A Kansas City Painter Hears Songs In Color, And Now People Can See The Music In Her Head

Sep 1, 2017

Painter Melissa McCracken says ugly music does exist, but nothing that looks so bad she has to turn it off. It really only gets as homely as some brown around the edges of a twangy country song. Funk and soul are vibrant. Jazz is sparkly. Radiohead has a lot of layers.

McCracken, a 26-year-old who lives on the West Side, was born with a neurological condition called synesthesia, which means that she has sensory cross-wiring in her brain. She sees music in full color, her letters and numbers are color-coded, and anything sequential, such as days of the week, exists in specific physical locations around her body.

Now a full-time professional painter, McCracken was 15 before she knew her perceptions weren’t like most people’s. She remembers trying to match a ringtone to the color of her cell phone.

“I had a friend with me and I was like, ‘This song’s orange and it looks good with my blue phone.’ He was like, ‘What do you mean it looks good together?’”

She explained that blue and orange were complementary colors, but that still didn’t make much sense to her friend. Until then, she says, she hadn’t figured out she was different because she hadn’t tried to explain her perceptions.

“If you go into a coffee shop and you smell coffee, you’re not like, ‘Do you smell coffee too?’ You’re not referencing everyone else’s perspective.”

For her exhibition at the Blue Gallery, Melissa McCracken is showing her paintings of songs.
Credit Cameron Wiley

And though she’d loved to paint most of her life, it wasn’t until after she graduated from William Jewell College with a psychology degree and was working as an au pair in Germany that she discovered the magical combination of painting and synesthesia.

Life as an au pair allowed McCracken more free time than she’d been used to as a student, and it occurred to her to try to paint songs — after all, she could see them plainly. She filled several small canvases and posted them on social media.

Her friends liked what they saw and shared the images. In spring of 2015, she posted the paintings on the image-sharing site Imgur, and was astonished to wake up the next day to 750,000 hits. Requests for commissions poured in. Couples wanted visuals of the first dance at their wedding receptions, or for the song that was playing when the bride walked down the aisle. One time, she got a request from a grieving mother who had just lost her 16-year-old son — listening to his favorite song was no longer enough; she wanted to see it as well.

McCracken paints in oils and works continuously, sometimes for 12 hours straight, not allowing the paint to dry until she’s satisfied. She has plans to diversify her portfolio with watercolor and ink drawings; until then, her canvases range in size from as small as 8" x 10" to as large as 60" square.

“It’s hard to put four minutes of moving color and texture into one static image, so I layer elements I think are most important,” McCracken explains, during a coffee break at PT’s in the Crossroads.

Melissa McCracken's painting 'Looking for Another Pure Love by Stevie Wonder.'
Credit Cameron Wiley

Rather than depicting specific musical instruments or phrases from lyrics, she says, her paintings are based on emotions — the “all-encompassing idea of notes and chords and keys.”

For her new exhibition at the Blue Gallery, McCracken shows paintings of songs that are meaningful to her, rather than to others.

One of her first was “Little Wing” by Jimi Hendrix, beloved because her brother played it on guitar a lot when they were growing up. She’s also showing Stevie Wonder’s “Looking for Another Pure Love,” Doris Day’s “It’s Magic,” and Beck’s “Lost Cause,” among others.

As far as drawbacks to this “disorder,” McCracken says she can sometimes feel trapped in her head. And when she tries to recall a name, she can see blue if the name begins with an A, but beyond that she has no idea.

Sometimes when a song is stuck in her head, it’s the visuals only and nothing else — she has no way to hum a little to a friend and ask what it is.

Melissa McCracken's “Convergence,” through October 2, with a First Friday reception from 4-8 p.m. Friday, September 1, at Blue Gallery, 118 Southwest Boulevard, Kansas City, Missouri; 816-527-0823.

Follow KCUR contributor Anne Kniggendorf on Twitter, @annekniggendorf