What a Synesthete Sees When She Listens to Prince

Erika Peterson is an L.A.-based artist and a contributor to the Muse 2 the Pharoah podcast that explores Prince, from a female perspective. As someone with synesthesia, until she was 20, she thought everyone experienced music the way she did — full of color! Here, Erika gives us a glimpse into how she “sees” music.

Q. How did you figure out that you have synesthesia? We had a unit on it in one of my art classes my second year in college and up until then I thought everyone heard colors in music! I was honestly surprised to find out that I was the only person in the class to experience it.

Q. Can you describe how synesthesia feels for you? When it comes to letters, numbers, sounds, songs, do you “see” them in colors, or is it more of “when you think of the color E, what color do you imagine it to be?” I experience it in several different ways! I don’t necessarily “see” them in colors but for me, the letter E and my name are both red, the number 6 is green. I manage a lot of calendars at work and when people color code them I always have to redo them because the paint department is seafoam green, please do NOT use a hot pink highlight on it!! It manifests itself in dance as well – when I hear certain sounds, it makes me want to move my body in a certain way. And this part sounds so silly in writing, but I have a lot of really big, colorful tattoos – full sleeves, kind of a watercolor, dreamy style, lots of blues and purples and greens… when I finally finished them, I felt like I finally looked on the outside how I feel on the inside… bursting with color and vibrancy.

Q. Is there anything in Prince’s work — clothes he wore in certain periods, stage lighting for certain songs — that makes you wonder if he might have had synesthesia? YES. Diamonds and Pearls for me is so pleasing in this way – the end of the 80s seemed to be such a fraught and emotionally loaded time for him, a lot of the music is darker both in sound and lyrical content (a lot of suicide contemplation in Graffiti Bridge!); Diamonds and Pearls sounds to me like the sun coming out after a storm, so the abundance of canary yellow in his wardrobe at this time and the choreography with the Game Boyz during “Daddy Pop” fits with it so nicely. Sign O’ The Times is another one that sounds like how he dressed and the stage set for the movie – I didn’t see anything from it until I was well acquainted with the album, so it was pleasing to see a lot of peach because that’s how Camille’s voice sounds to me. Art Official Age sounds like space to me, like you’re floating through a galaxy and Lianne La Havas’s voice is a shiny, smooth metallic gold cutting through it, really futuristic and in a dreamlike space. Again it was something I listened to before I saw the album art or what he was wearing at the time (lots of galaxy prints and metallics).  

Q. Do you identify particular Prince “eras” with colors? How about albums? The Black Album for me is that – mostly black! Same with Batman – most of the songs on those two albums don’t seem as colorful as his earlier 80s work or as lush as his early 90s output. Lots of shiny blacks and thin lines, but not much else. The One Night Alone era is green for me, I have no idea why!! 

Q. For the fun of it … do you connect any of these songs with a color?

Little Red Corvette – the title of the song when written is green!! The synths are pulsing rainbows, the song itself is orange-ish yellow. Definitely not red.

The Beautiful Ones – the song as a whole is black, the keys are hot pink, his voice in this is lavender, the synths in this are green, at the end when he’s screaming it’s a dark blue.

If I Was Your Girlfriend – the drum machine is black, his voice is peach, the backing vocals are thin, straight black lines, morphs into green at the end.

Girls & Boys – light blue with white sparkles, the bari sax is a dark blue/teal.

Gold – this song sounds like the album cover looks. his voice on it is a sheer, thin white, the end is like… a burst of rainbows/fireworks like the old Winamp screen savers in the early 2000s!

Morning Papers – shades of blue, his voice is a light blue, the piano is white, the guitar is gold and the horns are yellow.

4Ever – layers of green, the instrumentation is dark green, his voice is grass green, strings are light green. Ombre stripes almost. 

Dolphin – the beginning sounds like when you’re underwater looking up at the surface when sunlight hits it. The rest of the song is thin strings of color, mostly blues and greens.

Way Back Home – this whole album is SO colorful (but in a different way than the Revolution albums are colorful). This song sounds like nebula looks.. navy and purple, hot pink swirls of cloud looking formations with billions of stars. His voice is rich and smooth matte black with gold streaks.

Big City – this song is so vibrant! Mostly red, lots of warm colors. 

BONUS – the song Peach is not peach at all, its various shades of green and his voice is red. The guitar solo in Joy in Repetition is always green, no matter what version.

Q. What’s been the absolute best thing about having the gift of synesthesia?The ability to experience music through so many different senses & appreciate it so fully! The ability to manipulate your mood with music isn’t exclusive to someone with synesthesia, but if I’m feeling a particular way, I can choose to enhance it or change it by listening to songs that feel like certain colors, or that make me want to dance in a specific fashion. For instance today it’s raining so I’m listening to a lot of songs that have a dark & stormy sound to me – not necessarily moody, they just sound like it looks outside. And of course another fun aspect is freaking people out, let’s be honest. 

Thank you for sharing your gift with us, Erika! Check out Erika’s art via her Etsy shop: etsy.com/shop/houseofmiranda or her business Instagram, @erika_anne_creative.

5 thoughts on “What a Synesthete Sees When She Listens to Prince

  1. Susan

    I find this all so fascinating. I really want to explore it more. I wonder… Is any thing the synesthete (?) experiences anything like the chakra system, green relating to love, heart space, etc.? Or perhaps traditional color therapy meanings? This topic is so interesting to me. As I mentioned earlier I really want to research this more and try your out your ideas. Thank you Laura for this thought provoking content. I’m just wondering what you wrote about in January and February on your Prince journey!

    • lauratiebert

      Yes, I agree that it could be related to the chakras — that would make a lot of sense. You can read my whole journey here on the blog – just scroll down the page for all my posts starting from January. I’m only three months in and already it’s transformed my life!

  2. Eva Swahn

    In ancient Egypt Music was used for healing. The seven chacras has the colours of the rainbow each connecting to a vibration=sound. But to see the colours of the vibrations is a gift few people have been giving. When I was giving birth to my son, I asked my husband to sooth my pain by giving my lover back a massage while he was singing his Irish folk songs. That is the only time I have seen the colours of music. I experienced it like The Nordic light dancing in different patterns. Absolutely stunning. I would love to experience music that way once more.

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