for as long as I can remember -- as soon as Noah had the vocabulary down, he described songs in terms of color. One day he asked for the "yellow song," and sobbed while I offered up track after incorrect track of Raffi and Dan Zanes, desperately trying to figure out what the hell song he was talking about. A song about rainbows? That paint-mixing song from Blue's Clues? Big Bird? I finally gave up, assuming it was probably some blasted Moose and Zee segment from TV with a yellow background or yellow flower or something similarly random.

Then, later: a scary movie theme. Violins in minor key. Ominous timpanis. His eyes grew large and he fled the room. "NO RED SONG," he said. "OFF. NO."

For awhile, we assumed he was assigning colors in lieu of how the song made him feel. Yellow = happy songs, red = angry, scary. Then came pink songs and purple songs. And he learned how to express how he was feeling with real words, but the color thing persisted. I cycle through my iPod or the radio pre-sets in the car and he regularly makes his requests from the backseat. "No, Mommy," he says politely and articulately, "I want the yellow song."

Once a song has a stated color, it never changes. Yellow songs tend to be upbeat, playful. Most children's music, Jack Johnson. Although his current radio favorite, You're Gonna Go Far, Kid by The Offspring, is also a yellow song. Red songs are usually in a minor key, or somewhat dramatic sounding. Classical music, the theme from The Incredibles. Anything with a strong bass line or heavily orchestrated with woodwinds and strings is either purple or pink. Everything from The White Stripes to Coldplay to Beyonce has been lumped into the purple/pink realm. 

Songs are never green and only rarely blue. Some songs don't have a color, Mommy. I mean, God. 

Sometimes I catch him squinting, idly attempting to pinch or swat at the area in front of his face. 

He is left-handed. He has a near-photographic memory for things he hears, and near-perfect pitch when he sings. I am officially pretty sure we can add synesthesia to our list of Quirks That Make You Go Hmmm.

It seems both entirely logical and yet grossly unfair for a kid who already struggles with ordering and processing his senses to be given the added complication of synesthesia.  His teachers and therapists (all of whom I've had to educate on my theory; most of whom seem to think I'm talking New Age psychobabble nonsense) report that as noise levels go up, Noah's coping skills go down. He hides, he covers his ears, he wanders around in circles or becomes utterly fixated on a soothing, repetitive task. Amateur singing, whether by me or a teacher or anyone without a record deal, pretty much always drives him bonkers. "STOP!" he shouts. "YOU DON'T. YOU CAN'T." Certain music has the opposite effect -- simple piano music soothes and centers him, though so far his perfectionist nature has kept from experimenting very much on his own keyboard.

And yet, when I read about it, and about all the amazing musicians and artists and great thinkers who have had variations of synesthesia and used it as a gift, an enhancement, a privilege to see the world in a completely different way than the rest of us, I can't help but be more than a little impressed at just how much wonderfully mysterious potential is inside that quirky little brain.



Kari Weber

As a 5th grade teacher, I wonder how I can explore if any of my students have this... in order to find a better way to help some of them in math and reading, spelling and such... Any ideas?

I almost wonder if I had them do some kind of alphabet book (...Tell me about the personalities of the different letters, etc.) if I would "discover" anything...
I find this all just amazing. And I also second, third, fourth that Noah was born to JUST the right mommy and daddy. Great job, Amy.


OK - that's just CRAZY how much he looks like your husband right now. And I can't look up your husband's name because I've had a couple of cocktails and it's Monday. But yes. Your husband. That's who Noah looks like.

BTW - typing is hard. Cape Cods! YEAH!


Oy, I can't stop to read the comments now, but if nobody else has recommended it, A Mango Shaped Space by Wendy Mass. Amazing book about a teenager with synesthesia.


Not sure if you ever read these comments...but so many of us feel the need to reach out. Keep searching and keep believing in the gift of Noah. Honestly, can you IMAGINE life with two simple, predictable little ones? See how the doors open up to you?




Once again, I see so much of what we experience with Neil in Noah.

Never even considered it to be synethesia, though. However, like Noah, the more noise, the less he is able to cope.

Oh-two years of piano lessons. OCD put an end to that, though. If he made one mistake, no matter how small, he had to start the song over. Once we got to songs that were 5 and six pages long, to make a mistake on the last page was just too much...


