Experience synesthesia: Google tool lets you 'hear' colors and shapes

The neurological condition allowed famed abstract painter Vassily Kandinsky artist to hear colors and shapes through sound.

Leslie Katz Former Culture Editor
Leslie Katz led a team that explored the intersection of tech and culture, plus all manner of awe-inspiring science, from space to AI and archaeology. When she's not smithing words, she's probably playing online word games, tending to her garden or referring to herself in the third person.
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Leslie Katz
2 min read

The Playing Kandinsky project lets you hear the Kandinsky masterpiece Yellow Red Blue. 

Vassily Kandinsky/Google

When painter Vassily Kandinsky saw yellow, he heard trumpets. Looking at the color red made restless violins play in his head. Blue brought him the sounds of a calming organ.   

The pioneering Russian abstract artist and art theorist had the neurological condition synesthesia, which allows some people to hear colors and shapes. Just imagine the singular symphonies that played as he splashed paint onto his vibrant multicolored canvases.

A new project from Google Arts & Culture called Play a Kandinsky lets you go beyond imagining to hear what Kandinsky might have heard as he looked at color. The interactive tool even lets you experience his abstract 1925 masterpiece Yellow Red Blue through sound by clicking around the artwork to hear a seven-movement composition that travels through colors and moods as Kandinsky described them.  


Vassily Kandinsky in his Paris studio, which you can visit through the online project Sounds of Kandinsky. 


Experimental musicians Antoine Bertin and NSDOS worked with Google to study Kandinsky's writings detailing his multisensory perception. Google then applied machine learning to create a tool that simulates what Kandinsky might have heard as he created Yellow Red Blue. Depending on the colors and shapes you're hovering over, the piece can sound soothing or cacophonous, simple or complex. 

The painting is part of Sounds like Kandinsky, an extensive online effort by The Centre Pompidou in Paris and Google Arts & Culture to preserve the artist's life, work and legacy by immersing you in his world. A tour of his 1940 oil painting Sky Blue lets you zoom in on the details, and photos and descriptions of his Paris studio on the banks of the Seine take you inside the space where he painted his final works. 

But Play a Kandinsky brings the artist to life in a whole new way by immersing you in the synesthesia that played such a defining role in his creative process. Other artists such as Rimbaud, Billie Eilish and Pharrell Williams also say they have the condition.  

"Color is the keyboard, the eyes are the harmonies, the soul is the piano with many strings," Kandinsky said. "The artist is the hand that plays, touching one key or another, to cause vibrations in the soul."