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He's Got A Way About Him

America's Piano Man, synesthete Billy Joel, finds inspiration in colored music

Billy Joel has explored his synesthesia a little – but purposefully not enough to demystify it.

The Piano Man told me for the book Tasting the Universe that he wants to be careful not to get too clinical about his rare ability to see corresponding color to musical genres and even letters lest it vanish. And who would blame him? Synesthesia has helped him be the prolific songwriter the world loves. It provides inspiration. This interview first appeared in that book.

Public Domain Promotional Photo
Source: Public Domain Promotional Photo

"If I figure it out, somehow the sorcery disappears. Because I don't want to become formulaic with it; I kind of like the spontaneity and the mystery of it all. It's very intriguing to me."

Mr. Joel expresses something all we synesthetes feel – there is an ineffable quality to the gift. To ascribe it to unpruned neurons or lack of chemical inhibition alone – two of the dominant theories - somehow takes the magic away. And further, we can’t imagine life without these impressions and even like them. Perhaps synesthesia is a function of consciousness as much as anatomy.

Dr. Richard Cytowic, a pioneering neuroscientist, does recognize that synesthesia is an emotional experience, “accompanied by a sense of certitude (the ‘this is it’ feeling)” which he compares to William James’ description of religious ecstasy, and noesis (an illumination accompanied by a feeling of certitude). While brain scans have shown synesthesia to be active in the fusiform gyrus and angular gyrus, he has theorized an added link between synesthesia and the limbic brain, which is associated with emotion and a feeling of lucidity.

Interestingly, though he himself doesn’t meditate, Mr. Joel says the peer he feels the most affinity with in his creative process is Sting, who uses trance-like states for inspiration.

“Sting has expressed something similar to what I think happens...he's able to tap into a different consciousness. He studies yoga so he's able to meditate with a lot more discipline than most people. My feeling is that all of this stuff exists in a different plane and we tap into it somehow and I think I do it in a dream state."

When Rock and Roll Hall of Famer Mr. Joel pauses to create, he does have exceptional experiences. He sails the full spectrum of colors on his creative sojourns: His ballads are born in coves of blues and greens; conversely, his rock music is forged in fiery landscapes of reds, oranges and golds.

And he often dreams the hits that have become so much a part of the soundtrack of our lives; they appear against a field of amorphous and abstract colored shapes in his sleep. In his waking world he also associates musical genres and even letters -- particularly vowels -- with color.

"I would say the softer, more intimate songs… there's 'Lullaby (Goodnight My Angel),’ the song he wrote for his daughter, Alexa Ray, 'And So It Goes,' 'Vienna,' and another song called 'Summer Highland Falls...' When I think of different types of melodies which are slower or softer, I think in terms of blues or greens...."

Songs with a heavier beat, a faster rhythm, suggest the red-orange-yellow end of the spectrum, Mr. Joel explains. Think: “It’s Still Rock n’ Roll To Me”; “We Didn’t Start the Fire.”

"When I have a particularly vivid color, it's usually a strong melodic, strong rhythmic pattern that emerges at the same time. When I think of (those) certain songs, I think of vivid reds, oranges or golds."

Though peaceful aqua hues for ballads and radiant scarlet tones for rock seem logical even to non-synesthetes, I know he’s not being metaphorical here. Few of we synesthetes have the same colors for genres or notes or letters or numbers; he might as easily said the opposite or used purple – it’s just coincidence. There is no Rosetta Stone for the infinite pairings experienced by synesthetes around the world.

Synesthetes are very attached to their individual color associations; they’ve been with them for life and they often speak of the pairings with great affection. And more than other people, they seem to rise to tones of reverence when speaking of a favorite color among them. While every hue Mr. Joel sees for his music is gorgeous, he says, the rich greens resonate most for him. "I think I have an attraction to different colors at different times," he says. "The one that's most attractive to me, more often than not, is dark green for some reason. I have an attraction to very dark green: Hunter green, kelly green, royal green, deep green..." . He says the words as if he’s tasting wine.

Dr. Larry Marks of Yale has been studying synesthesia for 35 years now. He is director emeritus and fellow of The John B. Pierce Laboratory and professor of epidemiology and public health as well as psychology at the Yale University School of Medicine. His laboratory, appropriately enough, is devoted to sensory information processing.

I ask him about Joel’s particular form of synesthesia. “Some synesthetes ‘see’ colors when they imagine sounds, whereas others have to hear the sounds to see the colors,” Dr. Marks explains. “There is considerable interest in synesthesia research regarding the sensory, cognitive, and imaginative factors involved in synesthesia.”

Blues and greens also figure into the softer parts of language for Mr. Joel. In addition to his sound to color synesthesia he also has a grapheme form – graphemes being letters or numbers or symbols.

