Monday October 28, 2013
KL 232 (Chancellor’s Conference Room)

Title: Color, Music, and Emotion in Synesthetes and Non-Synesthetes

Abstract: Cross-modal associations from music to colours were investigated in US participants for several kinds of music, including classical orchestral pieces (by Bach, Mozart, and Brahms), single-line piano melodies (by Mozart), and 34 different genres of popular music (from jazz to heavy metal to salsa to country western). When non-synesthetes chose the 3 colours (from 37) that “went best” with each selection, they showed highly systematic patterns, e.g., faster music in the major mode was strongly associated with more saturated, lighter, yellower colours, whereas slower music in the minor mode was associated with less saturated (grayer), darker, bluer colours. Further results strongly suggest that these music-to-colour associations are mediated by emotion; people hear the music, have emotional responses, and then pick the colours that best fit those emotional responses. For example, the rated happiness/sadness of the music was highly correlated by the happiness/sadness of the colours they chose as going best with the music (r = .91 for the classical orchestral music). Cross-cultural data from Mexican participants for the same classical music were virtually identical to those from US participants (Palmer, Schloss, Xu, & Prado-León, PNAS, 2013). Equally strong emotional effects were present for two-note musical intervals, and weaker emotional effects for the timbre (or tone colour) of individual instruments. Similar experiments were conducted with 12 music-to-colour sysnesthetes, except that they chose the 3 colours (from the same 37) that were most similar to the colours they actually experienced while listening to the same musical selections. Synesthetes showed clear evidence of emotional effects for some musical variables (e.g., major versus minor) but not for others (e.g., slow versus fast tempi). The nature of similarities and differences between synesthetes’ colour experiences and non-synesthetes’ colour associations will be discussed.

Bio: Stephen E. Palmer received his B.A. in Psychology at Princeton University in 1970 and his PhD in Psychology at UCSD in 1975. He has taught in Psychology at UC Berkeley ever since, where he also served as Director of the Institute of Cognitive Studies. He is best known for his research on perceptual organization and his interdisciplinary book, Vision Science: Photons to Phenomenology. He now studies visual aesthetics of color and spatial composition.