Meet The Woman Who Paints Sounds

Photo: Courtesy of Melissa McCracken
"Little Wing" by Melissa McCracken. (Painting inspired by the Jimi Hendrix song of the same name.)
“Hey Jude” by The Beatles begins with soft gold and light blue tones. Paul McCartney’s voice is a smooth dark brown. The drums create low, bubbly mountains of spheres that rise as the song progresses. When McCartney screams, his voice adds scribbly green. The colours of the harmonies from voices and instruments mesh well, creating a smooth, well-organised calamity of bursting colour.

This is how Melissa McCracken experiences every song she hears — in colours, shapes, and textures. It’s called synesthesia, a condition in which the stimulation of one sense triggers the simultaneous and involuntary stimulation of another. In other words, McCracken sees sounds in colour. With every song she hears, she gets her own personal light show. And then she paints it.

McCracken, 25, began painting songs when she was 18, while listening to a friend play the guitar.

“It didn’t cross my mind to incorporate synesthesia into my artwork until I began to notice people’s interest in the condition,” McCracken said. “After explaining it for years, it suddenly occurred to me it would make more sense to show it rather than to describe it.”

Each instrument, rhythm, and beat brings its own colors, textures, and shapes. According to McCracken, acoustic songs tend to be muted, without much dimension, while country songs fill her vision with brown and mustard yellow. Harmonies create melting colors, while consistent sounds, like the beat of a drum, create pulsating visuals that appear and disappear throughout the song. Adele’s "Send My Love (To Your New Lover)” and Justin Bieber’s “What Do You Mean” both carry bubbly spherical shapes, while other songs carry more unexpected visuals — ones McCracken doesn't always enjoy seeing.

“In Salt n Pepa's ‘Whatta Man,’ the part where she raps ‘See other guys that I've had, they tried to play all that mac s@*! / But every time they tried I said, 'That's not it'' is spoken and comes in as a dirty orange-ish brown that doesn’t match the vibrant sunset colors of rest of the song," McCracken says. "It makes me hate those three seconds of that song.”

Those with synesthesia have no control over when it happens or what the stimuli will be, and the associations they have do not change over time, creating a very strong correlation between the condition and memory.
Photo: Courtesy of Melissa McCracken
"Lucky" by Melissa McCracken. (Painting inspired by the Radiohead song of the same name.)
The Missouri native tends to paint songs that carry significant memories in her life — listening to John Mayer's “Gravity” for the first time in the backseat of a car or to Jimi Hendrix with with her older brother in his room. She’s not just painting songs; she’s painting memories.

“If a memory of mine involves music, I often recall the visuals of the music rather than the actual setting,” McCracken explains.

Statistics and research on synesthesia are few and far between, but estimates suggest that between one in 100,000 people and one in 5,000 people have some form of it, and there are potentially dozens of subtypes, ranging from chromesthesia (the association of sounds with colours) to number-form synesthesia (the association of numbers, months, or days with a precise three-dimensional location in the mind’s eye).

McCracken also has grapheme-colour synesthesia, which means she assigns colours to numbers and letters — a surprisingly useful attribute in school, she says: “I remember taking math tests and knowing my formulas were wrong because they were missing a certain colour."

Though she works mostly with music, McCracken has also experimented with painting other sounds.

“Once I painted childhood memories for my parents,” she said. “For my dad, I painted the sound of his voice as I was falling asleep in his lap when I was little. For my mom, I painted the sound of her heels on our hardwood floor when she would come home after I was already in bed — which was always a beautiful cascading purple and gold.”

McCracken's art is a beautiful example of how the things that make us different can often be the very things that make us special — and how it's possible to embrace, and make something wonderful of, the unique idiosyncrasies your body is born with.
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