Thankfully, my stroke didn’t leave me with many cognitive problems, but I do still have some difficulties with sound. You might remember that in the weeks directly following the stroke I discovered I was unable to sing in tune and had lost all sense of rhythm. My sense of pitch returned fairly quickly – the rhythm took rather longer, but is now absolutely fine – and what I seem to be left with are some minor but very annoying problems in filtering out background from foreground noise. This means that I find it difficult to listen to one person speaking when a few of them are doing so (in a pub, for example), or to focus on one kind of sound when there are other auditory distractions (for example, talking on the phone while the radio is also on, or holding a conversation in a place filled with white noise, like a supermarket). I did think that this auditory-processing issue was the only sonic weirdness I had, but I have recently become aware of the sound of knitting.

To explain: I imagine that for most of us, knitting has a rhythm: we memorise a pattern by counting a row out in our heads, allowing the stitches to beat themselves into time. Perhaps we vocalise the stitches: (knit, purl, knit knit, purl) or put them into numbers (one, two, one one, two). I know that before my stroke I used to count stitches out in this way in my head, and that I enjoyed particular patterns because of their particular rhythms. Whether you like knitting cables, lace, or colourwork I am sure you know what I mean: some pattern repeats are pleasing because they possess their own distinctive rhythmic logic. Anyway, this is not something one necessarily thinks about very much or very often, but I imagine that for each of us, in our own way, the rhythm of knitting is there providing a background to every stitch we make. Anyway, recently I was trying out some swatches, and I noticed that I was preventing myself from making a mistake because the knitting sounded wrong. When I focused in on this, I found that the pattern repeat I was working did not just have a rhythm, but possessed a series of tones as well. The swatch I was working on was a knit / purl sort of thing: the knits were a low note and the purls a higher one. Without being overly conscious of this, as time has gone on, I’ve definitely become more and more aware of these tones and the way they attach themselves to different kinds of pattern: for example, in colourwork, the yarn worked in my left hand is pitched higher than that in the right. Then today, while knitting a nice, rhythmic piece of colourwork I noticed that the interval between the two notes was always a fifth, and I found this pretty interesting: fifths are sonically obvious intervals, and sound right to the (Western) ear.

Now, I am pretty sure that before February I didn’t knit colourwork in fifths, and I imagine what has happened is that I’ve developed a rather crude form of aural synesthesia, which is apparently quite common post-stroke. What really interests me is what this says about the brain. There is not much to be said for having a stroke, but one thing I have gained from it is the privilege of insight into how the brain works. Now, the brain is obviously unbelievably complex -indeed, inscrutably so (there are so many neurological unknowns) – but in some ways it is quite simple too. For example, the brain likes propriety: it likes things to look right, sound right, and to be in the right boxes doing the right things. This sense of propriety seems so strong to me, that I imagine similar sorts of rightness are involved in perceiving, say, musical harmony and bodily movement. When something goes awry (when you damage the part of your motor cortex that controls your left hand, for example) you can instruct your brain to find the hand a new box, and once it has located this box, and put the hand in it, it is happy: there is the hand in its box. The propriety of the hand, in the correct place, doing the correct thing seems just the same to me as the propriety of the meantone fifth: it is just right. The other thing the brain really likes is pattern: the fundamental basis of figuring out how to use a neurologically damaged limb again is repetitive action, and I’m pretty sure that similar processes must be involved with all kinds of brain-learning, not just those involving movement. The basis of learning something, anything – whether it is a new language, one’s times tables, or playing the violin – is to just keep on doing it until the patterns of the actions become habitual. This probably sounds obvious, but the truth of it is really very powerful and striking when one is able to actually observe the brain learning-in-action, as it were. The post-stroke me has also become aware of the way that the brain makes connections between patterns and structures: the process of learning to move again, to find pattern in one’s movements, seems, for example just the same as figuring out how to read narrative again (another thing I found difficult directly following the stroke). So in this sense, it is really no surprise to me that knitting might have a sound: that tone and rhythm are intertwined, or that the brain might perceive the pattern and propriety of musical notes and knitted stitches in much the same way.


(Pamela Wynne’s brainy-maniac. Pam, you are a genius).

My aural synesthesia is probably just a side effect of the damage to my right temporal lobe, but I imagine these things must be quite common among those who have experience of different cognitive and neurological conditions. Do true synesthetes (those who are born that way) hear their knitting? Does rhythm have a tone for them? And what about the way that pattern and connection are perceived by those with certain forms of autism? My mind is really boggling. Anyway, do tell me if you have had similar experiences…or if this post makes any sense to you at all. . .

66 thoughts on “the sound of knitting

  1. In addition, I’m fairly certain that synesthesia works differently depending on which receptors are crossed. I’ve also come across examples where people taste color, or sounds.

