Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Using Colors to Teach Music

How many of you have heard of synesthesia?

Well, it's a condition that affects some people with very interesting sensory issues (mostly all good). Here is a good explanation from

"Synesthesia is a neurologically based phenomenon in which stimulation of one sensory or cognitive pathway leads to automatic, involuntary experiences in a second sensory or cognitive pathway. People who report such experiences are known as synesthetes.

In one common form of synesthesia, known as grapheme → color synesthesia or color-graphemic synesthesia, letters or numbers are perceived as inherently colored, while in ordinal linguistic personification, numbers, days of the week and months of the year evoke personalities. In spatial-sequence, or number form synesthesia, numbers, months of the year, and/or days of the week elicit precise locations in space (for example, 1980 may be "farther away" than 1990), or may have a (three-dimensional) view of a year as a map (clockwise or counterclockwise). Yet another recently identified type, visual motion → sound synesthesia, involves hearing sounds in response to visual motion and flicker. Over 60 types of synesthesia have been reported by people, but only a fraction have been evaluated by scientific research. Even within one type, synesthetic perceptions vary in intensity and people vary in awareness of their synesthetic perceptions. " (

I have synaesthesia and I know that often people with autism and Asperger's have it also. It's pretty rare and most synethetes don't realize that they have this unique condition until they realize not every sees colors when they see letters, etc...

Personally, it has helped me a lot in life, especially with respect to memorization and learning things. It also enriched my life because when I hear music, I see incredible landscapes of moving shapes and colors. Basically, I see sound.

Although I'm not lucky enough to have the type of synesthesia that would give me perfect pitch (basically see a very specific color when a tone is played), I still use colors to help me learn new songs. So I decided to try this method on my young students to see if it could help them learn music. I'm hoping that even if my students aren't born with synesthesia, we could maybe help them develop an artificial form of the condition if we assign colors to notes consistently, especially when we're learning new songs.

Currently I'm developing worksheets and games toward that goal. If any of you are interested in trying this new method with your child or student, feel free to contact me!


  1. Here's an interesting email I got from a reader who is also a piano teacher which may be helpful to other teachers:

    I am a synesthete. I was astonished when my headmaster in high school, who was a PhD psychologist specializing in gifted and talented children, told me that it was a synesthete, and described the way I perceive the world. How could he know that? It turns out that he deduced this from the fact that I had talent in the visual arts, as well as in music. I am a pianist/composer, and a piano teacher by profession now.

    I thought I would tell you about my synesthesia. It has diminished considerably since my childhood, but when I compose this wholeness returns. I taste and see sounds.I hear visual structures and patterns. I feel, however, that it is a mistake to say I taste a specific flavor, or see anything specific. When people talk about synesthesia and start making associations from one sense to the other, they cannot help but have to describe things in terms of verbal "packaging", or pigeon-holing. This misleads non-synesthetes to thinking the phenomenon is merely association of learned information, or leads them to describe it that way.

    I would like to add that everyone is in a way a synesthete. A concrete example of that is when we hear a song that we haven't heard in decades, and suddenly we are transported to the very living, multi-sensory experience we had. That is what nostalgia is all about.

    As a child I remember watching movies and, for example, tasting the sound of James Bond's footsteps clicking through the streets as he runs. Until high school, I just thought I was weird.

    I came across your webpage when looking up Autism and Piano. I have a new student who is about 9, and is musically brilliant. I am just starting him out and could use some resources and pointers to get him to read standard notation (which is why I was hired). This is the first autistic student for me, so I could use some advice. It is going well after 4 lessons. I am teaching him in terms of spacial relationships- up, down, skips steps. He has such a brilliant ear that I have to be careful not to play it to him so he learns to read.

    Please suggest any reading, techniques, etc.

  2. Here are some tips and techniques for piano teachers with students who have autism (a more detailed article is coming up soon so check back later!):
    -Many students with autism that I have taught have an amazing ear and some even have perfect pitch, so you do have to be careful that if you're trying to focus on reading notation, you don't play a song before they do because they may often side-step the reading process since they can figure it out be ear easily.
    -Be prepared to slow down or go back over material as needed. Don't feel pressured to keep progressing. Sometimes a student may get stuck or behavior issues may prevent learning of new materials. Be prepared to stop, observe and listen to what your student really needs and maybe take a different approach.
    -Some students with autism greatly benefit from a strict structure during the lesson. For example: First 5 minutes for warm-up, next 5 minutes for singing & clapping, Next 10 minutes for reading notes, 5 minutes break, etc.
    -Use a rewards system such as a sticker chart to earn breaks. Often I reward a student with a 2 minute break after a certain number of tasks.
    -Use different colors for different octaves on the piano if you are using letters.
    -Once you are teaching real notation, introduce only one new note at a time. I suggest starting with flashcards with huge notes.
    I will write a more detailed step by step article.