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Color Music Connection: Psychology, History & the Arts

The power of art to inspire, comfort, and motivate is widely recognized. The more mysterious powers of art reveal that there may be more to art than meets the eye. Modern research is proving this idea. In our world of ubiquitous multimedia stimulation, the power of art and multimedia both to heal and to harm is a fertile field for ongoing research and increasingly practical applications.

Color Music Introduction
Courtesy of Pexels. Donation made to Photographer.

From the days of the ancient Greeks through the Middle Ages and into the Renaissance, both color and music were widely considered to possess inherent moral powers to influence their viewers and listeners for better or for worse. Even in contemporary times, many mystics and followers of occult traditions have insisted that particular colors and types of music, especially synchronized combinations of the two art forms, possess the ability to induce trances, hypnotic states and healing.

COLOR MUSIC CONNECTION ARTICLE CONTENTS

This article covers topics related to color music, also referred to as kinetic art, visual music and lumia. Aspects of this art included below are the science of sensory experience, the condition of synesthesia, color music in health and psychology, biogeometry and color music in the arts of the Western world. Information on visual music artists and their instruments can be found at Visual Music: History of Composers and Their Unique Instruments.

The Science of Sensory Experience

There are numerous theories, creative works and scientific studies related to the phenomenon of the color music connection. The attempt to determine whether a direct analogy exists between the arts of color and music begun in antiquity and continues today. The desire to unify the arts has been a driving force and the ultimate goal of many creative artists throughout the ages. This article attempts to address this topic in both the concrete or scientific and aesthetic realms.

Alexander Scriabin Color Music Composer

Alexander Scriabin, Russian Composer and Musician
Historical Photo Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons, Public Domain

Synesthesia and the Color Music Connection

The word “synesthesia” is derived from the Greek words “syn,” which means “together,” and “aisthesis,” which means “perception.” Synesthesia refers to individuals who experience involuntary cross-sensory associations. The most common form of synesthesia is “colored hearing,” or seeing colors when a sound is heard. Interestingly, Pythagoras considered synesthesia to be the greatest philosophical gift and spiritual achievement.

Synesthesia has been studied repeatedly over the course of the last hundred years. The term has been used to describe a confusing array of sensory and symbolic associative “disorders.” In order to clarify the exact phenomena under study, Dr. Richard Cytowic has proposed criteria for a definitive diagnosis of the condition. True synesthesia is involuntary, stable over the individual’s lifetime, memorable, contains an emotional component, and is marked by discreet perceptions.

Although synesthetes may be no more divine than the rest of us, a December 1999 article in Discover magazine reported that “cognitive scientists contend that these unusual people are precious windows into the ultimate mystery of human consciousness.” Mystical synesthetes in the fields of the arts including Alexander Scriabin (composer, 1872-1915) and Wassily Kandinsky (artist, 1866-1944) probably would have agreed!

Synesthesia and Visual Music

Synesthesia: Connections Between Sound and Color 
Graphic by Kathleen Karlsen

Scientific Explanations of Synesthesia

Current scientific explanations of synesthesia are built on the hypothesis that “early in infancy, probably up to about 4 months of age, all human babies experience sensory input in an undifferentiated way” (Andrew David Lyons,  Evaluating New Tools and Techniques for Intermedia Composition and Production, Sydney Conservatorium of Music, July 2000).

Adult synesthesia may be a lack of the modularization between the senses that normally develops. An intriguing aspect of synesthesia is the fact that the phenomenon is highly individual. Although there appears to be a genetic link in the occurrence of synesthesia, even synesthetes in the same family associate different colors with different sounds.

For example, one synesthete studied saw the color white in connection with hearing the vowel sound ‘A,’ whereas one of his daughters saw the color blue linked to ‘A,’ and another daughter saw the color black (Faber Birren, Color Psychology and Color Therapy).

Disco Lights Color Music Demo

Light Show in Disco
Photo from Pexels
Donation Made to Photographer

Color Music in Health and Psychology

Moving patterns of color and form have also been used in a British hospital to reduce the pain medication needed by woman during childbirth. In addition, combinations of nature films and music are gaining widespread acceptance in hospitals as a soothing alternative to traditional TV programming for patients.

Color music has also been used by psychologists as a type of moving Rorshach test. Another significant use of color music took place with post-WWII veterans suffering from depression and post-traumatic shock. The patients were shown color music movies, known as Aurotone films.

The Auroratone films consisted of changing abstract forms in pastel colors set to organ music, sometimes accompanied by the singing of Bing Crosby. Many patients viewing the color-music films were so moved emotionally that they became more accessible for traditional group and individual therapeutic methods.