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  2. That’s incredible! I did a report on synesthesia for one of my psychology classes a few years back and came across things like people with perfect pitch being able to see sound etc.

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  3. Your post was fascinating because you described exactly what my knitting sounds like, too! I have mild synesthesia (born that way) and among other things, I hear my knitting in the same way. I often zone out while I’m knitting but am always able to “hear” my mistakes because the music gets “off” when I do so. It’s particularly helpful when I’m knitting complicated lace. :)

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  4. Awesome! I’m a music teacher and knitter, and I’ve been using tones for years to help me memorize patterns. I use intervals of a fifth to differentiate the knits and purls, and I love how I can “sing” out my pattern (although sometimes people hearing me hum the melody wonder what’s up, ha ha!)

    I was so pleasantly surprised to read your post and see what I’d been doing laid out in such a logical and eloquent way! Awesome!

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  5. Also – I remember you posting about an outing you had with a big group of your friends and the weekend ended up being very overwhelming to you because you have trouble sorting out different noises around you. Does this have any connection with you current experience of tonal knitting?

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  6. I haven’t checked up on the blog for about a week and was blown away by this post. I do know what you mean about the sound of knitting patterns, especially colorwork. I have experienced a similar thing when working on an in-depth colorwork project. I was telling my fiance about how fascinating it is to read some of your posts. As you are re-learning how to reconnect your brain to your surroundings, I wonder if your experience is very similar to a very young toddler or child but you now have the capacity to put language to this experiences to share on your blog! I don’t mean this in a bad way, but your documentation of your experience is so interesting. Am I making any sense? Congrats on your big climb above the snowline!

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  7. oh i love this post. the brain is so wonderfully wierd. I think in lumps and add up by looking at a string of numbers. No one gets that either. fabulous.
    People who have new cochlear implants take about two years to learn how to filter the noise but it, of course, happens in time and things go back to sounding ‘normal’ or as they were. Looks like you’re doing fabulously well. xx

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  8. Brilliant post, Ms. Davies. Hmm, what would laddering sound like, indeed? Maybe a xylophone effect if your tones were into scales. I’ve always hummed in my head while I knit. Suddenly that doesn’t seem so strange.

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  9. You’re not alone. I hear rhythm in my knitting too. It’s one cue that I’ve gone awry with my stitching when the sonic pattern is disrupted. Another facet of the clicking in pattern is that I set a tempo and keep with it. This can result in some really fast knitting.
    On the other hand, I also find that I’ll notice I’ve screwed up my knitting from tactile clues. I’ll be watching TV working on some boring stockinette and I’ll freeze on a stitch because my hands are telling my brain to get the eyeballs involved because something’s gone wrong on the factory floor. Do your hands tell you when a stitch has leapt off your needle and is laddering merrily down your fabric too?

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  10. I have been enjoying reading your post-stroke journal because it has made me more aware of how I perceive my world. I’m realizing that I have always had some of the issues you describe. I have a hard time with what I have termed “sound layering.” I tend to process most of the sounds I am exposed to–especially in unfamiliar settings where I haven’t taught myself to turn certain sounds off. I am particularly affected by “live” spaces with a lot of echo–like restaurants with big glass windows and open kitchens, subways or gymnasiums. If intense smell is added in I can just overload and have actually passed out a couple times.

    I can also “see” some sounds (a different type of synesthia), so that might be part of the overload problem. Knitting is a respite from all that– but I notice I do cook partly by what “sounds” right.

    Knowing what makes me overload means I can deal with this, by recognizing problem spaces and limiting time there, and spending time outside which recharges me. Another thing that really helps is not being in challenging situations when I am hungry. As annoying as it can be, I also think it makes my life rich in a way that most people could never understand. I had a major bran injury as a 4 year old and sometimes wonder if it’s related.

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  11. Great post and comments. Looking forward to seeing a Beethoven-based pattern pop up on Ravelry soon.

    One thing I wanted to bring up was the tension between the way that, yes, the brain likes order, harmony, categories; but it also likes novelty and stimulation. It does seem that some people crave novelty more than others…and do those others dislike novelty because of sensory overwhelm? Of course novelty and stimulation can come in different packages; the person with agoraphobia can still enjoy visitors, and the person who gets overwhelmed by noise can still love music – clearly. What are the relationships between all these things?

    I recently saw the HBO-produced film about Temple Grandin, and while there were some “afterschool special” moments, in general thought it was pretty well done. I think you would like it, if you can get hold of it; it is one of the few movies I’ve ever seen (if not only) whose subject was a thinking woman. Of course there was also her emotional life as well, and work life, but primarily it was about her process of thinking things through. And they did a good job (I thought) of filmically portraying how sensory overwhelm felt to her.

