HiFi Fun: Synethesia and SINAD

My dear friend and colleague Herb Reichert’s recent piece for Stereophile got me thinking. I love when that happens.

Back, way back, in my first year of college, I had an art teacher who claimed listening to music presented a symphony of shapes and colors before her eyes, as real as anything in one’s normal line of sight. This was 1979, so most students thought she was simply colorful.

During my tenure the following year at the School of Visual Arts, a local news program showed up to film students making art for an upcoming special program on. . .synesthesia. The camera crew slinked around the studio looking for artists making art (“Look intense!”), zooming in and out of the creative process and giving a few of us our 15 seconds of TV time. In the back of my head, I was thinking—I knew that teacher was more than colorful.

Thoughts of synesthesia have been dancing in my head ever since, and awareness has grown thanks to the work of people like neurologists Oliver Sacks and Richard E. Cytowic. I’ll let them explain:

Fascinating, no? The relevance of synesthesia to our hifi hobby should be obvious—synesthetes, like my art teacher who sees visions when listening to music, have a very different kind of experience compared to the non-synesthete. Or do they?

I found this line from the Cytowic TED Talk of great interest:

So, inwardly, we’re all synesthetes, outwardly unaware of the perceptual couplings happening all the time. Cross-talk in the brain is the rule, not the exception.

“Cross-talk in the brain is the rule, not the exception.” In other words, our path through life creates inner perceptual couplings between senses unique to each one of us that filter our experiences in deeply personal ways. This helps explain why two people sharing the same experience can walk away with vastly different impressions.

What does all this have to do hifi? To my mind, the answer is obvious—The experience of listening to music on the hifi is, in fact, a deeply personal event that gets filtered through our unique perceptual couplings. Expecting the same reaction to the same music played through the same hifi from a group of people swims against the tide of how we humans perceive. It’s like expecting a busload of MTA passengers all have the same destination because they’re on the same bus. [footnote 1]

For Herb, listening to music on the hifi sets off visions, “The older I get, the more attentively I listen to recordings, the more importance I assign to the myriad moving pictures I see between my speakers.” For others, like the composer in the Oliver Sacks video, music presents colors, and for others still, like my college art teacher, colors are joined by shifting shapes. And of course, no two synesthetes see the same things even when they see the same kinds of things. You sing tomato, I see yellow.

All of this suggests that if we really want to understand the relevance and impact that listening to music on the hifi has to offer, the place to begin is within the listener. And for every listener, there will be a different story to tell.

1. There are people who will tell you, as if it’s a matter of science-based fact, that our experience of listening to music on the hifi can be prejudged by things like SINAD measurements—above this measure = good | below = bad. That’s like believing a busload of MTA passengers are on their way to either heaven (good) or hell (bad), and you can tell which is which by the size of their uvula.

Further Reading

Musicophilia: Tales of Music and the Brain, by Oliver Sacks
Synesthesia, by Richard E. Cytowic
Spotlight on Science: Carol Steen, MIT Press (my art teacher interviewed)
Magic Picture Shows, by Herb Reichert