Neuroscience and jazz senior Mason Hankamer sees music in color


Jarrid Denman

Neuroscience and and Jazz performance senior Mason Hankamer experiences a fusion of colors in his mind when he plays music in a phenomenon called synesthesia. Synesthesia is a neurological sensation in which visual or auditory trigger different colors in the brain.

Alexandra Dubinsky

Mason Hankamer experiences dreams in which a full live orchestra is performing and all he can see is a fusion of colors. The more familiar he is with the song, the more vibrant the picture becomes.

For Hankamer, a neuroscience and jazz performance senior, these colors don’t just tint his dreams. They exist in his consciousness, infusing his world of music with a strikingly visual experience. As hues intertwine with melodies, Hankamer’s color synesthesia becomes a driving force in his ability to make music. 

“It took a me a long time to even realize I had it,” Hankamer said. “I’ll write songs according to certain colors and how they flow into each other. It’s just neat to think of the way the colors work together and then crafting a song out of that.”

Color synesthesia is a neurological phenomenon in which numbers, letters and sounds trigger different colors in the brain. When Hankamer listens to music or reads a novel, any auditory or visual stimuli elicit a specific color in his mind. The stimulation is attributed to an overlapping of nerves that infiltrate the brain. 

“Certain words or sounds look prettier than others, and some look terrible,” Hankamer said. “I like playing bass because it’s dark blue and purple, which makes for an interesting blend. I could never play oboe because it’s yellow and a little more abrasive.” While Hankamer credits his condition with effortless memorization and speed, he said the synesthesia can also create some difficulties.

 “I don’t really know how to explain it,” Hankamer said. “It definitely makes some things easier, but I have had trouble distinguishing between similar sounding names because the colors just tend to blend together.” 

Associate jazz professor John Fremgen works individually with Hankamer and helps to improve his bass performance through a jazz improvisation course.

“As far as I know, [color synesthesia] does not affect his musical abilities,” Fremgen said. “He works exceptionally hard to learn this challenging instrument and truly desires to be a professional musician.” 

Music studies senior Charles Chadwell performs with Hankamer in UT’s Jazz Ensemble. 

“Every time he performs, he’s always really into the music,” Chadwell said. “There’s never a moment where he’s not engaged. Performing with him makes it that much easier to play the instrument yourself.”

Hankamer studied biology during his freshman year but then had a change of heart and decided to turn his childhood hobby of playing music into a lifelong passion. After switching to neuroscience, Hankamer combined his fascination with the functions of the brain along with his love for jazz.  

“If anything, synesthesia has driven me more towards music because it’s something that deeply affects me,” Hankamer said. “I feel like, maybe, if I have this strange condition, that I should be doing music because it may be a sign of the direction I should take in my life.”

When Hankamer takes a break from his 20-hour course schedule, he spends all of his free time performing in four different bands around Austin. He is often seen playing the tuba for Sunday brunch at Banger’s on Rainey Street or the bass at the White Horse in East Austin. As a member of the Longhorn Band, Hankamer earned the 2012 and 2013 Willie Nelson Endowment Award. When he’s not playing music, Hankamer said he experiences a feeling of emptiness. 

“[Music] has this ability to connect human beings and communicate thoughts and emotions that no other medium can communicate,” Hankamer said. “You find time if that’s what you really love doing. It hit me recently that I don’t really have to be rich to be happy. If I can communicate and move one person through my music, then I feel like my job is done.”