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  12. perhaps, given the release of tortoise and hare, it is appropriate that I’ve fallen down the rabbit hole on this post. I found your discussion and the comments quite fascinating. I’d never heard of synesthesia before reading this post but feel that it must be fairly common in “good” musicians that are able to capture feelings, moods, etc in music. And I’m intrigued by the books mentioned; I’ve heard of the “the Man who…” from several people and am now intrigued to seek it out.
    I’m intrigued by the workings of the mind and feel that we truly experience life so differently… people in a concert may be hearing the music. or not. they may be seeing the music, feeling the music, tasting the music. I have occasionally seen shapes or movement when listening to music and have found this particularly true when i can wear headphones and block out other noises. though nothing to compare to some of the vivid descriptions I’ve read here. much to the chagrin of my roommates in college, I often listen to the same song for hours (or days) because the particular song creates a rhythm that allows me concentrate and I actually feel my body enter a different flow/rhythm. And I don’t mean classical music… I frequently write professional papers to rock/heavy metal. I just assumed it was about concentration but now I wonder.
    I thought about my knitting when reading your post and have a faint idea of this kind of musicality. I would like to knit and actively meditate on the feelings and sensory experience.
    thank you as always… very interesting.

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    1. Kathy, I’ve heard a theory that everybody who has perfect pitch also has synaesthesia. It’s what allows them to be so accurate. I’m not sure how much truth there is in it, but it’s certainly interesting.

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  13. When I got to your description of “hearing” your motions as changes in pitch, I was very excited, because this has been my experience all my life, but I have found it difficult to describe to others. You have articulated it beautifully! Often rows of colourwork or lace will become little songs to me, and it certainly makes the knitting more pleasing and “right.” When I am not able to find that rhythm, I find it very difficult to work on a project for long periods of time.

    In recent years I have begun to sing professionally, and the topic of synesthesia has come up quite a bit with other musicians. One singer I know experiences pitches as shapes, both visual and tactile. She is also a sculptor, and has done a lot of work from this. This got me analyzing my own mental perception, and I recognized that I have a close association between sound and texture. I “physically” experience the texture of pitches (though I do not have perfect pitch, and am likely not at all consistent about which pitches are which texture). This has always been clearest to me when I am just about to fall asleep, or am slowly waking up, when my logical brain is not yet pressing that sort of thing to the edges of my consciousness.

    Sound or tactile rhythm is very immediate for me. I am moderately obsessive-compulsive, and my cousin is autistic. I have a lot of sympathy for his frustrations where outside noises are concerned. When I am the originator of the repetition (knitting, drumming fingers, running my fingers back and forth along a dimpled surface), I find it tremendously soothing, but if another person is generating the repetitive noise (the child I nanny for trying out new syllables, other people’s fingers drumming) or if the rhythm of the noise is not consistent, I go from fine to on-the-ceiling in an embarrassingly short amount of time.

    This is something that has occasionally been a handicap for me, or at the very least resulted in me having to talk myself down from emotional ledges (the child I nanny for should, for example, be able to learn to talk without making me want to hide). For the most part, though, I love the way this colours my world, particularly my experience when knitting.

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  14. I found this post utterly fascinating – I have Asperger’s Syndrome and the complexity of its neurological disturbance is rather amazing. I’m in my late 30s and I was only diagnosed this year, following my son’s diagnosis. Suddenly, so many obvious and not-so-obvious things about me have became connected.

    I have auditory processing difficulties just as you describe and this is quite common among aspies. I am hopelessly sensitive to noise though my son has the flip side: perfect music memory and the most amazing ability to mimic. My mimicry is found in languages which has its hilarious side – when I travel I like to be polite and say ‘please’ and ‘thank you’ and other common places in the local language. More often than not my mimicry of the accent is good enough that I’m taken for a local and suddenly find myself lost in a flood of language I can’t possibly understand!

    Vestibular (balance) disturbance is common and I had this investigated earlier because my poor balance was starting to worry me (and the bruises!). The interesting thing was that I found out from the battery of neurology tests that my brain has retrained itself to cope with this disturbance. So, the neurological ‘fact’ of my disturbance is greater than what I experience because my brain has had so much time to retrain itself.

    Much of what is Asperger’s is rooted in neurobiology so fundamental that it cannot be retrained but it does seem that at least some of the consequences for learning can be ameliorated by taking advantage of the plasticity of the brain. For instance, only last week I saw a report of research into dyscalculia (the maths equivalent of dyslexia) which was investigating the reversal of small electrical currents in the area of the brain associated with mathematics. By changing the usual direction of the electrical current the brain boosted its ability to learn mathematics thereby overcoming the inherent deficit.