More extreme examples of the phenomenon of the power of color and sound are the flashing lights in modern discos and bars. At the height of the disco era, dancers were known to pass out due to sensory overload. Psychologists also believe that the sensory overload caused by the combination of loud, rhythmic music and strobe lights reduces interpersonal inhibitions. 

Recent studies of epilepsy actually concur that some types of seizures can be triggered by the color and sound patterns of video games and animated cartoons. In a world filled with multimedia, an examination of the possible association between color and music has become increasingly significant.

Pyramids and Biogeometry Field

Biogeometry and the Pyramid Shape
Photo Courtesy of Pexels
Donation Made to Photographer

Biogeometry and the Power of Art

Some of the mysterious power of art involves the science of geometric figures. For example, some writers have gathered evidence suggesting that placing items in pyramids can have almost supernatural results. Food can be preserved without refrigeration and dull knives can miraculously become sharp.

The new field of biogeometry also suggests that the form of objects is directly related to their ability to help or harm living things. A cell phone, the theory postulates, can be designed so that its physical shape counteracts any potentially damaging radiation. Likewise, homes can be designed to offset the effects of geopathic stress.

In the spiritual arena, geometric forms have a long history of use for meditation and for inducing trance-like states. Mandalas and yantras are traditional art forms that are used for spiritual purposes. Some art historians believe that stained glass windows in churches are extremely effective in creating an aura of mystery and majesty for religious ceremonies due to the effects on the human brain of the movement of sunlight through colored glass.

Color Music in the Western World

History indicates that combinations of color, sound and motion have always fascinated people. Virtually every culture has some form of traditional dance that combines colorful costumes, rhythmic music and whirling, energetic dance steps. In the Middle Ages, magicians and entertainers mesmerized their audiences with a variety of devices that used firelight to project shadows against walls. The history of color music begins in indigenous cultures and extends around the world into ancient Eastern cultures. However, in the recorded history of the Western world we can use the ancient Greeks as an arbitrary but reasonable starting place.

Color Music and Aristotle

Aristotle and Plato
Photo Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons
Painting by Raphael (1483-1520), Public Domain

Color Music and the Ancient Greeks

Similarities between color and sound were clearly noted by the ancient Greeks. Some Greek theorists considered “color” to be synonymous with “timbre” as a quality of sound itself. In the fourth century BC, Plato’s friend Archytas of Tarentum called a new kind of musical scale “chromatic.” Since the days of the Greeks, color and music have shared a notably common nomenclature: tone, pitch, intensity, volume, form, etc.

The analogous aspect of color and music that seems to have been the most convincing to the Greeks was the almost mathematical similarity in their regularly stepped scales. In other words, both color and sound could be arranged in a series of stages with equal differences between each measured step. The ratios among gradations of colors in a color scale would be similar to musical ratios and proportions.

In his book De Sensu, Aristotle discussed in a general way a possible analogy between color and sound harmonies. Although Plato himself eschewed any attempt to correlate colors and sound, Aristotle wrote briefly of the potential success of this endeavor in his treatise entitled On Sense and Sensible Objects.

Aristotle agreed with the early Greek theorists that purple could be identified with the musical fifth, red with the fourth and white with the octave, but he seems to hesitate to construct a complete color scale in direct consonance with the musical scale. Pythagoras also contemplated a parallel between the musical scale and the spectral colors.

Dorian Musical Mode and Color Music

More about musical modes.

Color Music in the Middle Ages & Renaissance

Throughout the Middle Ages and the Renaissance, a variety of musicians and artists envisioned an art form that would combine color and music. Rudolph of St. Trond, a theorist of the late eleventh century, claimed that the modes of plainsong could be identified with the ancient Greek modes and that both could be allied with particular colors.

In his notational system, the Dorian mode was to be written in red, the Phrygian mode in green, the Lydian mode in yellow and the Mixolydian in purple. The Milanese theorist Franchino Gaffurio reintroduced this idea in the fifteenth century. Gaffurio further associated the colors and modes with the Greek humors.

Vincent of Beauvais, the medieval author of a work called Great Mirror, attempted to expound upon Aristotle’s original proportional color music ratios. However, Beauvais believed that only seven colors could embody proportions that would appear pleasant to the eye. This resulted in a different color-chord consonance. Beauvais related pink to the musical fifth and light green to the musical fourth.

