Synesthetic Metaphors

You might just see Kandinsky’s paintings as coloured lines and shapes on a canvas, but Kandinsky did not, he heard them. Known as the pioneer of abstract art, this Russian-born artist actually saw colour when he heard music, a neurological phenomenon known as “synesthesia”. In fact, he was so moved upon hearing Wagner’s “Lohengrin” at the Bolshoi theatre that Kandinsky decided to leave his career in law to pursue painting.

With his art he explored the connection between colour and sound, giving his paintings musical titles such as “Composition” or “Improvisation”, and creating visual images, or “chords”, which evoked the resonance of sound through line, shape, colour and texture. He went on to write “Concerning the Spiritual in Art”, published in 1911, developing a colour theory which not only attributed colour to the qualities of sound but also of temperature, movement and emotions. For Kandinsky, colour went beyond visual perception, it had the spiritual effect of touching the soul.

Wassily Kandinsky, Compositin 6, 1913
Wassily Kandinsky, “Composition 6”, 1913

Our hearing of colours is so precise … Colour is a means of exerting a direct influence upon the soul. Colour is the keyboard. The eye is the hammer. The soul is the piano with its many strings. The artist is the hand that purposely sets the soul vibrating by means of this or that key. Thus it is clear that the harmony of colours can only be based upon the principle of purposefully touching the human soul.”

-Wassily Kandinsky, “Wassily Kandinsky, The Painter of Sound and Vision”, The Guardian

Kandinsky was not the first to have perceptual experiences involving the combination two or more senses (such as sound and colour). The concept of coloured hearing was first explored by Ancient Greek philosophers who developed the theory of timbre, or tone colour in music. Isaac Newton later expanded on the theory, claiming that colour tones and musical tones share a common frequency. Georg Tobias Ludwig Sachs, a German physician, was the first to carry out medical research on synesthesia related to coloured hearing in 1812, followed by Gustav Fechner and Carl Jung.

By the 20th century, many of Kandinsky’s contemporaries had become inspired by the concept, creating art which involved multi-sensory experiences. Specifically a German group of artists called “The Blue Rider”, which Kandinsky was a part of, set out to make “Total Works of Art”, gestalt experiences which combined music, poetry, painting and dance.

Wassily Kandinsky , Circles in a Cirle, 1923
Wassily Kandinsky, “Circles in a Circle”, 1923

“… blurring the edges between music and the other arts had become a widespread obsession. The idea fitted with the spirit of an age when artists and commentators from Russia to America were embracing pseudo-religions, dabbling in pseudo-sciences of dreams and symbols, and gabbling with excitement about the prospects for a new synthetic experience of art where the material distinctions between word, image and sound would melt away into a kind of spiritual… ecstasy that would shake the body and the world. Poems and paintings became music, and music became paintings and poems.

-Gerard McBurney, “Wassily Kandinsky, The Painter of Sound and Vision”, The Guardian

In fact, synesthesia is not limited to only sound and colour. The most common form is grapheme–color in which people see colours when they look at numbers and letters. There are also other forms like the spatial sequencing of numbers and ordinal linguistic personification when personality or gender is associated with numbers, days of the week and so on. Synesthesia can occur between any number of combinations between two or more senses or cognitive pathways.

How a grapheme-colour synesthete might see letters and numbers.

While it is technically a rare condition, it is perhaps more prevalent in our use of language than we realise. When we describe things, we often say that they “look like…”, “sound like…”, “feel like…”, “taste like…” and “smell like…” something. This would be a type of metaphor, making an analogy between the sensation and something in the world around us that has a similar quality. And this is, effectively, what we do when we describe the aromas in a glass of wine.

Woman smelling wine

Wine aromas are derived from volatile chemical substances that are released into the air when we swirl the glass. Even if many of these chemicals are also found in the flowers, fruit, spices, and so on that we use to describe the aroma, what we are actually smelling is the chemical. A chemist might say “I detect C10H18O”, but the rest of us would say something more along the lines of “It smells like fresh roses.”

However, using your sense of smell to identify aromas through analogy isn’t exactly a synesthetic experience, or is it? There is a certain amount of mental visualisation that goes into recognising an aroma. Moreover, if we only focus on singular aromas to describe a wine it’s a bit like listening to Wagner’s “Lohengrin” and describing it as “a piece of music with violins, violas and other stringed and wind instruments.”. That doesn’t tell us anything about its bright but gentle sound and heartbreakingly hopeful melody that rises to a triumphant climax full of warmth and regalness before resolving into a sweet quiet.

Listen for yourself!

When we describe music, we often tend to borrow words from the other senses to do it. The sounds we hear can be bright or dark even if it has no colour, light or heavy even if it has no weight, warm or cold even if it has no temperature, sweet or bitter even if it has no taste- not to mention all the emotions and sentiments which are evoked. The use of synesthetic metaphors such as these help us to be more articulate about what we are experiencing.

In the case of describing what we smell, we are at somewhat more of a disadvantage. Regarded as the “muted sense”, linguists have found that there is far less lexical differentiation for our sense of smell than for any of the others. This leaves a gap between what we experience and the words we have at our disposal to express it. If describing music can benefit from the use of synesthetic metaphors, what more reason to use them for describing aromas in wine.