    As for my knitting, I think that I rely on a series of movements associated with a particular pattern. I translate a pattern in my head into the associated hand movements (particularly lace patterns) and pick up my errors a few stitches later as I realise my hands haven’t completed the correct sequence.

    I’m really enjoying your writing – the walking and knitting are glorious – but I also find your before and after stronke reflections stimulating. It helps me think myself out as I go through my before and after diagnosis reflections.

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  15. My housemate at uni had synesthesia. Different words/sounds were different colours. She found this particularly useful when learning Japanese – she’d listen to a word in Japanese then write it in the correct colour and then she’d know if she was saying it correctly based on the colour. Fascinating!

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  16. My goodness–how fascinating! I am not a synesthete, but I can corroborate your frustration at the difficulty of filtering sound. I suffered from progressive hearing loss as the result of otosclerosis for a long time without knowing it, and after getting my hearing “fixed,” sound is louder, but I am absolutely hopeless at sorting background noise from foreground. Worse, if someone tries to hail me from behind, they have to shout really loud to override my brain’s tendency to sort them in along with all the other random sounds floating around me. Perhaps this is the result of my brain never learning how to sort noise properly when I was younger? The brain is an amazing thing, but often infuriating as well.

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  17. I’m a musician. Your thoughts about knitting and tone and rhythm and pattern make PERFECT sense to me. I don’t personally attach tone to my knitting patterns (at least I don’t think I do…will have to check when I’m knitting this evening!) but I can certainly see how it could happen! When I was a little girl I used to practice my spelling words while walking home from school and soon found that I recited a letter in my head for each step I took. Interesting…

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  18. You’ve really got me thinking with this post. I’m a middle school English teacher, and the ways that the brain learns is really fascinating to me. I agree that repetition is an important part of learning, but that is just the tip of the ice berg. One of the things about learning that is so amazing to me is how different we all are, which you really see when you’re trying to teach 35 12-year-olds. I’m especially interested in your statement about having a hard time with narrative after the stroke.
    Some students have a really difficult time with reading novels- or even short stories. They “don’t get it”- and as they aren’t in a position to articulate what they don’t get, it is a challenge to figure out how I can best help them.
    One thing we talked about a lot in my teacher’s education classes was learning styles, the idea that we each have sensory paths that are easier to learn through. For example, some might primarily be audio learners, visual learners, or kinetic learners (if there are taste and smell learners, we didn’t hear about it).The thing with literature is that for the solitary reader, it is a visual activity. If that’s not your strong point, and you can’t get someone to read to you, you’re out of luck.
    I’m sorry about the random jumble of thoughts here, but I appreciate the you sharing your challenges, struggles and your healing. I’ve been inspired by your determination. It certainly gives me another perspective into the way we learn.
    I think it’s beautiful that you can hear your knitting. Is that a permanent effect of the stroke, or might it be transitory?
    Thank you!

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  19. Dear Kate, thank you for not letting us get rid of you ! I’m always so happy to see a new post by you, and interested by its contents and the pictures you use to illustrate them –surely you do not take / make every single one of those ? I’m very keen to know the source of the knitted music, for instance. So images and expressions that are commonly interpreted as metaphorical, could actually be metonymical for the people who first used them, if their brains do not distinguish between sensory fields the way neurotypical ones do. Of course I doubt historical evidence could be found to support that hypothesis, but still it would be interesting to see how people accept an association that is obvious only to one person, and adopt the insight it gives them though their perception is different. I hope I am making sense –but you have certainly given me food for thought and I am very grateful to you, once more.

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  20. This is really interesting, Kate. I experience a mild form of synaesthesia mentioned by one of the other commenters – days of the week appear to me as blocks of specific shades of colour. The strange thing is that the colours aren’t even ones I like, and as a set of seven they’re very unharmonious to me aesthetically! I find it very difficult to explain to other people how time, as measured in days, weeks, months, and years, appears to me in spatial blocks arranged in a particular way stretching away from me, as if they’re on an endless piece of string – I don’t think this is strictly synaesthetic but it shares with synaesthesia some of the challenges of communicating with words just exactly how this feels.

    The connections between the brain, music, and fine motor activities such as knitting are fascinating. I often find that if I listen to the radio while knitting or sewing, whatever I hear becomes almost ‘implanted’ in the stitches or fabric, so when I return to that section of the work-in-progress, my brain will remind me of whatever I was listening to when I made those stitches, or completed that seam, etc. This happens without me performing a conscious act of recall. I play the violin, and your post has made me think more about the relationship between playing a musical instrument and knitting… the overlaps are obvious but I haven’t thought about the connections before.