Middle Ages Color Music

Claude Boutet’s 1708 Color Wheel
Based on Isaac Newton’s Theory of Colors
Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons, Public Domain

During the Renaissance, the Venetian theorist Gioseffo Zarlino claimed that modern musical counterpoint had added the major and minor thirds and the major sixth to the ancient fundamental ratios of the fourth, fifth and octave. Musical consonance was thus brought directly into a potential relationship with a scale of primary and secondary colors.

Arcimboldo, a Milanese painter of the sixteenth century, was one of the earliest artists in a long line of luminaries to endeavor to merge the arts of painting and music. Arcimboldo devised a method of color harmony upon a color scale similar to the musical scale. These early roots of multimedia led to ongoing attempts by artists and musicians to create the combinations of color and music that we know today as multimedia art.

Color Music in the Age of Enlightenment

The pivotal scientist Isaac Newton put forth a set of color music correspondences in his famous foundational book Optiks, originally published in 1730. In this work, Newton related the spectral colors to the diatonic scale in a simple, straight-forward approach: red was equivalent to the note C, orange was paired with the note D, yellow was matched with the note E, green was associated with the note F and so forth.

On the other hand, the German poet and philosopher J.W. von Goethe’s famous three-part publication Theory of Colors (1810) attacked much of Newton’s color theories. Goethe did not believe that color and music could be compared in any way.

However, Goethe did emphasize the psychology of vision and the allegorical and symbolic values of color. These conflicting ideas set the stage for modem artists and musicians to interpret the color music connection according to their own temperaments, scientific leanings and aesthetic sensitivities.

Color Music Art of Mobile Color

Color Music The Art of Mobile Color (1911)
By Alexander Wallace Rimington
Photo Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons, Public Domain

Rimington: An Early Proponent of Color Music

Alexander Wallace Rimington (1854-1918) was a prominent instrument inventor, writer and artist in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Rimington wrote extensively on the analogy between color and sound in his book Colour-Music: The Art of Mobile Color, published in 1911.

Rimington, like a number of other theorists, constructed a scale of direct color-music analogies. Most importantly, Rimington set forth and thoroughly discussed what he considered to be the major points of resemblance between color and music. Many of Rimington’s ideas were not new, as these were probably some of the very issues pondered by the Greeks in ancient days as well as by alchemists, mystics and philosophers throughout history.

  • Both color and music are produced by vibrations that act upon the eye and ear respectively.
  • Both color and music are limited to particular ranges of visible or audible vibrations.
  • Both create their effects through changeable levels of harmony and discord.
  • Both give pleasure or distress through a variety of combinations and sequences.
  • Both color and music can be combined with other art forms for a heightened experience.
  • Rhythm can be used to add interest in both artistic and musical compositions.
  • Changes in dynamics can be created in color through hue and in music through volume. 

About the Author

The material in this article is taken from the thesis entitled “The Color-Music Connection: Philosophical, Aesthetic  and Scientific Perspectives” by Kathleen Karlsen. This thesis was created in fulfillment of the requirements of a master’s degree in humanities from California State University-Dominguez Hills.

Kathleen is also the author of two books and over 200 articles in the fields of art, psychology, spirituality and health. More about Kathleen’s Artwork, Music and Books as well as dozens of articles and resources can be found on this website. 

Kathleen Karlsen Sacred Mantras & Symbolic Art

Kathleen Karlsen’s Books

Vocal Medicine reveals Kathleen Karlsen’s personal journey and years of research into mantras, chanting and kirtan. Learn more about using mantras and singing to invigorate your life! Explore the chakras and the impact of sound in every area of your life. 

Flower Symbols by Kathleen Karlsen features fascinating information about the folklore of the world’s most beloved flowers. Flowers accompany us in nearly every major event in life. This book is a perfect gift for every flower lover in your life! 

Related Resources on This Site

Information on visual music artists and their instruments can be found at Visual Music: History of Composers and Their Unique Instruments.

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Related Resources on the Web

For more information on this topic, visit the Center for Visual Music.  This website includes an extensive online library of materials and links to artists and their works.

COLOR MUSIC ARTICLE SUMMARY

Since the days of Aristotle and Pythagoras, philosophers, artists, musicians and scientists have debated whether an analogy exists between color and music. The aesthetic theories and creative works of significant modem artists and musicians reveal the ongoing nature of this debate. Although scientific proof of a direct connection between color and music remains subjective and elusive, the weight of philosophical and historical evidence supports the contention that a connection does exist on an intuitive and aesthetic level. Furthermore, the effort to produce a color music art form that unifies these two modes of creative expression continues unabated in the rapidly evolving field of computer-based interdisciplinary art.

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