Be Brave: color blind artist sees shades of music

July 19, 2012 in Be Brave

Probably the coolest cyborg that comes to mind is the fictional Six Million Dollar Man. In real life it’s definitely Neil Harbisson, a self-proclaimed “sonochromatic cyborg” who is enhanced with his “eyeborg,” a prosthesis that allows the colorblind artist to see shades of color musically.

Harbisson had a passion for art that could not be deterred by his inability to differentiate colors. He studied for a Bachelor of Arts at the High School Alexandre Satorras in Barcelona, but was only allowed to use white, black and gray in his works due to his visual handicap.

At 18, Harbisson moved to Dublin to pursue his other passion: music. From there he went to England to study composition and piano at Dartington College of Arts. In England he made a connection that would change his life forever when he met Adam Montandon.


Montandon, a professor of cybernetics at the University of Plymouth, built a headset for Harbisson that is basically a webcam that hangs over his forehead like a third eye and attaches to the base of his skull. For Harbisson, with the aid of the device, a yellow banana has its own sonic signature as does grass or a dirty sock. The saturation of the color changes the volume at which he perceives the color.

“If we were all to hear the frequency of red, for example, we would hear a note that is in between F and F sharp. Red is the lowest frequency color and the highest is violet.” Neil Harbisson, BBC News Magazine

During a presentation at TED, Harbisson told the audience, “When I started to dream in color, I felt the software and my brain had united. And that’s when I started to feel like a cyborg. It had become a part of my body, an extension of my senses.”

A viewing of his Sonochromatic Music Scale shows the sonic equivalent to the many color variations that Harbisson can detect. While viewing it, you may realize that the sound changes when there’s no perceptible color change. That’s because musical performances are based on the sonic interpretation of his artworks. Harbisson is also able to do the reverse, translate music into color.

He told New Scientist that the music of Mozart was yellow and said, “So is Bach. But Beethoven is more purple and blue. Vivaldi’s The Four seasons is interesting — spring is very colorful, winter starts very blue, and summer is yellow…autumn is colorful too. Rachmaninov is red and blue, Cage is black and white.”

The sonochromatic cyborg even has live performances where he interprets the audience’s faces musically. He’s also developed artworks that he then translates into music such as the image above. Harbisson has even taken his perception beyond the visible spectrum into ultraviolet light. Now he can detect what days it might be dangerous to sunbathe.

At OBI Creative, we exude our Be Brave philosophy in everything that we do. We try to approach the challenges we’re faced with and the world at large from a unique perspective. Harbisson has done just that, turning an obstacle into an advantage, one that allows him to see the world in a different and beautiful way.

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