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  21. dear kate,

    i have not had any similar experiences. and given other circumstances, i would almost want to say, sadly so, because what you are describing is utterly fascinating. as for the way a stroke does give insights into how the brain functions (and by extension: what possibilities/capabilities we actually do have) the story of jill bolte-taylor is quite fascinating, too? you can find it here (in case you do not already know it anyway):
    http://www.bbc5.tv/eyeplayer/video/jill-bolte-taylor-stroke-insight
    greetings & many thanks for your marvelous blog and patterns,
    xenia

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  22. This was a fascinating post and so well described. I’m not a knitter and not a true synasthete, though I do have some of those fairly common ticks of seeing days of the week, or letters, as certain colours etc. Your description of heightened auditory awareness rang true for me, though. After my head injury I couldn’t bear – literally couldn’t bear, as in would start sweating and panicking – sound from more than one source at once, e.g. radio and someone talking to me, or the hubbub of talk outside the school gates at drop-off time. Synasthetic knitting sounds like a much more positive side-effect!

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  23. Wow, incredibly insightful and interesting to read about! I do usually count out my stitches or pattern in my head most of the time, but I’ve never noticed much of a sound outside of that. I’ll have to pay more attention :-)

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  24. Yes, I too have “heard” my knitting, though not necesarily with the same level of detail that you have described, and I find I can “tune it out” fairly easily. I have wondered if there would be a way to “transcribe” each tone/stitch in a consistent manner and then chart out music as knit stitches; what might a Beethoven symphony look like “knit up?”

    And yes, I was worried that other people would think I was a bit off my rocker for considering it…

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  25. I have always had trouble using the phone with any noise in the background, and although I have good hearing in both ears (confirmed by a thorough hearing test a few weeks ago) I have always held the phone to my right ear – even if that means holding it awkwardly with my left hand if I have to write something down. As for knitting patterns, I work best with written instructions …… I have difficulty with charts. I was interested in what you said about the rhythm of knitting – I know without looking when I have made a mistake with rib, as I know I am out of the back and forwrad rhythm!

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  26. You have stumbled upon an important knitting superpower! Just imagine Knit Girl in the pantheon of Super People: Superman, Wonder Woman, Spiderman and Knit Girl. Amazing. I wonder what your cryptonite is… Acrylic? With great power comes great responsibility, you know… All joking aside, thank you for your candor and willingness to share your life with us. My mother-in-law is recovering from a stroke and your insights have added so much to my understanding of her recovery. Thank you.

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  27. Yes it makes sense to me ! As a dyspraxique personne and a musician, my brain has always to create new paths and links between different sensitive expressions to avoid cognitive overload. It took me years to understand that but now I find it’s a true ” plus” to teach and understand how my students and pupils learn.
    Your analysis is so interesting, and I have to add that the music of some knitting patterns is really reassuring to me ;-)

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  28. That’s an interesting post, Kate. Many have already mentioned Oliver Sacks, but have you read any Lyall Watson? Gift of Unknown Things talks about synaesthesia. Let me know if you want a copy – I’ve a spare one I can loan you.

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  29. PS came back to add that the junior neurologist at Queen Square who is using my brain in her research (!) reminded me of that book” the man who mistook his wife for a hat” and I’ve been meaning to get hold of it….

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  30. Oh wow – once again you hit the nail on the head! My damage is in the right fronto-temporal area but I also have had a big problem with noise, especially filtering out unwanted noise that we don’t even realise we did before our stroke. I don’t knit but your description makes perfect sense to me. Also, the way you say suffering a stroke gives us amazing insight into how the brain works! Changing the subject, I thought you might be interested to read that I got an APOLOGY! from Atos Healthcare via my MP – blog post here: http://wagwaan.typepad.com/my_weblog/2010/11/happy-days.html. Keep smiling.

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  31. The harmonic fifth, also known as the perfect fifth has long been considered sacred. The feeling inherent in this harmony is generally one of stability and peace and is used in healing sound work.
    There is a great deal of study and exploration of healing sound work at the moment – looking at energy/harmonics/resonance. Ancient cultures and cultures close to the rhythm of the earth understood some of it and now we are moving forward in integrating the old with the new discoveries.

    Thank you for sharing your experience – it is very interesting and adds to the knowledge of how sound works in the brain and therefore, also the body.

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  32. Thank you, Kate.

    Reading your blog is always such a treat. I find this particular topic fascinating, but I think I would enjoy reading anything you write. I just love your style.

    P.S. Right now I’m readind Oliver Sacks new book ‘ The Mind’s Eye’. I think you might enjoy it.

