A Conversation About Music, Art and Synaesthesia

Updated: Dec 21, 2020

Although you might not have heard of it, synaesthesia is surprisingly common amongst some of the most creative musicians in history.

From modern pioneers such as Kanye West and Pharrell Williams to historical figures such as Duke Ellington and Franz Liszt, the phenomenon is often used positively in order to help enhance art, music or literature.

Manchester based freelance artist Libby Ayres is one of a rare number of people to have this experience so we “zoom’d” over to see her.

As a start point, can you explain synaesthesia?

Synaesthesia is a neurological phenomenon meaning stimulus to one sense causes a response in another.

For me, this means when I hear sound, I experience it as colours, shapes, forms and textures.

I see it in my mind’s eye - but not literally otherwise I’d be bumping into things whenever I walk with my headphones in!

It’s a very definite feeling if that makes sense? I hear a sound and it simply is red, or blue, or pastels, or dark green.

This specific type of synaesthesia is called chromesthesia but there are other kinds too; some people experience colours when they think of numbers or letters.

When did you realise and what was your first memorable experience?

It’s hard to know what anyone else experiences, and I only realised I experienced sound in an unusual way when someone else pointed it out to me, I was about 16.

A friend recommended I listen to Blood Bank by Bon Iver and afterwards I explained to them what felt like - a dark forest, rich with deep greens and browns.

They sent me the Wikipedia page for synaesthesia and it grew from there really, pretty soon after I started to paint.

What made you start painting? Is there a specific process at all?

I started painting because I was interested in how songs would appear if I could keep them fixed, if I could picture the whole song at once.

I often find as I begin to paint, I can pick out and identify bits I haven’t heard before because I’ve been so focused on the heft of the song - perhaps a new instrument or backing vocals.

When I paint a new song, I listen to it for hours in the background whilst I work or clean to understand the intricacies of each sound.

When I’m ready to start painting, I put my headphones on and prepare the canvas, then get the background down.

Once that’s down I can add more details as I notice them in the song; it reveals itself to me.

What types of songs / sounds make for a good piece? How do you decide ‘this is the song I want to paint?’

If I’m honest, most of the time I don’t have a choice about what I paint as it tends to be a commission!

Once I started painting I quickly released that the majority of songs I liked appeared as colours I liked - or perhaps vice versa, I liked the colours because I liked the songs.

All My Friends by LCD Soundsystem is a favourite of mine to paint because it’s all mustard and gold.

Songs with distinct sections, like Scenes from an Italian Restaurant by Billy Joel, are fun as long as the canvas I have is big enough to accommodate it - I hate having to fit a huge song onto a small canvas!

Synth heavy songs are fun because they’re usually soft colours with a bit of shimmer and key changes are always a joy - I love them.

Next year I want to do a special painting of Beyonce’s Love on Top simply because of all the key changes!

Has there been any moments where it’s caused problems?

There’s only been one time it’s really caused me grief. I was in a jazz club in Rome with my partner of the time, expecting to have a lovely time… sadly I didn’t!

Jazz is usually all sorts of rich, beautiful colours to me - navy and red and purple and bronze and silver, though of course each song is different.

It’s worth pointing out that at most live gigs, it’s quite easy for me to tune out the colours, the same way I do in everyday life and the same way anyone ignores the noise of traffic or air con, I can just ignore it.

At most gigs, the colours are a fuzzy grey, muddy and unclear because the sound is rarely good enough to bring anything into focus.

However, at this jazz club, the sound was crystal clear just like I was listening to a studio session and it wasn’t pretty colours - it was orange, lime, electric blue, awful combinations of colours I couldn’t get out of my head.

It was too loud to tell my partner I couldn’t bear it, and besides, we were there because he loved jazz.

I ended up sitting in a toilet cubicle for an hour or two until the show ended. He was quite upset, understandably, but I didn’t know how to articulate what had bothered me as it was the first time my synaesthesia had been a problem.

What have you got coming up in 2021?

Well, now the Christmas rush is over, it’s almost time for Valentine’s Day! I get a lot of commissions for wedding anniversary or partner’s birthday gifts, so Valentine’s is a big one.

I’m hoping to finally start making prints in 2021 because I know at the moment the price of a commission can be a bit prohibitive.

Also… more giveaways. Giveaways are always the way forward!

It’s only really my Instagram that I keep updated so best to keep an eye out there for all the bits and bobs I have going on!

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