Seeing the Dancing Shapes of Music, Water, and Flower Fragrance

Author Ninghui Xiong discusses his new e-book, Painting Music

“The “dancing nature” of music cannot be ignored. The movement of music is oriented in three-dimensional space, and its sense of tempo (adagio, andante, allegro, presto, etc.) is reflected in different forms of lines on the canvas.”—Ninghui Xiong

The author is interviewed by Patricia Lynne Duffy

PLD: You are a visual artist who not only hears music, but also “sees” music. This rare synesthetic perception allows you to “paint” the music you hear. You share the fruits of your perception and artistic talent in your beautiful book Painting Music, where your paintings of compositions by traditional Chinese musicians/composers, such as Master Guan Pinghu, Wang Wei and western composers including Chopin, Debussy, Gershwin, Vivaldi, are beautifully represented. Have you always been able to “see music”?

NHX: Thank you for your kind remarks! It seems that my synesthetic perception is related to my interest in music. Beautiful music catches my attention. The more I listen to the details, the clearer images appear on my mind – the colors and brushstrokes look like those images of paintings in the first chapter. I don’t listen to unpleasant music, and I don’t want to “see” it.

PLD: Your book, Painting Music indicates that your experience of synesthesia is just one component of your artistic process. In your paintings, you are not simply “transcribing” your synesthetic perceptions. Rather, you are employing them as an element of your artistic work, while also incorporating other insights and skills—such as sensing the “inner music” intrinsic to a work of art.

You describe sensing this “inner music” as the artwork takes shape, plus a heightened awareness of the connection among all the arts. Could you comment on the interplay of these processes in creating your work?

NHX: Painting music is an art. I call it “dialogue with music”. It is not a complete record of the synesthetic visualization of music. Rather, it might be called a “summary” of my experience, then a refinement—in other words, my art results from several steps in my internal process. My synesthesia provides a kind of “raw material”.

Chinese musicologist Long Fei (陇菲) called it an “afterimage”. It can be condensed into a meaningful picture, or an interesting structure. How to do it? My book provides a summary of tools and examples: paintings of Chopin’s 24 Preludes, Flowing Water Guqin Music, and installations such as Bach’s Cube, Blue Rhapsody Double Tangrams, and so on. These can also be called “music memory blocks” because they bring me back to music.”

Flowing water – Painting of music Gugin

PLD: We know that great artists such as Wassily Kandinsky and Joan Mitchell aimed to represent sound and movement in their paintings. The art historian Greta Berman, in her foreword to chapter one of your book, shares her view that synesthete-artists employ particular “vocabulary or vocabularies in painting”. Berman ascribes this to the artists’ quest to represent “movement” on the flat, static surface of a canvas or drawing paper. Berman also indicates this “could have much in common with… some Chinese calligraphy”. What is your response to that?

NHX: The “dancing nature” of music cannot be ignored. The movement of music is oriented in three-dimensional space, and its sense of tempo (adagio, andante, allegro, presto, etc.) is reflected in different forms of lines on the canvas. Chinese calligraphy pays particular attention to stroke order and the cadence of writing, in which I perhaps have some advantage.

PLD: Your book deals not only with painting music—but also with painting poetry! In my book, Blue Cats, I write about the 14th century synesthete-poet, Zhang Yu and his poem, “Listening to Fragrance” about his synesthetic experience. I was so pleased that you and I were able to collaborate on a presentation for the fall 2022 ‘Artecitta International Conference on Synesthesia’ at the University of Granada in Spain. The poet Zhang Yu’s poem inspired you to make a painting, titled Homage to Zhang Yu. Can you describe your synesthetic response to the poem—which led to making the painting?

NHX: I was surprised when you gave me the English version of Zhang Yu’s poem in the Ming Dynasty as I didn’t know anything about it! I tried to find Zhang Yu’s original Chinese poem. I was so excited when I found the original poem that I decided to explore my impression of floral fragrance synesthesia on canvas. In fact, fragrance can trigger all aspects of the senses.

PLD: In a sense, we could say that you “saw” the flower fragrance that the 14th century poet “heard”?

