Synesthesia is a condition where the stimulation of one sensory pathway causes the automatic stimulation of a second cognitive pathway. For example, when someone hears a bell, they might also see the color yellow.
Synesthesia as a condition encompasses the totality of these connections in senses, which means that someone who is a synesthete doesn't necessarily experience the same thing as another person with the same condition. The condition occurs in about 4% of the population, appears to be largely genetic and can take form in a variety of different ways.
Notably, synesthetes are eight times more likely to work in a creative role than their normal counterparts. This results in many of history's famous artists having synesthesia – let's take a look at just a few.
1. Vladimir Nabokov
Vladimir Nabokov is a famous writer of literary works. He wrote novels, poems, short stories, and he had synesthesia. As an author, he also wrote about his condition quite extensively in his memoir Speak, Memory.
He actually describes his experience with synesthesia as having mild hallucinations. Unlike most people who have the condition and see it as an aspect of life for the better, Nabokov mentions that he didn't really draw any benefit from the condition other than a slight annoyance.
2. Tori Amos
Tori Amos is notable as a synesthete because she is a singer who has a form of synesthesia that affects how she processes sounds. For her, different sounds produce different light images, making songs appear as strings of color.
She even calls what she sees when songs play as "light creature[s]" and claims that she's never seen the same one in her life. Tori uses this synesthesia as part of her artistic methods too.
3. Duke Ellington
Musician Duke Ellington had synesthesia and it affected him in a rather unique way. He claimed that certain notes from one musician would be one color while the same notes played by other musicians would be different colors.
He also didn't just have synesthesia that related sound to color, but there was an added layer of texture onto those colored sounds. He is quoted as explaining a D as a "dark blue burlap."
4. Billy Joel
Singer Billy Joel looked well upon his synesthetic condition saying that it brought massive amounts of color into his life. As he would work on songs, he would be able to also picture the hues of color that went along with them, differentiating melodies from rhythms based on the intensity of the colored pattern.
Joel also reported that vowel and consonant sounds produced different visual colors for him, an interesting subset of the synesthetic condition.
5. Dev Hynes
Singer-Songwriter Dev Hynes reportedly loves having synesthesia. He struggled grappling with understanding how to handle the condition as a child, but now he enjoys using it to explore his creativity.
6. Patrick Stump
Patrick Stump, lead vocalist for Fall Out Boy, said that nearly all numbers and letters feel like colors to him. Music also has a synesthetic effect to him, but nowhere near as much as written text.
Stump has also become acutely aware of how common having the condition is for musicians. If not directly tied to musical ability, the condition does seem to have some tie to increased creativity.
7. Pharrell Williams
Pharrell is one of the most famous synesthetes of the modern era. He is also a major proponent of the condition being an asset, not a disorder in his creative expression.
Pharrell relies heavily on his chromesthesia, a form of synesthesia, when he is creating and playing new music. In fact, the condition has become so much of an identity to him that he recognizes it as the only way he can identify what something sounds like.
Franz Lisdt was a famous Hungarian composer reportedly using synesthesia in his compositions frequently. In fact, as he would work with orchestras on improving the overall sound, he would tell the musicians to make notes "a little bluer!" This created an interesting dynamic for those in Lisdt's orchestra.
9. Vincent Van Gogh
Vincent Van Gogh, while a famous synesthete, was likely hindered by the condition more than he was aided by it. Early on in his career as he was learning musical composition, his piano teacher realized that he was associating certain notes with colors. Rather than understand what was happening, the piano teacher thought Van Gogh was going insane and forced him out of her instruction.
It's not clear how or if Van Gogh's synesthesia helped his art at all, but it appears that from an early age he was taught that it was a downfall.