Colourful sounds: Winnipeg woman can see what others only hear

When Alexandra Hasenpflug is driving she has to pick her music carefully. The 26-year-old Winnipegger has a form of synesthesia where she sees colour when her ears pick up sound.

Alexandra Hasenpflug speaks about her synesthesia Thursday at TEDxWinnipeg

Alexandra Hasenpflug, 26, is speaking Thursday at TEDxWinnipeg about her ability to see sounds and music. (Jordan Labelle Photography)

When Alexandra Hasenpflug is driving she has to pick her music carefully.

The 26-year-old Winnipegger has a form of synesthesia that causes her to see colour when her ears pick up sound.

"If you were to look at a light for a really long time and close your eyes and there's that kind of imprint ...  in front of your eyes," she said.

Synesthesia is a rare neurological condition in which stimulation of one sense leads to experiences in another — for example, some perceive numbers or letters as having inherent colours, others might taste certain words.

Hasenpflug is speaking about living with her form of synesthesia on Thursday as part of TEDxWinnipeg at the Tom Hendry Warehouse Theatre.

"It's always there. If it's like a really loud noise or if I'm listening to a song really loud, it will block out what I'm actually seeing," said Hasenpflug.

Behind the wheel of a car, Hasenpflug only plays tunes she's familiar with so there's no surprising crescendos. Knowing patterns of songs makes the colours less intense, and it's easier for her to focus on seeing what's actually in front of her.
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      When Hasenpflug sings in choirs, she takes additional precautions before performances.

      "If I'm standing in the middle of the choir, and it's like a really crunchy piece and everybody's singing really good and loud, I have to memorize my music because I can't see the sheet music," she said.

      Hasenpflug first realized she perceived sound differently from other people when she was in kindergarten, but it was not until high school when she was introduced to the term synesthesia by a teacher and felt free to talk about how her brain "sees" sound.

      "I was like, 'Oh, I have a word. I've got something to go off of,'" she said. "It made it a lot easier to sift through the internet, so to speak, and look up things."

      Even voices sound like colours to Hasenpflug, she said.

      Men often sound like oranges, reds and purples, she said, while female voices are brighter — yellows, greens, and teals.

      "When I say a voice is orange or something, there's a lot of other kind of colours under it … sometimes it will sparkle a little bit or there will be little flecks of other colours," said Hasenpflug.

      The more she gets to know someone the more "layered" the colours of their voices become.

      Hasenpflug has now turned her rare experience into a side venture; what started as a project to show others what she sees when she hears music has now become a business.

      She paints songs on commission for people who want a visual representation of their favourite songs.

      The challenge, she said, is getting the colours on the canvas before they disappear from her vision.

      "It's been a work in progress ... but it's getting there," she said.

      with files from Leif Larsen