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Mason Hankamer’s Life in Color

Meet senior neuroscience and jazz performance major Mason Hankamer, who has a unique brain condition that causes him to see music in colors.

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Meet senior neuroscience and jazz performance major Mason Hankamer, who has a unique brain condition that causes him to see music in colors. Since 2012, he has been a recipient of the Willie Nelson Endowed Presidential Scholarship.

Jazz and neuroscience student Mason Hankamer

This story originally published in The Texas Scientist, the magazine for the College of Natural Sciences. [Photo credit: Sarah Wilson] 

So what do you like about neuroscience?

There is so much that we don’t know about the brain. There is just so much to figure out and who knows what we can do with it once we know how it can be applied.

What is your history with the Longhorn Band?

I joined the Longhorn Band to march my freshman year and have been in it every year since. Although I’m a jazz bass major, I play the tuba in LHB, and have been a section leader for the past two years. It’s such a great organization with amazing people.

And how did you realize you wanted to add jazz performance as a major?

I’ve always really loved music. Doing neuroscience by itself just felt like there was an empty hole, but at the same time, if I were just to do music there would be this entire gap where my academic thinking was missing.

How do you think the two majors come together for you personally?

I have what’s called color synesthesia, where I see music in colors. Certain sounds and instruments have different colors. For example, a song could be deep purple with sharp streaks of orange. I like playing bass instruments because they produce a dark blue color to me. When I compose, it’s like I’m painting a picture. I don’t actually see them physically; it’s more the aura of the color, which is difficult to explain. What really links the two is that we studied the condition once in a neuroscience class. It was really neat to actually learn and understand why I experience this.

What are some ways you think music and the brain are connected?

I am always thinking about music. Just humming a song in my head during class makes me ask so many questions. How and why do songs get stuck in your head? How and why does this song make me feel this way? I think it’s amazing how music completely inundates our entire lives. Take a look at ACL [Austin City Limits Music Festival]. Walk across campus and see everyone with their headphones. It’s a weird force that controls a large portion of our lives whether we think about it or not. There has kind of been this cultural phenomenon created at the intersection of music and the brain.

This story is part of our yearlong series “The Creative Campus,” which showcases student creativity.