You've got to get the Eric Carle video...perhaps it is on DVD now but it is the Very Hungry Caterpillar and has several other books on the tape. The very last book on the video is "I See A Song" is very cool and I think Noah would love it after reading your descriptions of him and music....I'd like to know what color it is.


I interviewed Alison Krauss' mother a few years ago. She and her husband decided very early that their children would receive instruction in two areas they felt were important life skills: they would both learn to swim, and they would both learn to play a musical instrument. Viktor Krauss plays with Lyle Lovett, and Alison has won more Grammy awards than any other female. Nurture music in your children, Amy, especially Noah... The world needs more yellow songs!


P.S. I wonder if it might be fun for Noah to visit a well-stocked music store. Maybe you could find a kind and helpful employee who can actually play some of the instruments. Let it be a petting zoo kind of experience, to see if he is drawn to creating any particular noise.

Or you might visit a bluegrass jam session. I can't remember where you live--in MD, no?--but there are bluegrass associations all over the country. Bluegrass is spectacularly interactive and hands-on and accessible, and kids LOVE it.

Or you could start him out with a `ukelele. They're simple and lovely and fun.

Too much assvice? Sorry, Amy... Synesthesia fascinates me, as I'm also blessed with it! And Noah's connection with music seems so strong; I cannot wait to hear you tell us how it takes shape.

Backpacking Dad

Check out V.S. Ramachandran's work on both synesthesia and autism. He's THE guy. He was working out of the Salk Institute at UCSD when I was there and I had a chance to pick his grad student's brain about synesthesia after a talk about the brand new (then) experiments they were developing to detect different versions.

Just knowing how non-mysterious the processing is might help. It's all about geography and a "didn't: during early development geographical regions of the brain separate informational processing pathways from each other, even though they originate together; for some people that separation didn't happen completely, and double-processing occurs. It's thoroughly ordinary (though rare in the general population) and there is even a type of Asian monkey that has massive synesthesia (noted by neural imaging) because those regions never separate fully.

I don't know if it's a blessing or a curse. But I know that synesthesia is a normal sort of processing done twice, sometimes to advantage, and sometimes not; it does not indicate harm.


I think I will always hear music now when I see a photo of Noah. Simply beautiful!


As soon as I started reading, I thought "synesthesia!!". Having read a couple of books by Oliver Sacks, I actually thought it would be quite cool to be synesthesic(?). This is just amazing, Amy, and just another example of how awesome Noah is.

Hopi Gesteland

This may sound off the wall, but listen anyway. Years ago I read a book -trying to remember its name-where the author visited a tribe or nationals on a Pacific island. He worked as their teacher. He said when birds twittered (the old meaning) the children would say they were singing yellow or red or purple, etc. Apparently we have the ability to see sound in color until we are taught not to. My no.2 son and I could communicate mentally until my mother told him the devil made him do that. It was a sad day. Encourage him. It means he is very sensitive!!


I have read about this naming of music in colors before. There was once a show on NPR about it and I can't remember who was speaking about it, but it was so interesting. The phenomenon is called synethesia. (Not to put a label on this awesome quirky gift.) Also, this is interesting: www. musicandcolour. net


Oops, meant to include this, too:


As all the other posters have said, it seems to be a pretty cool gift your little man has. What I can't help but wonder is if he (and all the other people like him) are tapping into parts of the brain that most of us can't reach. So it's not a MALfunction but more of a SUPERfunction.


Although never diagnosed with synesthesia, I attached colors to numbers since I can remember. Seven = yellow, five = red, six = green, four = blue and so on. I was able to use this "quirk" to help me through all of my math studies including trig and calc.

I'm not a mathematician or musician or artist (just a marketing exec) but I think my personal color wheel (organized both by color and number and ever present in my head) has been invaluable to me.


Hey. My nearly 4 yr old son is very similar to Noah, and our battles with the "system" have been very similar also. He's been dx'd autistic (by neurologists), SPD/SID (by occup therapy), apraxic/anomia (by speech ther #1), phonological process disorders (by speech ther #2), possible stroke in infancy/utero (by neuro and speech #1), yada yada.

What it boils down to- he's precious and he's my little man. Period.

He is also a leftie. He tends to fixate on things that spin or move at times but not always, is highly oral motor sensitive, resents tactile intrusions in his world at times or places not of his choosing, etc.

We've used ABA, Teachh, etc. We've read the Out-Of-Sync Child, Fabric of Autism, etc.

