Classical Connections: What Colour is Monday?

Composer Michael Torke

Well, I must admit that the question might seem a bit bizarre but for many people it’s perfectly rational. You see, for such individuals the days of the week have their own colours and sometimes even their own shapes, textures and tastes. Holly Baxter is an Executive Editor at The Independent’s bureau in New York. Some years ago, as a university student, she realised that she perceived days of the week as colours. “Saturdays are yellow and Thursdays are dark blue,” she writes, “That’s something I’ve always known. To me, it’s as obvious as saying that winter is cold and summer is warm. It was so completely obvious that for most of my life, I didn’t think it was worth saying out loud.”

Holly is not alone in having strong associations between days and colours. Only yesterday I was chatting with a friend over coffee and I asked him the same question. “What colour is Monday?”  “Shiny black,” he said, without hesitation. Not a shadow of doubt. The conversation revealed that he sees Sunday as bright yellow, Tuesday as beige-yellow and Wednesday as a kind of papal purple. It’s estimated that up to six percent of the population have this neurological condition. Perhaps “ability” would be a better word. It’s been described as a kind of “cross-talk” between the senses so that when one sense is activated, another unrelated sense is activated simultaneously. Studies have shown that it’s often genetic and more common in women than in men. The technical term for this fascinating phenomenon is synesthesia. We still don’t understand the precise neural mechanism, but it seems to be established in early childhood and involves involuntary communication between neighbouring areas of the brain.

The influential English philosopher John Locke wrote about “combined senses” as early as the seventeenth century, though the term synesthesia wasn’t coined until the late-1800s. For many years, it was assumed to be the product of an over-active imagination and not until the 20th century was it taken seriously. According to Carol Steen, the co-founder of the American Synesthesia Association, there are more than sixty permutations of synesthesia. They might include “tasting” words or “smelling” a piano concerto but the most common types involve colour. The technical word for this type of synesthesia is chromesthesia.

The Russian composer, Rimsky-Korsakov was convinced that he perceived musical keys in colour. He always felt that the key of G major was brownish-gold that the key of F-sharp was strawberry-red. His compatriot, the composer Alexander Scriabin disagreed. To him, G major seemed orange-pink and F-sharp bright blue.

Ever since my childhood years, A major has always been bright red (Scriabin thought it was green) and G major has always seemed a rich orange-yellow. G minor is a kind of greyish olive-green while F minor is a misty and delicate pale blue. Like other people who have synesthetic experience, these colour perceptions seemed perfectly normal and hardly worth mentioning. It came as a shock to discover that no one else thought A major was red. Incidentally, since my teenage years I have always perceived Elgar’s music as dark sepia, whereas the music of Britten is always steely-grey. As to why, I honestly have no idea.

Michael Torke (b. 1961): Javelin. Baylor Symphony Orchestra cond. Matt Hagestuen (Duration: 09:43; Video: 2160p HD (4K))

I first came across a reference to the American composer Michael Torke in the fascinating book Musicophilia, by the British writer and neurologist Oliver Sacks. In the chapter on musical synesthesia, Dr Sachs writes that even as a young child, Michael Torke associated musical keys with colours. He was evidently surprised that other people didn’t share his perception. The colours, some of which he admits are difficult to describe verbally, have been consistent and fixed for over forty years. Torke has composed music that includes colours in the titles, such as Bright Blue Music, and Ecstatic Orange which were later combined in the 1991 suite Color Music.

His music is sometimes described as a post-minimalist. This term, coined in the 1980s is intended to classify music that goes beyond the aesthetic principles of minimalism and is invariably diatonic. If that description strikes you as meaningless, it doesn’t really matter because Torke’s music falls easily on the ear. Javelin is the composer’s best-known work, composed in 1994 and commissioned by the Atlanta Committee for the Olympic Games.

It’s virtually a concert overture, with brilliant orchestration and compelling themes. Gramophone magazine called it a “bright and breezy” work, and I found it refreshing in its conception with a kind of epic, movie-like quality. Sometimes, the music of John Williams came to mind. This piece compelled me to seek out other music by the same composer, all of which proved rewarding. And incidentally, Michael Torke’s colour associations don’t stop at music. Letters, numbers and days of the week all have their own colours. In case you are wondering, he sees Sundays as black, Mondays as green, Tuesdays as whitish-yellow and Wednesdays as magenta. So, what colour is Monday for you?