"Certain lyrics in some songs I've written, I have to follow a vowel color. A strong vowel ending like an -a or an -e or an – i, (which he uses at the end of a line when he wants to hold a note – a device he says he learned from The Rolling Stones’ Keith Richards), I associate with a very blue or very vivid green....I think reds I associate more with consonants, a -t or a -p or an -s; something which is a harder sound. These are what I associate with reds and oranges."

“Vowel sounds, sometimes the letters of vowels, are often strong inducers of synesthesia,” observes Dr. Marks.

Indeed, the French Symbolist poet Arthur Rimbaud composed a stunning poem about colored vowels in the 19th century called, “Voyelles.” Along with the works of fellow Symbolist Charles Baudelaire, Rimbaud’s work helped to popularize synesthesia.


“A, black, E white, I red, U, green, O blue: vowels,

I shall tell, one day, of your mysterious origins:

A, black velvety jacket of brilliant flies

Which buzz around cruel smells

Gulfs of shadow, E, whiteness of vapors and of tents,

Lances of proud glaciers, white kings, shivers of cow-parsley;

I, purples, spat blood, smile of beautiful lips

In anger or in the raptures of penitence;

U, waves, divine shuddering of viridian seas,

The peace of pastures dotted with animals, the peace of the furrows

Which alchemy prints on broad studious foreheads;

O, sublime trumpet full of strange piercing sounds,

Silences crossed by worlds and by angels;

O the Omega! The violet ray of His eyes!”

Dr. Cytowic, who ushered in a new era of research into the condition with his ground-breaking 1989 book, Synesthesia: A Union of the Senses (the first ever in English on synesthesia) as well as The Man Who Tasted Shapes in 1993, wrote on letter-color priorities in synesthetes and non-synesthetes in his recent release, Wednesday is Indigo Blue: Discovering The Brain of Synesthesia (MIT Press, 2009). His book suggests that sensitivity to pronunciation, as Mr. Joel describes, is even rarer a form of what is generally known as grapheme to color synesthesia:

"Sensitivity to pronunciation seems to hold for only about 25 percent of grapheme to color synesthetes polled (by researchers Simner, Glover and Mowat in 2006) and implicates an auditory component to their synesthesia," he wrote. "In other words, some grapheme to color synesthetes have an interaction with auditory parts of the brain, whereas for most their synesthesia is based only on the written letters...."

Like most synesthetes, Mr. Joel realized his experiences were unique as a child. "So when kids would come into school and say I had this dream about a monster or I had this dream that I saw you or somebody died, I had a nightmare .....I thought to myself, 'Gee, I have a completely different kind of dream. I dreamed a melody or I dreamt a great rhythm or a chord pattern or symphonic fragment for a song.' It was always music but it wasn't always the same kind of music. I have had literal dreams like other people but more often than not it’s an abstract kind of dream.’’

He also dreams in shapes. There’s a lot of abstraction in the dreaming. They’re amorphous shapes, not often geometric and don’t seem to have a logical pattern to him. “They could be protoplasmic shapes, amoebic shapes, a there's a lot of curves, there's jagged edges sometimes....No particular well-defined shape to it."

I’ve experienced this a number of times, but waking and in a passive, not inspired original music way. When listening to Fiona Apple’s “Sullen Girl,” for example, I see a variety of shapes morphing about in various colors. They seem carried by a wave of invisible water by their buoyant manner and not just because of her “calm under the waves in the blue of my oblivion,” lyric. They “pour” from somewhere.

To experience it yourself, if you are not a synesthete, see the scene in “The Soloist” where Los Angeles Times reporter Steve Lopez takes homeless musical prodigy Nathaniel Anthony Ayers to a rehearsal of the Los Angeles Philharmonic early in their friendship. Jamie Foxx, playing Mr. Ayers, closes his eyes in ecstatic reverie and Dreamworks Animation in cooperation with Paramount Studios supplies the synesthetic animated magic of what he sees in his mind’s eye. While Mr. Lopez told me he does not believe Mr. Ayers, a schizophrenic, is also a synesthete, (the scene was not the same in his best-selling book) the filmmaking trope is beautiful and realistic otherwise. It serves to demonstrate the joy that Mr. Ayers, once a promising Juilliard student, felt being around live orchestral music once again after years on the streets.

Mr. Joel also uses the water description to explain his abstract dreams on his 1993 album River of Dreams (cover art by then wife Christie Brinkley). He says it was indeed autobiographical:

Mr. Joel says he’s still not sure to this day what that song means; it was just something he dreamt almost as a whole. He didn’t even want to write the song but he couldn’t shake it off, it haunted him.

"When you wake up singing a song and having a certain rhythm running through your mind and you can't get rid of it, it means something. I've always found it's best to follow up the initial impulse when something is that strong."