You know what works for us? Gymnastics (to help improve his coordination and build confidence, in a class that is slow paced with lots of repetition and freedom/structure combined) and Suzuki Violin lessons. Seriously. Suzuki wrote a book called "Nurtured By love" if you're interested. Its not the easiest read but worth it.

Suzuki helps train the mind, to help it organize. It focuses on classical music, and gives our son an outlet for his inner brain issues. When he plays, he's happy. There's no perfection- its guided, and if he truly has the type brain you're describing, he'll take to it like a duck to water and you'll see his stress level in regular events (schools, shopping, LIFE) drop dramatically.

We often have to pry the violin away from our little man. He loves it. It is fine motor skills and vocal range training (the violin has a range very similar to the human voice range which has been found to help nonverbal or previously nonverbal kids develop more normal speech inflection) combined with his release.

Anyway, just thought I'd let you know. Suzuki lessons aren't that high, you can buy a 1/4 size violin (or whatever his teacher recommends for his arm length) from ebay for less than $50.

Our philosophy is if you build up his strengths, the neuroconnectors in the brain improve as well, which affects other things that could be seen as weaknesses. And if you reduce stress or give him a coping tool, he'll be better able to function. And considering we've been doing it for a year now and people can barely tell he has any issues (a major change from 12 months ago where strangers felt the need to point out my weird son), its working.

Katie Kat

I didn't know what it was called, but when you were talking about Noah attaching colors to songs, I thought of a 60 Minutes segment about that I saw awhile back. I think it's kind of cool! I mean, certainly now while he's young, these things are infuriating and confusing at times. Sensory overload on steroids! But maybe as he gets older and more used to his "quirks" he will find ways to use them to enhance his experience in life!

He's a genius - it's the rest of us that aren't equipped like he is that are the idiots trying to tell him (and others like him) that they are "defective" in some way! Maybe one day we'll learn to learn from him.


My older son has to have songs sung in the original key he heard them in. God forbid if he heard a song on TV or on the iPod, and I can't sing in that key. It's brutal, especially since I sing well! He folds up onto the floor and covers his ears, and if you don't stop, he cries. If it's in the same key though, no problem!

I thought I was the only person who thought numbers had not only personalities, but that they should only be next to certain other numbers, or that a string of numbers could be "wrong" because of the order.


I started college as a music major, and one of my hallmates (also a music major) and I discovered that we had mild synesthesia...both of us have perfect pitch and see songs in terms of color; I experience songs in movement and texture as well. Music Theory was a wonderful class for us! :) It is a quirk, but a lovely one.

Nancy R

Has he ever seen that changing-color thing on Windows Media Player? I don't know what it's called exactly, but it changes color and design while a song plays. I wonder if he'd think it was GREAT, or if he'd hate it.


Oh, this reminds me of one of our favorite children's books, "My Many Colored Days" by Dr. Seuss, where feeling are described as colors!


I had to pick my jaw up off the table. Reading this post has sent me off on an informational goose chase. Talk about a rabbit hole.
First of all, very cool for Noah. I had heard of people having that, and I always thought it was really neat.
As I was reading your link, though, they talked about spatial-sequence synesthesia. Their description was an "aha!" moment for me! That's exactly how I view time and space. I've always described the calendar year as a counter-clockwise circle. It's actually more of a counterclockwise spiral since the circle doesn't close at the end of the year. And if you ask me about time in years, I can definitely point to a place in space that is 1988 or 1976 (1976 is farther away). How bizarre. Everytime I've tried to describe that, people have given me the look.
How very cool for you & Noah. And how very cool that you've given me a piece of information that I can use to find out more about synesthesia to give me some meaning. I knew I was quirky, but I really AM quirky!
Thanks Amy!!


This describes my son perfectly! He plays the piano like nobody's business and describes most music and people with colors. Heaven forbid I can't find the right shade of blue marker to represent Fred from Scooby Doo! My URL is a link to a youtube video of him playing a song he heard in the lunch room at school.


Dunno if someone else has mentioned this already, but has your family read Here Comes Frankie! By Tim Hopgood? Frankie sees music in color. It's a lovely book-- won awards in the UK.


I so wish Noah could show us the world through his eyes so that we could experience the awesomeness of songs with color. I bet his world is so much richer than ours!


