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This thesis explores the phenomenon of synesthesia through recent psychological research and the writings of Olivier Messiaen. Synesthesia is a "union of the senses" by which a stimulus in one sensory mode elicits a response in another. For example, a synesthete may hear music and involuntarily "see" colors within their mind's eye. Synesthesia has also been a Romantic metaphor for the union of the mind and soul. Both understandings of synesthesia involve a process of making meaning, which has potential bearing on the development of worldview. It is important to understand this implication in the life of a synesthetic musician. Currently, psychologists agree that synesthesia, in its various forms, is integral to a person's meaning-making processes. That is, the multi-sensory experience of an object or concept cements the person's relationship with that object or concept. All humans may be synesthetic to some degree and form these meaningful relationships via multisensory understanding. Accordingly, the most frequently reported synesthetic phenomena consist of color linkage with vehicles of communication such as letters, numbers, and music. It is then useful and enriching to apply this knowledge to the history and biography of known synesthetes. To establish familiarity with synesthesia, this project includes a history of scientific inquiry into the condition, culminating with a growing interest in cognitive psychology. We will also discuss the importance of literal and metaphorical synesthesias to artistic pursuits; synesthetic artists of the nineteenth and twentieth century often interpreted their visions as signifiers of spiritual meaning. Finally, we will approach the composer Olivier Messiaen (1908-1992) and examine the role of synesthesia in his worldview and compositions. By examining his own synesthesia - his own moments of "overwhelming truth" - we can better understand how Messiaen used synesthesia to connect spiritual and real senses, to make meaning of his world with his multi-sensory perception. This understanding of synesthesia's effects can enrich the process of writing a person's history and may ultimately shed light on how both synesthetes and non-synesthetic musicians make meaning.
A Thesis submitted to the College of Music in partial fulfillment of the requirements for the degree of Master of Music.
Includes bibliographical references.
Michael Broyles, Professor Directing Thesis; Denise Von Glahn, Committee Member; Alice-Ann Darrow, Committee Member.
Florida State University
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