To Dr. Cytowic, it is significant that Joel’s dreams have a residual value. "(This is) an example of synesthesia influencing his art, in much the way Carol Steen paints or sculpts the photisms she sees," Dr. Cytowic remarks. Photisms are the visual bits perceived by synesthetes. Carol Steen is a New York City-based painter and sculptor as well as the co-founder of the American Synesthesia Association

Mr. Joel sometimes has difficulty retrieving the inspiration immediately, but says that the colors he associates with his music seem to act as a mnemonic device. Synesthetes are known to have superior memories because of this. In my case, if I couldn’t remember that the United States entered World War I in 1914 for a test as a child, I would see black-brown-black-red and work backwards. In adulthood I find it works well with phone numbers and names.

"I think it has something to do with the brightness or the darkness of the color associating it to the brightness or darkness of the tone or sound,” Mr. Joel says.

And then, there's always technology. "I've slept with a small cassette tape recorder next to my bed for years. Sometimes I would wake up in the middle of the night, to capture this on tape but it never makes any sense the next day. The next day it sounds like gibberish. There's no context to it. Essentially I'll end up singing into the tape recorder; I'll wake up, I'll say, 'Gee, I want to remember this," and I'll sing a melodic fragment into the tape recorder not remembering the next morning what was the rhythm, or what was the chord progression, what was the context of the melody, how would it start, how would it end - so it's just fragments...

Dr. Cytowic finds this "fascinating," he says. "Like dreams we write down in a dream diary in the middle of the night -- they often don't make sense to us in daylight -- or we missed some crucial, emotional elements of what was consequential about the dream."

Mr. Joel says that sometimes songs will reappear the next day and sometimes they won’t return for months or even years. "The song ‘Just the Way You Are’ is a song I had dreamt and forgotten. And I was having a business meeting just a few years after I had this dream. And right in the middle of this very boring business meeting, I think it was an accountants and lawyers meeting, my mind was wandering a little. All of a sudden I remembered this song; well I didn't know that I was remembering it. All of a sudden this song popped into my head, and I told the people at the meeting, I said, 'Look, I've gotta go home right now I have an idea for a song.' And they said, ‘Go, go, go, write the song!'

As he was walking home he was trying to remember the cadence of the melody and as he pieced it together he didn’t sing the words in the song as they are now. Just like “Yesterday” by the Beatles was once “Scrambled Eggs,” he admits the line, 'Don't go changing to try and please me, you never let me down before....I love you just the way you are,’ began 'Don't be crazy, don't be stupid....'

Mr. Joel, as entertaining a storyteller when speaking as he is in song, goes on to explain that he wrote the song fairly quickly, then said, “How the hell did that happen?” On reflection, he realized he was thinking he’d heard it before. Then the aha feeling – yes, it was a synesthetic vision in a dream. The blues and greens and their various amorphous shapes had encoded it in his mind somewhere to be retrieved later.

“Color seems to play an important role in Mr. Joel’s musical memory, and to be sure, in the emotional nexus of his music,” observes Dr. Marks.

Dr. Cytowic has written that synesthesia may be a conscious manifestation of what is a normal, holistic cross-sensory joining normally occurring automatically and unconsciously in other people. This seems to suggest a more porous interface between synesthetes' conscious and unconscious minds.

This is a fortunate happenstance for Mr. Joel, whose inspirations don’t necessarily come during “working” hours and who must recall the inspirations that sometimes come from beyond the waking mind.

"It's not the kind of job where you can just shut the door and leave the office at 5 o'clock," he explains. "It's a 24/7 process and your mind just doesn't stop when you're trying to work through something that's problematic that you may not get....and then you just walk away from the continues subconsciously. Sometimes I'll dream an entire symphony from beginning to end. It's as if it was all composed in one fell the dream," says Mr. Joel.

"This is very typical of creative works that appear in dreams -- they are clever, wholly complete, and emotionally satisfying," remarks Dr. Cytowic.

Mr. Joel says he theorizes that when one is working and conscious everything is very tidy, organized and logical. "And then you close for the office, and you leave for the day, all the little elves that have been hiding in the office come out and start playing with your equipment - they get on your computer, they get on your typewriter, they get on your piano and they just take over. And it's not a logical process. It's like a bunch of kids ransacking a tool shop.”

In an unconscious state, Mr. Joel says, all bets are off, it's anarchy. He finds this to be kind of helpful sometimes – he’s able to take the blinders and the restrictions off – no rules apply. Anything goes.

“And it's a much freer state the subconscious or the unconscious state. That's how it seems to work for me. I have written songs other than from dreams, although I suspect that the germ of the song comes from a dream that I have recognized or that I remembered or recalled.

