Colors are something we see and music is something we hear but there are some whose senses combine in unrelated ways. They may taste colors or hear sounds in response to certain smells. It’s called synesthesia. Internationally renowned concert pianist Joyce Yang is a synesthete. She sees colors when she plays music.
She's not alone. Lots of composers and musicians are synesthetes: Franz Liszt, Michael Torke, Stevie Wonder, Duke Ellington, Billy Joel, Pharrell Williams and many more.
When Yang was taking music classes in school, her teachers would ask why there were colors and squiggly lines on her music. She replied, “Don’t you do that?” She had no idea others didn’t “see” music in colors. And she found it much easier to play a piece with her notations than read the “black dots” on her sheet music.
Yang found other synesthetes when she attended the Juilliard pre-college program, and they compared notes. “One would say, 'That’s my purple entrance from Rite of Spring,'” she recalled.
They all saw colors, but not the same colors.
For Yang, she associates certain colors with different key signatures. She calls Haydn’s D Major Piano Concerto “that yellow piece.”
She describes anything in F Major like walking through a national park. “F Major to me was always pastoral.” Her example is Mozart’s Slow Movement in F Major. But, as she moves from one chord to another, there could be a splash of purple or red thrown into all that green. It depends on the weight she applies to the piano keys or the emotion she is feeling at the time.
Her favorite color and key? G-flat.
"G-flat (like Schubert's Impromptu No. 3) is a beautiful lavender, and I actually smell the lavender, or the purple lilacs," she said.
Yang sat down at her home piano, during the coronavirus pandemic, to play various sections of Beethoven in honor of his 250th birthday this year. Listen to what she sees as she plays Beethoven: