Seeing Sounds

We’re all familiar with the five senses of sight, smell, sound, touch, and taste. But imagine the ability to see sound, swirling images drifting across a canvas that mimics a harmonica or piano notes of cerulean blue, not to be confused with rhythm and blues. Avi Lohr ’24 has this gift.

Synesthesia derives from the Greek meaning “to perceive together.” It is a neurological condition where information meant to stimulate one of your senses stimulates several of your senses.

“Some people are born with it, and more people have this ability than they realize.  Most people who have it assume everyone sees sound in this way. Basically, the wires in your brain are cross-wired so when I listen to music I see colors and shapes. Some people when they’re reading see all different colors, even if it’s just black and white,” she said. 

After reading the young adult novel A Mango Shaped Space about a young girl with synesthesia, Lohr recognized that she had this ability. “I don’t think I realized I had it until I read the book and thought,  ‘Wait, not everyone sees this!’ Then I was intrigued by it, and continued to explore it. It’s a lot of fun. It doesn’t get in a way.” 

Lohr says the ability to see sound is most effective when listening to instrumental music because lyrics can be distracting. To focus, she either stares at a wall or out of a window rather than close her eyes because the back of her eyes would create distracting patterns. Although the sounds that appear to her are not truly three-dimensional, the shapes can appear to have more features than if it was drawn. For instance, a voice could be a thread wrapped with little threads, not just a line with stripes in it. However, Lohr’s condition does not work in reverse. If she were to view an abstract Rothko painting, she would not hear music although she stated she could imagine what a work of his would sound like.

Lohr began working on her painting as a side project in the Outside the Box art class while online. She created the work while listening to Gregoire Maret’s “sad yet hopeful” “Stacks” (link here to song.) “When I’m drawing I usually draw objects or people. When I’m painting, it’s nature. Abstract is the most interesting thing to me because it’s based on emotion,” she said. 

She describes her work:

 “The light blue ovals are acoustic guitar picking and the light blue streaks are piano chords, any rust red is the harmonica, the colored squiggles are for when the harmonica comes in quiet and high then soars down (I thought of a bird diving in the sun for those parts), and the brighter reds and pinks are the synthesized notes under the melody at the end. The Turquoise WiFi-looking things are for electric guitar notes. The harmonica in this song was unique, as I saw it mainly in thin, softer but still very clear lines, where I usually see something similar to the largest string on a guitar with harmonica. “

As impressive as Lohr is as an artist, she’s an equally talented poet earning accolades for her recent poem “My Song to Your Shadow.” "Poetry and writing are really my first love because that’s how I express myself. I wake up in the morning, and that’s the first thing I want to do.  But, art is more like magic to me. Words are how I express myself. With art you don’t need words to show how you’re feeling,” she said.
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