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  33. Hi Kate,

    That was a fascinating post, particularly as mum, who had a stroke about 15 months ago and is suffering from receptive aphasia, was talking about music as best she could only a couple of days ago. She has been trying really hard to listen to music but she is finding that the pitch is the same no matter what instrument is playing and she is unable to discern between say a saxophone and a piano so music has become monotone to her. Her description is it all sounds like its being played on a tin. Additionally she cannot discern one singing voice from another other than she is aware that the pitch goes up and down. When involved in a conversation she often interprets what is being said to her by the tone of the speaker’s voice and can sometimes read the wrong signals as a result. She has exactly the same issues as you with background noice and with more than one voice speaking at a time. A whisper at the back of a room is as noticeable to her as someone speaking directly to her and right next to her. She has been talking to us on the phone for sometime now but often thinks it is a different person speaking than who actually is, and this recent explanation of how sounds ‘sound’ to her has helped me understand just a little bit more, the difficulties in interpretation that she is having.

    Thank you for your continued insight into your experiences, they have been a great help to me. I also encouraged my father to read your blog too and he has found it immensely helpful.

    kind regards
    Susan

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  34. “And every side of you has a language and a feel and rhythm and a melody and a colour, and it’s hard to get to it, you just have to be open and unafraid. The more uptight and conservative that I am, the more conservative the music I’m making will be.” This is a quote from a Jeff Buckley interview. He is my all time favourite singer. In another interview he stopped talking and told the person interviewing him that he thought the girl outside the window would be able to sing nicely; because he could see certain colours around her.
    I remember in the practice leading up to my piano exams, that if I lost my way with my eyes momentarily on the music sheet And even when mild panic set in, my hands seemed to have developed a mind/brain of their own, and just continued to play correctly, until my eyes and another part of my brain got it all together again.
    I mentioned this to my very expert and accomplished music teacher, and she said “yes this is good, that’s the way it will get with practice.”
    These rhythms and fifths etc are so basic and ingrained into out human psyche. That is why I believe music can touch our very soul, it just depends on what level you resonate, and you usually are atoned to certain people musically and then you kind of feel akin to them.
    I think you are amazing to be able to put it into words, after you have discovered this.
    Makes me think…gee we could play a knitting pattern Lol, but we could really, I’m wondering what it/ they would sound like:-)

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  35. My uncle suffered significant neurological issues after a life threatening episode of meningitis. He cannot visually perceive anything in the upper quadrants (he has to tip his head back and look ‘down’ to see) – unless he closes one eye. It doesn’t matter which eye, just so long as it isn’t stereo, and then the upper quadrants suddenly ‘appear’. He also has the difficulty with background and foreground noise, but also cannot ‘hear’ music at all. This has been a tremendous loss for him, he was an avid pianist and his daughter is a well respected opera singer. Music sounds like white noise for him though bizarrely often after a piece of music has been playing incidentally, such as on the sound track of a film under dialogue, the name of the music will come to mind for him. He never seems to connect that it was because the music was playing, he just feels as though the name of a piece has spontaneously come to mind. If you tell him the music was playing he is generally surprised.

    Interestingly he is also an avid knitter – I will have to ask him whether the experience has changed for him.

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  36. How interesting! I’m a fairly auditive learner and find rhythm very important (also in visual experiences) and I’ve sometimes wondered why it’s so difficult to listen to the radio while knitting anything more complicated. (I’m not at all accomplished so very little will do.) The knitting is a bit like a song, or a nursery rhyme, and other auditory input interferes. My sound patterns are to some extent self-imposed, though, knowing that they help me connect the visual and kinaesthetic aspects of things.

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  37. I have the most common form of synesthesia – names have colors. Oliver Sacks has an entire book devoted to synesthetes. It’s fascinating.

    My knitting does have a rhythm and I can hear my mistakes- but it doesn’t fall into the realm of overlapping senses for me.

    My entire family, except my mom, has the hearing problem. I always assumed it was genetic. Wearing earplugs helps. It seems to muffle the background noise and allow the sounds closer to you to be heard with more clarity. Not the most fashion-forward accessory but nobody has made any comments yet. I imagine they assume I have hearing aids.

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  38. Like Clare, I’ve known people with a type of synesthesia that causes letters and numbers to be associated with colors. The odd thing is that when comparing colors they’ve noticed that the alphabet magnet sets that contain separate magnets for each letter match what they see. Though not every letter had the color of the magnet, they would agree that “A” should be red just like the magnet. I wonder if this has more to do with how the brain learns than it does the brain mixing up the senses.

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  39. When I worked at the University of Washington, I would sometimes take the bus home with an older neurology prof. We sat next to each other one day, and he got very excited watching me knit — wondering what parts of my brain were responsible for what I was doing. It was a fascinating conversation, and made me think about the fact that the cues I use to keep knitting without making mistakes are probably different than those used by other people … and it makes complete sense that your brain would find new cues post-stroke. Knits and purls don’t quite have different notes to me, but they definitely have different tones, and this is certainly part of how I keep track of my knitting (and how I do it without looking).

