Autistic and Epileptic, In a Rock Concert

By: Amy Sequenzia (Rockledge, Florida) //

Being in a loud rock concert—where there are blinking lights, no places to sit, and a lot of people very close to each other—can be very overwhelming for most Autistic people. Many will avoid such events. And loud noises and lights can trigger seizures in those with epilepsy.  

I am Autistic and epileptic, and I eagerly attended a concert by the Headstones at Rapids Theatre, Niagara Falls, NY in July 2015. So what was I doing in a rock concert?

The Headstones, featuring Hugh Dillon, in Vancouver (2011). Warning: flashing lights in this video and below.

It all began last year when I was interviewed about how I experience music. In the course of the interview, it came out that listening to music has always been a synesthetic experience for me. I don’t only hear music, I see it. It doesn’t matter if I am in a concert hall, at home, in the car, or just passing by a place where music is playing; colors always come with the sounds.

Synesthesia is a neurological phenomenon where stimulation of one sensory or cognitive pathway leads to automatic, involuntary experiences in other sensory or cognitive pathways. There are several types of synesthesia. Mine is music/sounds to colors and movements.

Some people who have similar experiences say it can be overwhelming. Some people don’t like the colors they see if they don’t like the music that is playing. Though I might not like the music itself, what I see never overwhelms or bores me.

At first, I didn’t know this was something only some people experience. Until not too long ago, I didn’t know the meaning of the word synesthesia, and I had never discussed it with anyone. Talking about music and musicking reminded me that I like music a lot, and that I might have been missing on some interesting and fascinating experiences.

By the end of the interview, I realized two things. First, I wanted to explore all genres of music. I wasn’t listening to the radio, where different stations play different genres. I was listening to a lot of classical music and a few of my favorite songs, but I wasn’t diversifying. Second, I wanted to experience more live music and see how my synesthesia would manifest itself compared to recorded music.

I already knew that my experience is richer when listening to live classical music. Initially, the colors I see move only on stage, among the instruments, but then they move toward the audience and it becomes an exchange of energy and colors. In recordings, even though I see the same colors (usually lighter hues), I don’t experience the process of music reaching people in the audience and the return of brighter colors to the stage.

Soon after I began diversifying my musical explorations, I discovered the Headstones, a Canadian rock band. I liked their music—my synesthetic experience with it was especially rich and exciting, even through recordings. They usually don’t play in very large venues, and their shows are not too long, lasting from 90 minutes to two hours. 

That’s why, when the Headstones announced a show, I knew I had to go. 

I was concerned about the lights and the crowd. I use a wheelchair for events that don’t have seats—I can’t stand for too long—so I needed to make sure there would be an assigned space for wheelchair users. I contacted the band and the venue, and accommodations were provided. I was able to attend soundcheck and have a preview of the show. This was an extra bonus, the same live music without the overwhelming of stage lights and too many people in a relatively small space.

I knew the show was going to be loud, crowded, and a little wild, but I really wanted the whole experience—the music, the performance, the exchange of energy between the band and the fans.

I did prepare myself with noise cancelling headphones, which help with the environmental noise without interfering with the music. The lights and all the energy of an excited crowd did not interfere with the lights and movements I saw on stage, around it and above it, coming from there to me, awakening my senses.

This is how I saw the show, the music. This is how I felt the songs.

The colors of each song are brighter in a live performance. They overpower the stage lights, flow from the instruments and voices, creating patterns in the air, around and above the stage. Those colors don’t mix with the colors around the fans, who sing along. Sometimes the color of one word, or one phrase, flies from the stage to the audience. It is beautiful, the way it hits and surrounds each person.

Hugh Dillon is restless, energetic, and totally in charge of the space (not only the stage, since he moves around, stands on the bar, and mingles with the crowd). He draws unique patterns of light as he sings and moves. Those patterns travel with him, meeting the sounds and colors of the other instruments. Words pop up in the air, like gentle explosions, usually yellow or blue. Then they dissipate, in a fading shower of light.  

This video of a live Headstones performance shows Hugh Dillon mingling with fans.

I hear Dale Harrison’s drums and my heart speeds up to the same rhythm. It is like the music is running in my veins. The light coming from the back of the stage is circular, mostly purple and goes as high as the place allows. The drummer himself is part of the movement.

Headstones live in concert, December 2011.

Trent Carr’s guitar dominates the air, and the colors are bright. The rays of light are not smooth. They hit the skin, generating a burst of energy that makes the body shake. I feel the energy pushing me up. Sometimes it is loud, but it is not invasive. The bright colors mix with the softer ones, and the sometimes piercing sound finds the perfect harmony with the other instruments.

Bassist Tim White plays my favorite instrument. Its sound comes from the background, supporting all the other colors, bringing the complementary colors to each movement. It ties everything together. When the sound of other instruments is too loud, I only need to focus on the colors and sound coming from the bass.

Headstones live in concert, December 2011, focusing on Tim White at 1:56.

Then there is the harmonica. When Hugh is playing it, all the rest falls to the background. A cyclone of yellow and orange surrounds me. It is strangely soothing.

Headstones live in concert, December 2011, focusing on Hugh Dillon’s harmonica solo at 1:39.

All this happens at once and it may seem overwhelming. Oddly, it is not. I don’t know the function of each instrument in the music, I don’t even know if they have specific assigned functions. To me, they complement, enrich, and balance each other.

The main difference between listening to music at home and being in a live show is that in the show I can see where the colors originate and how they mix and move, from the stage to me and the rest of the place. Every song has the same colors, every time, in recordings or live. What changes is the intensity of the colors, how they move, during a live performance. As it happens with classical music concerts, the interaction between musicians and audience (band and fans) makes it all more organic. The exchange of energy becomes part of the synesthetic experience, something that doesn’t occur when I listen to recordings.

There is so much harmony and beauty in a live show and the experience is fabulous. Maybe it is this particular band, maybe it is rock and roll, or maybe it’s the songs and how they are played. I will have to go back, I will have to attend other shows.

One thing I learned though: my synesthesia is richer in live shows. My experience was priceless. Music, as a multi-sensory experience, is blissful.

For Discussion

  1. As you listen to a musical performance, open your awareness to what sensations you  might be feeling other than sound. How do those sensations interact with your perception of the music?
  2. How do your perceptions of sound (and connected bodily sensations) change depending on the context of your listening (for example: live or recorded music; listening in a quiet space rather than in a crowded space or your car; when you’re focusing on the listening experience as opposed to listening to music in the “background,” etc)?

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