Back in the 1990-2010s, Hubby Mike and I attended the annual Gospel Music Week in Nashville, Tennessee. Each year, we would interview dozens of singers, songwriters, bands, producers, and other industry folk. We were blessed to become friends with many of these amazing, artistic people.
Including Mary-Kathryn Cunningham.
A native Texan, Mary-Kathryn and her husband Elliott moved to Middle Tennessee in part to support Mary-Kathryn’s musical career. During our interview—as she was telling me about working with the arranger for her newest project, One Spirit—I learned she couldn’t read music.
“It must have been difficult to work with an arranger when you cannot read music,” I asked. “How did you do it?”
It was very difficult,” she responded. “There was one time when I was trying to explain what I wanted in a particular part of the song. ‘It needs more yellow and less browns,’ I told him.”
“When I hear music, I see colors,” she explained as if it were quite common.
I didn’t know what to think of her explanation until a month later, when our copy of The Smithsonian Magazine arrived. In it was an article on Synesthesia.
Synesthesia is a neurological condition in which stimulation of one sensory or cognitive pathway (for example, hearing) leads to automatic, involuntary experiences in a second sensory or cognitive pathway (such as vision). Simply put, when one sense is activated, another unrelated sense is activated at the same time. This may, for instance, take the form of hearing music and simultaneously sensing the sound as swirls or patterns of color.
The phenomenon–its name derives from the Greek, meaning “to perceive together”–comes in many varieties. Some synesthetes hear, smell, taste or feel pain in color. Others taste shapes, and still others perceive written digits, letters and words in color. Some, who possess what researchers call “conceptual synesthesia,” see abstract concepts—such as units of time or mathematical operations—as shapes projected either internally or in the space around them. And many synesthetes experience more than one form of the condition.
The condition is not well known, in part because many synesthetes fear ridicule for their unusual ability. Often, people with synesthesia describe having been driven to silence after being derided in childhood for describing sensory connections that they had not realized were atypical.
While preparing to write THE CARPENTER AND HIS BRIDE: The Birth of Hope, I decided that Mary would not only be an artist, but she would also be a synesthete. I researched the condition and found interesting articles on the condition from Psychology Today and the American Psychological Association. I also contacted Mary-Kathryn, who wrote the following note about her experience as a synesthete.
Prophetic; foretelling events
In thinking about it, I believe there must be a connection between synesthetic experiences and the prophetic gift. Without getting into the theology of it all, it goes without saying that the prophets and many believers throughout the scriptures had dreams, visions, saw, heard & spoke to angels, were translated in a moment to distant places, and witnessed miraculous occurrences that outside of supernatural influence could not have happened. How does this support a connection between synesthetic experiences and the prophetic gift? To me, the two seem to have a similar root: communication.
I first recognized synesthesia’s existence in my own life when I was recording my third record One Spirit with a producer in Vancouver, BC. He let me know early on that he was not going to do a single thing creatively without me first telling him what I wanted. So essentially, I was acting as co-producer and his studio location in Vancouver made it much more challenging than I’d experienced recording with local producers on my previous two albums. So, I traveled from our home in San Antonio to Vancouver three times to record vocals and work with musicians, but spent the rest of the production time communicating with him by phone regarding sounds, arrangements, and dynamics. Trying to explain exactly what I needed for each song proved to be so difficult that it seemed to provoke a whole new sense in me for how to explain it. I began seeing and describing the sounds to him as colors! And telling him what I was seeing proved to be successful: an oboe is brown, a flute is bright yellow, a baritone guitar is black, drums are shades of blue, the vocal is orange, etc. In this way, I was able to express each song as a completed painting, full of mood and color, that could be “seen” as well as heard.
Although the Bible doesn’t say it, Mary may have had a prophetic gift, or a synesthetic ability to see and hear the angel Gabriel. Upon seeing him and believing his words, she was now able to communicate the foretelling of these events to Joseph, Elizabeth and others. When we see and hear things that others don’t, it opens a door of opportunity to exercise faith and communicate what we have seen or heard to deliver a message that needs to be heard. In doing so, we can encourage and express new possibilities to be considered. New ways of looking at things. New perceptions of reality. John 1:16 says, “Because He was full of grace and truth, from Him we all received one gift after another.” The gifts of God are many, they are dynamic and they are for helping us all to experience what is beyond the natural; what is of the Spirit.