Reading time: 3:45min | How come that some of us have strong, unconventional opinions on colour and others less so?
The answer can be found in our ability to combine impressions of different senses and thus to get a clearer idea of what these impressions mean. We call this synaesthesia. People who are strongly receptive to it are called synaesthetes. The whole thing is basically known to us all. We say, for example, that the music sounds heavy or the yellow of the dress is pretty warm. Both attributes, heavy and warm, have nothing to do with the sense of hearing but with the sense of touch. Here we combine the sense of touch with the senses of hearing or sight to better describe our impressions. People with ample musical hearing experience can distinguish major from minor, for example, at any time and usually do so using the attributes sad (minor) or joyfully straightforward (major). That is not entirely synaesthetic but at least require a transfer of a mood to sound. The next step is to connect colours to the mood. An example would be violet for minor or yellow for major.
I can well understand the feeling of combining colours and music. To me, this also works well with forms. The number 4 is blue to me, for example. That can be quite different from other people. My music playlist “yellow” could be challenging for others to comprehend, who would locate my playlist “yellow” preferably in a light blue corner, and hence would name it “light blue”.
Although synaesthesia is very individual, there are rules that we all can understand. For example, most of us would think that sad songs, as mentioned above, are more in the violet than in the light yellow colour range. Still, some would reject such feelings as far-fetched. But everyone, at least, can try to develop worlds of imagination by combining senses; it doesn’t need to be colour and music.
Aesthetic connections such as red wine for red meat or white wine for (white) fish seem somewhat simple in this context. If you talk to culinary experts, you will find out that for Sommeliers the matter is actually not so simple either.
In this context, the question arises what to make of the information that the top Riesling from the Rheingau would taste like a whiff of slate and fine gooseberry. Is the association of grey slate partial the de-fruiting of the wine into another taste dimension since slate is as far away from fruit as it gets? Or is it because slate stands for barren soil in which nothing likes to grow which ennobles the wine, so to speak because the vine is such a tough fighter? Or is it because the sommelier had bitten in slate sometime in the past and now has that taste in her repertoire? Or the wine actually tastes of slate, and she simply presupposes knowledge of this taste, after all, we are not philistines?
The best thing is to leave it like this, imagine a piece of slate, next to it a gooseberry and don’t think about the meaning. Then you taste the wine and chances are you’ll nod and say “it fits”. From now on, you can follow this taste again and again because you have an image — gooseberry and slate.
The illustration of intricate, abstract sensory impressions (taste is abstract) is the first step to synaesthesia and allows cataloguing via picture and comparison. By comparing the mind images, one achieves a definition of the impression with clear demarcation. The gooseberry and slate taste of our Riesling Hochgewächs becomes even more evident when we compare this particular wine to other wines.
For instance, the wine of the neighbouring valley that has a clear note of unripe strawberry and grass and thus tastes very different. We imagine this too: unripe strawberries, accompanied by blades of grass.
Ok. This wine thing really exists, and I have actually been told about the attributes slate, gooseberry and grass by a sommelier. I can taste the gooseberry and at least smell the grass. I am left to believe the slate. But I know from childhood memories what slate smells like after a light summer rain when it is warmed by the sun and becomes moist and steamy.
Tasting wine has a lot to do with smelling wine. This is what makes wine as an experience so unique because it challenges the sense of taste and the sense of smell in equal measure and sets them in harmony. Such harmony can sound predictable as a clear major chord. We then find it congruent and pleasant. Or there’s a seventh in the chord and that let us experience a larger dimension. Or something is pulling the whole experience down in cheap dissonance.
All of that exists in the world of colours too. We recognise it as a contrast: the blue blouse that goes so well with that particular green trousers, the friend’s blond hair which works magically with her primrose yellow scarf and grey eyes, my red jacket that kills everything else I wear.
Lastly, don’t be fooled by strong opinions. Mostly such opinions are based on conventions, which by default are authoritarian. They are meant to create harmony, make life easy and decisions a breeze. This is wide-spread and quite likely the reason why many of us lose the ability for synaesthetic in our youth. But it can be brought back. Try to focus on your sense as you do on your body when you exercise.