NHX: Zhang Yu’s synesthesia was in sound and mine is in vision. Finally, I simulated the process of floral fragrance of the bud: emanating, spreading, and floating in the form of a painted triptych. It is not simply a synesthesia experimental painting, but a tribute to Zhang Yu’s poetry. It is also a tribute to the ancient Chinese tradition of sensory union, “tonggan”.

PLD: A visual mechanism you created to reveal cross sensory correspondences in an artwork is what you call the “fishbone diagram”. In his foreword to chapter two of Painting Music, the pioneering neuroscientist into synesthesia research, Dr. Lawrence Marks of Yale University writes, “Indeed, Ninghui has used the Fishbone Graph as a kind of “checklist” to evaluate music-based synesthetic responses during what he calls the “plotting phase” of painting: tracking emotion, brightness/richness, cold/hot, color, speed of motion, spatial shape, line and flow, touch/texture, smell, and taste, following these over time during a musical performance or while listening to a recording.” Dr. Marks goes on to say that your original “fishbone method” of finding synesthetic correspondences and analyzing their relationship structure could be useful in understanding art but also in evaluating product design–especially with the increasing use of AI. Could you comment about possible applications of your fishbone diagram?

NHX: Many people believe that synesthesia perception of music is only related to color and shape without mentioning movement, let alone other aspects. I am afraid this is misleading. Human synesthesia and cross-sensory correspondence are diverse, including cultural aspects. I think the fishbone diagram list should be open. Why there are differences in people’s feelings and what causes the difference can be diagnosed with a fishbone diagram. In addition to its application in music, fishbone analysis can be used in product design and industrial design. I have tried in those areas and the effect is remarkable. Please refer to my article Synaesthesia Design Panel, Fishbone Diagram Applications in Design and Art ( if you are interested.

PLD: Let’s talk about the 2016 “1st Synaesthesia Art Exhibition and Forum in China”. You and María José De Córdoba of the organization, Artecittà (which published Painting Music) organized this exhibition and brought it to four cities in China. In the exhibition, you were also able to introduce some of the recent scientific research on synesthesia as well as remind viewers of Chinese art’s long tradition of “Tonggan”, focusing on the interconnectivity of all the arts (for example, many Chinese paintings incorporate lines of poetry). What kind of response did the traveling Synesthesia and Art exhibition receive in China?

NHX: In China, sensory union in ancient poetry is known as Tonggan. But where was it from? No one is quite sure. Through the “1st Synesthesia Art Exhibition” and subsequent communications in the art circle, together with my collaborator Dongjun Ding, we shared the results of contemporary scientific research into synesthesia, including interviews with internationally renowned experts. Now, the significance of synesthesia has gradually been recognized. Art Synesthesia experimental courses have been established since then, such as in Hangzhou Normal University and Beijing No.24 Middles School. Refer to the report Synaesthesia in China 2016/2017 (

PLD: In Painting Music, a fourth of your book is devoted to your workshops with students both in China and in Spain—where they were prompted to be draw on their creativity by using synesthetic exercises, such as drawing/ making another visual representation of the music they hear. Have you found these synesthetic exercises to be a useful aid to stimulating the creativity of students—even students who are not “natural synesthetes”?

NHX: In Appendix I of this book, I included some workshop course material. Indeed, through relevant synesthesia exercises, it was found that students’ cognitive processing ability and creative thinking were greatly improved. It’s amazing. Some of them didn’t believe they had synesthesia at first, but they gradually “released” themselves from “inhibition”. This is a key process. I was surprised to find that most people seem to have varying degrees of synesthesia after these exercises.

PLD: Is there anything else you’d like to say about your book, Painting Music?

NHX: Painting Music is a practical book, reflecting and recording my most direct experience of abstract art and my understanding of the essence of art. It contains 97 works I’ve created in the past 20 years and my notes. I believe it will bring novelty and inspiration to readers.

Get the book:

Painting Music is available from Google Books.

Patricia Lynne Duffy is the author of the now classic, Blue Cats and Chartreuse Kittens: how synesthetes color their worlds, the first book by a synesthete about synesthesia. An audio version of the book with research updates, music by synesthete-composers, and an “Afterword” is recently out. Available from Audible She also contributed a chapter, “Synesthesia and Literature” to the Oxford Handbook of Synesthesia.

What Are You Looking For?