Sound has shaped Yannie Tan’s life.

It began with language. Growing up, she spoke Mandarin with her Malaysian father and Cantonese with her Vietnamese mother. At age 4, she began learning Spanish – and training as a classical pianist.

Tan knew the sounds of words and music were integral to her life, but she didn’t realize she experienced them differently from most people until she was 12. Her piano professor asked her to describe the left-hand melody she was playing. She replied that it sounded like red velvet.

Tan has synesthesia, where two or more senses are intertwined. In her case, she experiences sound as color.

Andrew Brodhead, Natalie Feulner, Harry Gregory, Kurt Hickman, and Adrienne Kemp-Rye

This unique perception infused her creativity across various disciplines. “I started to make use of it not only in music, but also in reading and writing and creating new ways to interact with others, even through technology,” she said.

Tan performed on the piano around the world and gained a YouTube following as a teenager. At Stanford, she minored in music but designed her own major – computer visualization – that blended her curiosity, creativity, and interest in design thinking.

She took a gap year to found an audio-based social platform in 2020-21 before returning to campus with eagerness and renewed zest for learning and creating.

A close up image of a sound board in a music studio.

Yannie Tan discovered she has synesthesia while studying at Stanford and says it has changed the way she interacts with music. | Andrew Brodhead

She studied creative writing at Stanford’s program at Oxford University, helped revive the Stanford Students in Entertainment group, and wrote, produced, and directed a short film, Lili, about two musicians entwined in romance and rivalry. She’s now submitting it to festivals, and hopes to continue to direct films.

Two of her recent projects were inspired by Disney. She was drawn to soft robotics by the movie Big Hero 6 and worked on a wearable robotic sleeve in the Collaborative Haptics and Robotics in Medicine Lab during winter quarter. This spring, she wrote a Disney-influenced song cycle about a girl who can hear colors, which her close friends performed at the Nitery Theater.

Andrew Brodhead
I hope that there will be more people who have the conviction to be unique and to have the confidence to stand by their ideas and their creations.”
Yannie Tan, ’24

The next step is Disney itself: As a technical directing intern this summer, Tan will expand her skills as a creative technologist, a profession that blends technology and design.

After that, she’ll move to Denmark for an internship on the LEGO design team, then plans to return to Stanford to complete her coterminal degree in computer science.

Whatever she creates next, Tan wants to inspire others with her unusual way of seeing (and hearing) the world: “I hope that there will be more people who have the conviction to be unique and to have the confidence to stand by their ideas and their creations.”