melissa mccracken

“I paint music” – How classic records ‘look’ to an artist with synesthesia

It wasn’t until artist Melissa McCracken told her friend that she wanted to get an ‘orange’ ring-tone for her phone that she realised she had synesthesia. The condition’s specifics vary, but broadly speaking it is a ‘mis-wiring’ of the brain that makes people with it perceive musical notes, words and letters, days of the week or even food as a specific colour. We have covered this fascinating phenomenon before when we looked at writer Nabokov’s Synesthesia Alphabet, but for McCracken it’s all about the music.

melissa McCracken

Prince, Joy In Repetition

melissa mccracken

Bach, Cello Suite no 1

The artist has a growing reputation thanks to her bold, expressive, colour-infused works which each distill what she sees when listening to a specific piece of music. Her work covers paintings of rock classics by Hendrix and John Lennon, recent tracks by Radiohead and Bon Iver, but also a smattering of classical music. For McCracken it is hard to tell how her synesthesia influences her own musical taste, but she is clear on what she does and doesn’t like to paint. “Expressive music such as funk is a lot more colourful, with all the different instruments, melodies, and rhythms creating a highly saturated effect,” she told Vice magazine recently. “Guitars are generally golden and angled, and piano is more marbled and jerky because of the chords. I rarely paint acoustic music because it’s often just one person playing guitar and singing, and I never paint country songs because they’re boring muted browns. The key and tone also has an impact, so I try and paint the overall feeling of the song.”

Melissa mcCracken

David Bowie, Life On Mars

melissa mccracken

Radiohead, Karma Police

Influenced by artist and synesthete Kandinski, McCracken says she has also compared notes with other artists with the condition – fascinating for her as it confirmed that her own colour perception was specific. The colours she sees when certain music is played won’t necessarily match any other person with synesthesia. Her work is totally dynamic and heavily textured, with scores of the palette knife creating a real sense of movement. Capturing how music ‘looks’ to her on canvas appears to be a joyful experience, “[Music] flows in a mixture of hues, textures, and movements,” she says, “shifting as if it were a vital and intentional element of each song. Having synesthesia isn’t distracting or disorienting. It adds a unique vibrance to the world I experience.”

Melissa McCracken

John Lennon, Julia

Melissa McCracken

Bon Iver, For Emma, Forever Ago

You can see more of Melissa McCracken’s work and buy her paintings at her website.

Ros Anderson


Ros Anderson is an interiors journalist and blogger who has worked for The Guardian, Elle Decoration, Ideal Home and many more. In 2009 she co-founded cult interiors blog My Friend's House with Jill Macnair, as a place to write about design in a more honest, spontaneous and humorous way.

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