Wassily Kandinsky, On White II, 1923
Wassily Kandinsky, “On White II”, 1923

We could describe the individual aromas we smell in the glass, like individual instruments, or we could describe the synthesis of its symphony- it’s metaphoric colour, weight, temperature, taste and sound. If Kandinsky could paint music, than why shouldn’t we at least try to “hear” the melody and timbre of what we smell in a glass of wine?


McBurney, Gerard. “Wassily Kandinsky: The painter of sound and vision”. The Guardian, Art, 24 June 2006.

Miller, Renée B.. “Wassily Kandinsky’s Symphony of Colors”. Denver Art Museum, 19 March 2014.

Winter, Bodo. “Sensory Linguistics: Language, Perception and Metaphor”. John Benjamins Publishing Company, 2019.


  1. Synesthesia is a chapter in the Oliver Sacks book, The Man Who Mistook His Wife For a Hat I listened to recently. Several case studies described by him as well as the underlying neurological reasons. I think there was a possibility of a connection with autistic patients too. Anyway, as I listened to it I was trying to think of how I could do a post on it purely related to wine, but synesthesia related to taste seemed to be the “weakest” to correlate with other senses. Unless of course you count I Taste Red😂😂. However I think you have dealt with it really well by conflating (I think that’s the right word) our tastes with metaphors that go beyond merely saying “this tastes LIKE cherries” for example. You are absolutely right about lexicography too, amongst the general population our lexicon for describing taste is poor compared with that for describing colour or images. Unless you are trained for it, as you are of course and I am not. Perhaps this is why I move to the cognitive so quickly because I lack an affective lexicon?
    You seem to be on a roll now, your posts are extremely well focused and well written, you deserve a wider audience, but we seem to be surrounded by the tasting notes brigade!

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      1. Do you actually?! 😯 I mean, is that the connection your brain makes when you smell it? I used the analogy of roses because I have a penchant for them, but I think floral aromas are more difficult to recognise in wine than, say, fruit.

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      2. Yes, I really do! I’m unsure why that is, although I think it’s a combination of my high level of chemistry education which was in Analytical Chemistry at PhD level, plus a little I know of neuroscience from my psychology degree. My top 2 are Rotundone and Diacetyl, the latter coming from malolactic fermentation. I also taste Fraxetin especially in long oak aged Tempranillo. I often have to look up the actual formula but I roughly remember the structures of each because that’s a visual thing. Champa and I both recognise the smelly of many chemicals from our university days, not wine connected, such as Pyridine, Amines, Phenols yada yada. Sad isn’t it 😂😂

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      3. How fascinating! I guess you would if you’ve had years of experience in a lab. Reminds me of a book by Luca Turin, “The Secret of Scent”, all about the science of smell in the perfume world with a very interesting theory on molecular vibrations and scent.

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      4. Here’s an example for you. I have just opened a bottle of English wine from Flint Vineyards called Silex Blanc. There is a very famous Silex from Didier Dagenau in Pouilly Fume. The Flint wine is a blend of Pinot Gris, Pinot Blanc, Pinot Noir and Chardonnay. It’s a lovely wine, soft, gentle …. yet all I get is Chardonnay and ….. Diacetyl. It’s had malolactic fermentation and I can taste it a mile off! I’m cursed!

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      5. Love it! I just wouldn’t equate aromas of malolactic fermentation to chemicals personally, more like butter or biscuits or pastry (but maybe that’s just my training). I’m convinced that taste has texture, and “soft” is a very good example!

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    1. “I Taste Red”, it’s right in the title! Even more glad now that I got the book. I’ve been really inspired by the book I referenced on sensory linguistics which is confirming a lot of suspicions about the sensory and language I never knew I had. Ironically, the chapter on Synesthetic metaphors is not available on the google books version, so I took a leap of faith. In any case, that’s where the inspiration came from. Thanks for your support and encouragement! Maybe my breakthrough moment is coming 🤷‍♀️🥂

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  2. Great post! I love how Rachel Cristy refers to the temporal structure of wine, its evolution of aromas and flavours across the time, and compares it with the “play of sensations in time” similar to that of a piece of music.

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  3. A beautiful post Danell that explores our ability to express ourselves whether we have synesthesia or not. Though those who do have synesthesia experience our world in additional ways that may be difficult for us to understand. What Kandinsky did was to use his gift well and his quote, “Our hearing of colours is so precise … Colour is a means of exerting a direct influence upon the soul. Colour is the keyboard. The eye is the hammer. The soul is the piano with its many strings. The artist is the hand that purposely sets the soul vibrating by means of this or that key. Thus it is clear that the harmony of colours can only be based upon the principle of purposefully touching the human soul.” explains his thoughts so clearly.
    As a lover of wine and words I find myself developing evocative stories that express the sensory depth of a wine or even a travel experience that goes beyond the five senses. Digging deeper is where we live life isn’t it. Kandinsky did that beautifully. Whatever form of art it is, that creative expression is a way for us to share those pleasures with others so that they can sink into the same experience. To borrow again from Kandinsky’s quote, ” The artist is the hand that purposely sets the soul vibrating…”
    You explain it so beautifully here.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you very much! It’s wonderful when you can not just look at art, but EXPERIENCE it. I love your stories for their sensory depth. In addition to beautiful imagery, there are sounds, textures, emotions- it creates an atmosphere that is an absolute pleasure to read.

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