Life in Color
November 16, 2009
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.