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What colour is your hifi musical experience?

2nd May 2018

What colour is your hifi musical experience?

If you are reading this then it might be fair to say you’re interested in music. It’s probable that you’ve experienced a deep emotional reaction to it at least once in your life. But what do others experience when they listen to your favourite music?

It is generally acknowledged that none of us sees exactly what someone else sees. How can we, when vision is interpreted by our brain’s own unique network of neurons? The same is true of sound, which evokes different responses depending on the listener.

Sight and hearing are strongly linked within the brain but it seems some individuals have a stronger link than most. When it comes to describing sound, visual metaphors abound in the world of hifi; bass lines might be described as 'dark' and cymbals as 'light'. We might refer to the end of Mussorgsky's Pictures at an Exhibition as technicolour, or a single instrument sounding monochrome.But some of us not only describe music in such terms but actually experience colours each time a note is played. For these, music takes on another dimension.

The corollary to this is that reviewing or designing hifi equipment or the choice audio shops make when choosing to present what they consider good music reproduction is fraught with difficulties. What really is going on inside the head of these people? The best you can hope for is that they have a similar experience to you but it certainly won't be exactly the same experience and just could be very different.

This is why it is so important when looking into the world of music reproduction to establish a rich vocabulary that can describe the world of sound. Not only does this enrich one's personal experience but it also establishes a bridge between different listening experiences. So next time someone describes something as 'dynamic' or very 'musical' it should be possible to work out what those words really mean. 

Tom Service presents a very absorbing programme on this aspect of music, so if you want to know what Messaien and Kanye West have in common, pop over to Radio 3 at the BBC.



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