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  40. Well, I was working on a certain color work tam (will certainly finish tomorrow, can’t wait!) earlier today and noticed how intrinsic counting is to fair isle knitting. It then dawned on me that the reason I am so drawn to it might be the same reason why the linguist in me loves breaking down large amounts of connected discourse into smaller chunks. Both are so satisfying and dependable:)

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  41. I have found as I’ve got older that those wonderful rhythms don’t come as easily when I’m tired. I can’t knit lace or do stranded work when I’m tired any more. Which is fine – I keep a range of projects on the go. One of the joys of being on holiday is that I can tackle a c0mplex lace project and really enjoy it when I’m relaxed. I think my brain gets full on my working day and it just won’t fall into the rhythms in the evening.

    But the ‘tones’ – how interesting is this. I hope your blog is read by neurologists and other people who are interested in cognitive science. Sadly, they may perceive a knitting blog to be ‘below them’.

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  42. Letters and numbers have colours for me (and not every letter of the alphabet). Ask around and you might be surprised how common this is. I have two friends the same, one of whom loved to sit down me and down and yell a digit, and have me respond with the colour, just so he could giggle at how ‘wrong’ that colour was (compared to the colour he had for that number).

    It doesn’t have a whole lot of use, except that sometimes I can remember long dewey decimals or telephone numbers by remembering how the colours are arranged. Oh, and in law school I realised during an exam that the way I was avoiding getting confused between slander and libel is that the former is pink and the latter is yellow and white. And the inside of your throat is pink, so slander must involve the spoken word. Eesh.

    I would say enjoy the new connections. It’s kind of fun, and you can learn to use them to your advantage. As you’ve already done.

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  43. I’m a synaesthete, but it doesn’t express so much aurally. I smell and taste in colour and shape, and occasionally hear in colour and shape. However, experiencing a sensation, even an idea (democracy is orange, justice is purple, for example), in a way that seems to involve different senses than it should seems to me to count as synaesthesia. I get the impression that you’re not talking about experiencing the physical sound of the yarn sliding over your needle, but rather a sound that associates with each stitch. This would, I believe, be synaesthesia.

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  44. this is so interesting! i do agree with knitting having a rythm, and although when i knit i don’t ‘hear’ it, i definately do feel something. when i knit a 1×1 rib i think i’ve never felt more RIGHT. knitting something with a rythm kind of settles over me and i feel the pattern flowing from my hands.
    i knitted something in 2 colours with slip stitch a while ago (some kind of intarsia type thing but with slip stitching??) it was awful. i felt like i was trying to learn lines for a play in a foreign language. i could memorise it but i had no idea what it was saying, it felt uncomfortable and hurt my brain.
    not sure if i’m making sense but kate, your post really did. thankyou for putting it into words :)

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  45. I know exactly what you’re talking about. When I’m knitting a knit-purl combination or a pattern in two colors, I often sing along in my head with the stitches I’m making. It does help with memorizing the pattern sometimes.

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  46. Kate, My 24 yo son suffered a head injury in a fall from a ladder (3rd story height of a house) when he was 19. At first he had difficulty with attention, some short term memory, a bit of number dyslexia, and great difficulty in tuning out background noise. In fact he has hyper-acute hearing.

    5 years later and 2 years of intensive help with a speech therapist trained in head trauma, the only residual is the hyper-acute hearing. It comes and goes. When he is fatigued or stressed, noise that most of us would consider moderate can be almost painful for him.

    As far as rhythm goes…he’s never been a very rhythmic person and that didn’t change with the head injury.

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  47. What an interesting post. I find it fascinating the way how the brain learns / relearns things. I’m having the pleasure of watching my autistic son learn to read at the moment, he’s doing rather well at it, far better than his neurotypical sister at the same age. My son is far more systematic about his approach to learning to read and sees the patterns in words seemingly very easily, only getting confused by those horrible words that don’t sound like how they are written. I have never before seen the process of learning be so obvious.

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  48. This is incredibly interesting to me. I’ve often made the comparison of learning to knit to learning a musical instrument. It is amazing how our brains adapt and learn.

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  49. It makes perfect sense! I only hear things with simple knitted patterns like K2P2, or straight knitting. Otherwise, it’s the sound of cursing with more complex patterns.

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  50. Synesthesia is actually more complex than hearing your knitting. A true synesthete would hear the color blue or taste the feel of a kitten. The two senses must be completely disparate, at least to my understanding. For instance, it is not possible to taste a touch. You feel a touch. I cannot hear a color. You see a color. It makes perfect sense that with your difficulty in hearing all sounds equally you are now hearing you knitting in a way you never heard it before; however, I do not believe that this is synesthesia. But I am not a doctor, just a musician with some background on the topic.