I wouldn't use the word "quirk" too much to describe these attributes, because together, they can add up to a really successful/interesting/fulfilling life. I'm no expert (in anything) but the left-handedness plus the sensory stuff can become WOW! later on.
Right now it may seem that Noah has "difficulties" doing whatever they require in school and that all may be valid, but he has parents who recognize these "quirks," will work with them, and enhance their positive aspects. That attention to his strengths will really help him. So important to have parents like you who are on top of this stuff.


These comments are awesome! I've always classified numbers as "good" or "bad" but I have absolutely no basis or reasoning to explain it. My family thinks I'm crazy. I agree with everyone - when Noah grows up, he's going to love having that ability.


I don't think you're using the term "perfect pitch" correctly. Perfect Pitch implies that if you were to play a note on the piano, Noah could identify which note it was. I'm sure your kid can sing on key, though, which is great! Hurray!


Haven't gone through all the comments, but have you ever read "Born on a Blue Day"?... totally worth it for the synesthesia aspect.
My husband has mild synesthesia in that days and months are certain colours for him. I have a friend who sees music in colours as well, and guess what, she's a musician. :-)
One of my girls (9) is very very musical and has perfect pitch. She's learning violin and piano now although she's drop one at some stage. The gift of perfect pitch is amazing, and especially suited for strings where note placement is dependent on ear. Apparently cello is also good for kids with sensory issues as the sensory feedback and physicality of playing the instrument is really beneficial.

And the gift of synesthesia when it comes to music... just amazing.
No gift comes without strings attached, but the gift to create music is something marvelous.

I have an 11-yr old son with a lot of sensory and anxiety issues. Aside from all that, which combines to make his life very very hard for him sometimes, he's a wonderful, sensitive, loving, kind and gentle soul. I understand so well what you are coping with and have only this to say: just keep loving your wonderful, beautiful boy. He may never march to the beat of the same drum as other boys in his peer group, but he will always be precious, unique, and wonderfully special.


uh...whoops! I guess I need to be a better reader and less of a skimmer. Sorry!


There is an awesome young adult/middle grade novel about a girl with synesthesia called A Mango Shaped Space, by Wendy Mass. It was an interesting way to see it from the first person.


Amy, you simply must continue to share these types of stories. Do you know how much richer you just made my world by telling me about Noah's song/color coupling? That's amazing. Glad to know about synthesthesia, even more glad to know about Noah and his incredible mind. Thank you.


you have got to stop diagnosing your kid with shit. maybe he's just weird.


I can see it being tough (and I don't know how much you've read, but there are some great memoirs out there), but I've always been jealous of people with synesthesia. It may be one more thing to bear, but it also seems like a pretty special gift.


I called synesthesia way back when, before you even mentioned the colors. You asked for suggestions the day you went to the right park the wrong way and had a melt-down. I have a pretty intense form of synesthesia, but I can't say I suffer from it. It took me many years to be able to deal with the extra stimulation, but my world has always been so much more interesting than those who don't see all the colors. I'm also pretty affected by music. If he shows those signs they should be encouraged. Bass guitar is a pretty good choice because it's a soft percussion instrument and it typically has a 1-2-3-4 beat function in the music that is comforting.


OK - just my take on this...but while it may be a "complication" in regards to the other stuff that Noah has going on....but COOL! I wish that things would divide and organize themselves neatly (and involuntarily) in my brain.

I am convinced that my daughter has aphotographic memory & once she hears a tune, she can also a) remember it forever (the length of time that she will insist on singing it is perfectly & conversely related to just how annoying the tune is) and b) be able to perfectly recreate the tune...which due to my absolute inability at the same, makes her amazing in my eyes.

And (to make a long story still long) - I think I am kind of jealous of Noah - its probably a really cool memory aid.

bingo woman

I haven't associated colors with the mood of a song. I believe it helps kids to familiar with color easily.


I just love reading about kids like Noah. Despite all the challenges he's faced, there is something special about your son for sure, and you see it in stories like this. So cool.


I'm surprised the therapists aren't more aware of synesthesia, too. Obviously there are a whole readership of geeks and synesthetes here who get it!!!

I didn't know that I heard colors - or that other people didn't - until one time a Rothko painting was roaring so loud that I complained about it. My husband's cousin sees colors for different numbers, and knew he'd met the perfect woman when they realized that they both had always thought seven was blue!


I am a color/number person. Every number has a major color and a minor color. For instance, the major color for the number 2 is yellow and its minor is pale blue. One is white and red. It somehow makes sense to me and a number like 7465 appears as bands of color, dark green/orange/sky blue/navy.

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