Sometimes he’ll have written a song, an inspired song, and he wonders where it came from, he says. “There's almost a sense that I lifted my head up into this rarefied stratosphere and the idea came like a Promethean moment. I don't always know how it happened but I know that it definitely happens from a dream state. And it's just an assumption I have because I really haven't analyzed it all that deeply...But when I am in a conscious state and I do write and I do come up with something that it may have germinated in a dream state."

Mr. Joel said he is grateful his musical parents gave him piano lessons from an early age to bring his dreams to bear. His father was a pianist, his mom was musical and he even has a half brother who is a conductor in Europe based in Vienna. “It was a secondary language in my house, in my home life, in my household."

And it seems Mr. Joel has passed his gift onto his talented daughter with supermodel Christie Brinkley: fellow musician Alexa Ray Joel, the little girl who sang all those songs to him sailing on an emerald bay in his lullaby dedication.

"My daughter has said she has had dreams of music…We've shared stories of, 'You know, I woke up and I had had this incredible dream. I dreamt a symphony and now I don't remember what it is and it’s very frustrating.' It drives you nuts!

He says he’s not sure what the connection is during the dream. He does know when dreaming of a symphony, it’s not literal like being in a concert hall or listening to a phonograph. “I'm dreaming of a color being present during the music being played or the music being heard. I don't know what the connection is. “

Mr. Joel wonders if his gift would have flowered had he not had piano training from the age of four. “I made the connection immediately with a form of communication, with a form of almost talking to myself.” It opened up a rich inner life, he explains.

"When I was a little kid I would just walk over and start banging on it. If I wanted to write a storm song I'd start playing - just banging on the low notes for the thunder and banging on the top notes for the lightning and after four years my mother said, 'That's enough of that song. Let's go to the piano teacher so you can learn how to play this thing right.'

"All I know from my own experience is that emotions or even intellectual logic is synthesized somehow into music in my mind. I can feel as if I had a literal experience through hearing music. Even when I'm consciously listening to music, listening to composers like Beethoven or Rachmaninoff or Debussy, I go through an emotional experience as if I've had an interaction with another person; as if I've just had a love affair or I've had a great sadness or a great joy. It's the same exact feeling. I can go into an ecstasy; I can go into a depression just from the way my mind responds to music, my emotions respond to it.

Mr. Joel says he is so sensitive to operatic music he often finds he doesn’t need a libretto to know what’s going on. “I kind of comprehend what's going on musically."

And Mr. Joel has begun to return to what he believes is a purer form of his synesthetic experience: Classical music. "There is an album of piano pieces that I composed. It came out not long after 9/11 called 'Fantasies and Delusions.' These were all piano pieces that I was compelled to publish and I call it 'Fantasies and Delusions,' because it's a little audacious for someone like myself who's worked in rock n' roll and pop music to all of a sudden present 19th century style romantic piano pieces as if I was a contemporary classical composer. But it's something that's always been a desire of mine to do. And these are pretty much completely dreamt-through pieces. I didn't sit down and fuss a lot with form and structure and development and variation consciously. They were pretty much presented as they were dreamt, which is another reason I called it (that).’’

Mr. Joel says these compositions are the purest translation of synesthesia he has produced because lyrics don’t appear to him in dreams or inspired states – just melodies carried on color forms. Though he writes lyrics later in an attempt to convey the emotion of the inspiration, he feels the original synesthetic impression is ineffable and so words don’t quite capture it.

"In the piano pieces on 'Fantasies and Delusions,' they're all subtitled, by the way, there is a connection to a human or a personal experience that this music is describing. One of the pieces is called 'Soliloquy on a Separation' and the piece is supposed to emotionally describe the end of a visitation with my daughter when I was getting divorced. And it might help to explain what the piece is trying to express because I realized when I had dreamt these pieces that they all came from an actual experience and I was trying to musically work it out...I'm by myself trying to translate my own work.’’

In another beautiful piece called "Star-Crossed Suite,” a love affair is journaled in three different movements, he says. The first movement is all about desire and longing and called 'Inamorato"; the second movement is the physical consummation of that desire, which is called, "Sorbetto" and the third movement is called "Delusion" when the rose-colored glasses come off and people see relationships for what they really are. Each of these pieces were dreamt, he explains.

Mr. Joel’s pop songs have been peopled by bartenders, real estate novelists, popular steadies and Uptown girls. His lyrics may be Earthly but the melodies they ride upon…

He says as he matures he’s willing to consider the possibility of something beyond this reality. "At one time in my life I rejected all things spiritual and I thought I had an answer for everything. But now at this point in my life... I think there are different spiritual planes that I can't explain, that I don't understand and that I've never seen an explanation for and that I'm willing to accept the possibility of that.’’

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