Sensorium

A Quest to Understand Extraordinary Experiences of Sense

A Wicked Case of Synesthesia

Legendary composer Stephen Schwartz and his colored piano keys

I was listening to Vanessa Williams sing the beautiful Disney Pocahontas song, "Colors of the Wind," when it occurred to me.


Anyone who could write this surely must not just be using metaphor, I thought. The words "can you paint with all the colors of the wind?" in the chorus felt too organic, too literal, too truly synesthetic to me to be contrived. Someone who could imbue the wind with color and imagine someone painting with it was not just a poet, but a synesthete, I was sure. So I reached out to the song's lyricist Stephen Schwartz, who has also given us Pippin, Godspell, Wicked and many other iconic compositions to see if my hunch was right. The man with three Grammy Awards, three Academy Awards and six Tony nominations must have a beautiful synesthetic palette, I imagined.

Broadway composer Stephen Schwartz is a synesthete.
Photo by Ralph Ruhmeier.
Photo courtesy Stephen Schwartz
To my delight, he confirmed his synesthesia for me in an email response:

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"...certain keys definitely have a color identity for me. For instance, to me, D-flat major (by far my favorite key for its sonority and richness on piano, which is the instrument on which I usually compose) is a deep orange. The other 'flat' keys also tend to suggest warmer colors lower in the spectrum, whereas the sharp keys, such as A or E, feel both brighter and cooler, in the blue or green family, and B major seems sort of bright purple to me. C major, for whatever reason, seems yellow to me, which I guess makes it both more neutral and less emotionally nuanced. Obviously this is highly subjective."

He says he once saw the color-breakdown-by-keys of composer Alexander Scriabin, (who may not have been a synesthete but identified as one in an age when it was chic to do so), and was struck by how different his own color associations were, some extremely so.

"So it seems clear that composers who have a response to keys that involve color (and as I say, in my case it is only a vague impression) do not all respond the same way. We bring our own personal associations and reactions to those colors to (or perhaps project them onto) our emotional feelings about the keys."

Scriabin Keyboard
The colored keyboard of composer Alexander Scriabin.
Wiki Commons
The great composer says he doesn't know if this response "colors" which keys he writes in, but he definitely feels that the key of the song helps support the emotion or feel of it and when it is transposed into an unrelated key, it loses something in translation.

"For instance, I wrote my song ‘Meadowlark' in A major (because that was the key I could sing it in), but for a woman's voice it had to be transposed; a successful choice of key for the transposed (and now standard) version was E major, because it is to me so close in feel and color to A (although E is a slightly richer and less brilliant key to my ears.) On the other hand, I wrote my song 'Lion Tamer' in D-flat major (as I say, my favorite key), but for singers it has had to be transposed down a half-step or two into C or B. In both instances, I think it loses warmth and depth, and becomes slightly the "wrong" color, so that this (vocally necessary) transposition always bothers me a bit. I feel slightly neurotic writing this, but since you asked, that's just how it feels to me."

Broadway Composer Stephen Schwartz
Stephen Schwartz by Ralph Ruhmeier.
Courtesy Stephen Schwartz
With this interview, the four-time Drama Desk award-winner publicly joins the history of composers translating the rainbow to musical form with his special gift for the first time.

To learn more about Mr. Schwartz's storied career, see www.stephenschwartz.com. The only biography of his life, Defying Gravity, was written by Carol de Giere and is notable for the many creative insights provided by the great artist, as well as stories from family members and colleagues. It may be purchased here: http://www.defyinggravitythebook.com.

 

 

 

Maureen Seaberg is an author and synesthete dedicated to advancing understanding of synesthesia.

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