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This Artist Experiences Sound As Colors And Paints What Music Looks Like

Melissa McCracken, a painter with synesthesia, explains what it's like to see your favorite songs.

Many of us have a sensory experience when we listen to music. A song may remind us of whom we were with when we first heard it, or make us picture the moments described in the lyrics.

For artist Melissa McCracken, though, the visuals associated with music are literal. She has a trait called synesthesia, which allows her to experience music not just as a series of sounds, but also as a bath of colors. Kanye West and Charlie XCX both say they have it too. Here's a TED explainer:

When a person has synesthesia, they experience dual senses for every one stimuli they're introduced to. For example, synesthetes may taste something when they hear certain words; in addition to seeing colors, McCracken says she perceives numbers and letters as having colors.

We sat down with McCracken to ask what it's like to experience the world in this way, and for the story behind her beautiful and fascinating paintings, available on Etsy.

MTV: How long have you been painting? Are you formally trained or did you teach yourself?

Melissa McCracken: I started seriously painting when I began high school. I had a few classes from then on in college, but ultimately got a degree in psychology.

Melissa McCracken

"Karma Police" -- Radiohead

MTV: Have you met anyone else who has synesthesia similar to yours? Were they able to understand what you described?

McCracken: I have met one other woman with the same form of synesthesia as I have. It was so strange discussing with her the differences we see in the same songs. She even did a brief sketch of "Little Wing" to compare to my painting, and nothing about it was the same. However, it was comforting to have someone to relate to, knowing their general experience is the same.

Melissa McCracken

"Little Wing" -- Jimi Hendrix

MTV: Do all sounds have colors for you, or just music?

McCracken: Mainly, it's just music that has vivid colors. Sometimes a sneeze will look light pink, or the beep on my alarm is turquoise, but I don't pay much attention to those colors. I don't think much of those until someone asks. Voices have a certain darker or lighter feel and can be more jagged-shaped or more rounded, but thinking of their faces instead usually overpowers the colors.

Melissa McCracken

"Gravity" -- John Mayer

MTV: Does one genre of music generally look different than another?

McCracken: Some music genres are diverse enough to have a wide range of colors, but then there are some like, say, modern country, that generally just look dirty yellow and orange. Maybe that's why I'm not that into modern country.

"Imagine" -- John Lennon

MTV: When you listen to something like orchestral music, do the different instruments create different colors?

McCracken: Certain instruments tend to have the same sort of look if they are in the same context. For example, classical guitar is usually a golden-brown hue. But electric guitar can be very icy-purpley or blue. This is what you see in "Joy In Repetition," in Prince's solo. But if a song seems more dark blue or more pink, those colors will shade the instruments a little bit.

Melissa McCracken

"Joy in Repetition" -- Prince

MTV: Do you find that synesthesia gives you an unusually good memory?

McCracken: With color-to-sound ... my memories of listening to Michael Jackson or En Vogue or Pink Floyd with my brothers when I was little are more emphasized by the colors I saw in them. However, the other forms were especially helpful when I was in any sort of math class. Not only did I associate a math formula with certain numbers, but I'd also have a color and placement connected to them to reinforce it.

It's also helpful with phone numbers and sometimes with names. I could get on the right track with a name because I'd see a person and think "blue." So I'd run through the list thinking, "OK, it's dark blue, so that must mean her name starts with an 'A,'" and then I'd go down the list of "A" names until the right one would click.

"Since I’ve Been Loving You" -- Led Zeppelin

MTV: Does live music look any different than recorded music?

McCracken: Live music gets a little tricky sometimes, especially at shows with a lot of visual stimulation and lights. If I go to a show where I'm not familiar with all the songs, my mind will just associate what I'm seeing with the song. Sometimes it just stays that way.

Melissa McCracken

"Life On Mars?" -- David Bowie

MTV: Do you tend to like songs because of the way they look, or do songs look good because you like them?

McCracken: I still haven't quite figured that out. But I think that sometimes the look of a song can make me more or less attracted to it. If it's not an "easy listening" song, sometimes I'll be able to like those sporadic notes more than others because I have some sort of image in my mind to contain it, and make it make more sense. Other times, I'll be liking a song and then a random, horrible color will come in, and I'll just be turned off. It just depends!

Melissa McCracken

"Tonight, Tonight" -- The Smashing Pumpkins