Most people can only enjoy music one way: listening to it. Others, who have the neurological phenomenon called synesthesia, can experience music, and any other sensory event, with multiple senses.
Those with synesthesia may link colors to specific words or numbers or may see colors when they hear different sounds, including music. Melissa McCracken gives us a glimpse of what it’s like to experience this multiple sensory effect by painting the music the ways she sees it.
The Kansas City-based artist creates colorful paintings that replicate what she sees when she listens to music, with each painting representing a specific song. PSFK spoke with McCracken about her life, her sensory experience, and her art:
PSFK: When and how did you decide you wanted to paint music?
McCracken: The first song I ever painted was an original by my brother’s best friend when I was 18. We had sat one night talking about my synesthesia as it hadn’t been too long that I had known it was different, and he was playing some new songs he had recorded. As I was describing the colors of a few, I just thought it would be much easier to paint them.
PSFK: What does your artistic process look like?
McCracken: When I create, I like to build outward. I’ll listen to a song over and over again until I get a good feel of it and keep layering the canvas as I go. I’ll choose parts of the song that seem to have the most impact and mold them together.
PSFK: What was your favorite piece to work on? What is your favorite aspect of painting?
McCracken: My favorite so far was “Gravity.” That song always had a very clear image to me and wasn’t as sporadic. It was very calculated and soft to create so I felt more sucked into it. My favorite aspect of painting is at the end of final steps of the process; that’s when each piece starts to feel like the tiny little world I had imagined. Once I feel like it’s complete, I’ll listen to the song again just looking at it, and if I get sucked in, I know it’s finished.
PSFK: How do you choose which songs to paint?
McCracken: I’ve always chosen songs that are close to me. Usually ones with very specific looking parts or some sort of crescendo. A lot of my earlier works were of ones that I had been connected to for a long time that I could finally let out.
PSFK: What would you like our readers to know about synesthesia and how it shapes your perspective?
McCracken: I’d like them to know that synesthesia is in no way distracting or inhibiting. It just gives a new personality and perspective to the way I see the world. If anything, it’s helpful in aiding memory and making things stand out more to me. I’ll notice parts of songs that I might not have otherwise noticed because they’re so vibrant in color and form.
PSFK: What would you like our readers to take away from your art?
McCracken: I’d like for the readers to take away a new perspective of different types of music. It’s interesting when someone enjoys my paintings but dislikes the music I chose. I understand that not everyone will have the same taste in music (or in anything) but it’s nice knowing that I could show beautiful parts of a song that otherwise could go unnoticed or unappreciated.