    I imagine that hearing this kind of thing and being more aware of the rhythm of your stitches is very relaxing and comforting. Maybe I’ll pay more attention next time….

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  51. I can definitely relate to struggling with filtering out background noise and general clashing of sounds, like watching a short video online whilst keeping your music/radio on – makes me feel strange for some reason. I don’t have any kind of brain condition unless you count anxiety which I believe has some kind of genetic thing in my family, but probably not related to my ‘thing’ with sounds.

    I assign colours to the days of the week and numbers ‘look’ a certain way to me. I don’t think I hear my knitting, it does bother me though that with stocking stitch the knit rows are nearly always odd numbers and the purl rows even numbers, that doesn’t seem right to me, they should be the other way round.

    My husband has just been reading this over my shoulder, apparently I have never told him about this, I think he’s off to find some Oliver Sacks books, I’ve told him to check this post again in a couple of days as I’m sure there will be loads of comments!

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  52. Kate, I’ve long been aware of the rhythms in the motions and patterns of my knitting, and how sometimes it just feels right (or wrong when I screw up). And as an architect I was trained to see the patterns in the buildings and to a lesser extent the environment around me. I understand why an even number of columns on the face of a building, (or your knitting) is better visually. (Because the odd number of spaces between creates a balanced and visual center to the composition. The center is where you want to put the door, or lead the eye to your face.) Or why it is better to create a grouping with an odd number rather than an even. (Because the mind won’t accept a void as the center, so it then feels unbalanced.) Because the brain wants to see pattern and/or symmetry one of the hardest things to get a construction crew to do is put something together in random fashion, random stripes or spots of contrasting color on a brick facade, or the true chaos of splatter painting. Or getting a landscape crew to make a mass planting of hundreds of annuals without installing them in a pattern.

    I would bet that basic patterning and rhythm are things that we learn almost unconsciously when we are quite small. So it makes sense that if the part of your brain that processes that was damaged, as a mature brain capable of accepting far more information than our infant brains, it may rewire itself a bit differently.

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  53. I’ve not noticed it with knitting, but when I practiced martial arts I did notice a rhythm when changing roles as attacker to defender and back. I also experienced a silent “key change” in my head when moving between the two. (I am a musician, and the key change was typically a fifth away). Learning martial arts was much like studying dance, something that I had never done before, and I always felt as if my brain were struggling to keep up.

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  54. I found it very interesting – and mind-boggling. Sometimes I wish I were a neurologist. I don’t think I hear the sound of knitting myself, but I recognise that there is some sort of rhythm.

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  55. I’ve always been synaesthetic, but there’s no sound connection. Music and sound are quite one-dimensional senses to me, because they don’t come with any side effects. My synaesthetic knitting hookups are in the different textures of colour – a combination of red and blue for example feels embossed, the fuzziness of red against the smoothness of blue, like cut velvet. I can also keep track of things by the number-colours of repeats – if my stitch count goes past blue and into orange on a four-stitch repeat, I know I’ve gone too far.

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  56. Isn’t brain stuff fascinating?

    I have the sort of synesthesia where sounds have colors and textures. It’s mostly just “interesting”, but sometimes can make music (particularly the more modern/experimental/atonal fare) unlistenable, because it’s not just uncomfortable aurally, it’s uncomfortable visually, too. I’ve definitely experienced the feeling of rhythms having tone, but not as consistently as I do pitches having colors. I’m not sure how related all these things are, but I was born with a variety of what my doctors call “sensory integration issues”, most of which boil down to the fact that I’m actually not very good at selectively attending to anything, so my brain tries to process way too much at once; it makes a lot of ordinary stuff (like driving, going to the grocery store, etc) overwhelming, but it sometimes comes in handy – I’m really great at spotting something on a crowded shelf, for example.

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  57. This post makes such good sense! I am amazed that you are able to express this phenomenon in words.
    Well, always I am amazed at your words and your eloquence. In my knitting, and in all kinds of creative endeavors, I am aware of the rhythm, but there are no tones involved. I can understand how that could happen though.
    I puzzle over the brain and neuroplasticity with some regularity, so this post is so fascinating to ponder and, as always, I am amazed by your generosity with your intelligence.
    All the best to you, Kate.

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  58. Would it help for me to say that I got half-way through, and was about to tell you I thought you must have developed synesthesia? As for some patterns being easier (more right) to remember – it certainly makes sense to me… I’ve found both in colour and lace work that if the stitch pattern has symmetry, or grows out of itself in some way I find it much much easier to memorise, which is in part (though I’ve a very visual memory) because of the rhythm of knits and purls. Btw, just working my way through the i-cord bind-off on my Manu, and finding it *very* satisfying! Thank you :)

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