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Beethoven's Blue Balloons: Synesthesia and the chamber music connection

I like to play music with my eyes closed.


Since I was a small child, all I’ve needed to do is close my eyes, play, and dive into a world of vibrant colour.


This experience was—and still is—accompanied by the most wonderful feelings. Like an ecstasy. A glimpse of perfection. Seeing into the universe.


But it doesn’t happen every time. Only when the music is perfectly in tune, when everyone is playing in flow.


Most people with synesthesia—synesthetes—agree. We all take this wonderful experience for granted until we realise it doesn’t happen to everyone!


“According to the American Psychological Association, only one in 2,000 people experience synesthesia. It took me many years to find other people to talk to, but when I do meet someone—in person or online—it’s unforgettable.”

According to the American Psychological Association, only one in 2,000 people experience synesthesia. It took me many years to find other people to talk to, but when I do meet someone—in person or online—it’s unforgettable.


With my Musica Viva project, Colours of Home, I unpack this unique blend of sound and colour with primary school children. I once met a little girl who saw the same colours as me—it was like finding a sister!

Celia Craig and guitarist Caspar Hawksley during a 'Colours of Home' performance.

Sound, colour, and feeling


When I was eight, my violin teacher told me off for playing a Bb major scale with my eyes closed. When she asked why, I slightly rudely said, “because silver, - obviously!”


The silver was a shiny, thin metal, like silver foil. I liked the textures, too. For me, Tchaikovsky’s Swan Lake conjures charcoal grey, red mohair blanket, green shot silk waltzes and a bright, white, flashing finish.


If you want to try a piece with wonderful synesthetic qualities, listen to Fantasia on Theme of Thomas Tallis by Vaughan Williams.


Even if you don’t experience sombre nights, incredible dark clouds, glistening gold (every top E) and a finale of intense, swirling red clouds—you’re sure to enjoy this magnificent performance regardless.


Another work I love for its bright greens, yellows, and golds is also by Vaughan Williams. Symphony No. 5 is ideal for a long train journey with headphones.


Recently, I enjoyed a super live performance on the original instruments of Bach’s Concerto for two violins. The slow movement of the baroque pitch was like an oily, thick, purple stream—delicious! (No, I don’t actually taste things with synesthesia, but some of my friends do.)


The chamber music connection


Lately, I've switched to playing more chamber music, hoping to ignite more synesthetic opportunities.


Every musician playing in flow, tuning chords very carefully, is easier to achieve with smaller groups and controlled repertoires.


“The slow movement of Mozart’s Oboe Quartet … sparks an incredible night sky—an event horizon with twinkling stars (in D minor, a dramatic and beautiful key).”

The slow movement of Mozart’s Oboe Quartet, for example, sparks an incredible night sky—an event horizon with twinkling stars (in D minor, a dramatic and beautiful key).


I’m looking forward to introducing Mozart’s music in our concert on November 6th, alongside his friends and ‘rival’, Salieri.


I love unpacking Mozart’s character through his words and those of his friends. He sounds like a fun person!

When I played his opera, Così Fan Tutte, I wondered if he had synesthesia. His key changes inspire vivid colour shifts, matching with different characters—green, blue, and yellow for women; black and red for men.


Greens, reds, and blue balloons


At a recent Adelaide Symphony Orchestra concert, I closed my eyes and enjoyed the music as my friends played Beethoven’s Seventh Symphony. I felt compelled to write a description of my experience:


Shiny apple green, big brassy Es. Red comes in with the Dominant seventh, like a faint smoke. The D-major section is a huge, fat, blue balloon. The Scherzo is grassy green with a silver oboe solo, of course. So logical.


The basses and cello pizza are beautiful, clear raindrops, shiny and round. Bouncy purple chimes in before a green finish. The last movement has brassy gold accents, with flashes between yellow and glistening green.


The G# and C# deliver a cherry red and lime green, light, but textured like fairy floss. The Gs are a darker red, not cherry—that is too pungent.


“The G# and C# deliver a cherry red and lime green, light, but textured like fairy floss. The Gs are a darker red, not cherry—that is too pungent.”

Suddenly, it all turns flinty grey. The answering phrases in treble and bass are serious road pictures, reflecting the greys of tarmacs stretching forward, like Guitar Hero.


A light cherry red chord expands into a lustrous yellow-green again. The full orchestra sforzandi has white flashes of lightning. The open E strings are flashes of palpable gold—so real you could touch it, metallic and shiny. The bassline is a snaky river of dark green…

Artwork by a fellow artist with synesthesia, Cassandra Lynn Miller.

Towards the end, my ears gave out. I can’t do too much with orchestras now after thirty years of sound—too loud for me—plus, the audience applause sets off crazy paving greys and non-stop snow. An orchestral sound is thrilling—the Beethoven Seven especially—but it is a cacophonous piece!


That’s why I prefer small group experiences. The extra space for sound and a clear window into the audience’s reactions as they listen and play are so valuable. Sharing this emotional experience is much more fun and engaging with a small group, especially in a beautiful acoustic.


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