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Visual Music: History of Composers & Their Unique Instruments

Visual music is a specific type of multimedia artistic composition that consists of mobile abstract or geometric shapes integrated with music. Over the course of the development of modern motion graphics, visual music has also been referred to as kinetic art, color music and lumia. Historically, the experiences of color and music have always been closely intertwined.


This article covers a number of the early composers and proponents of the art of visual music. Some classical composers and modern composers believed in a connection between musical notes and colors such as List, Beethoven, Shubert, Leonardo DeVinci and Rimsky-Korsakoff. Visual music instrument builders and composers include Athanasius Kircher, Louis-Betrand Castel, Thomas Wilfred, Tom Douglas Jones, Mary Hallock Greenewalt and others. The development of electrical instruments and colored film were two of the major impacts on the artistic freedom to create in the realm of multimedia and visual music. For a discussion of other aspects of this artform, see Color Music Connection: Psychology, History and the Arts.

Beethoven and Visual Music

Ludwig van Beethoven, Portrait by Karl Joseph Stieler
Image Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons, Public Domain

Classical Composers and Visual Music

A number of classical and modern composers have believed in a direct correlation between notes of the musical scale and colors. Classical and modern composers fond of relating colors to their music include Liszt, Beethoven, Schubert and Rimsky-Korsakoff.

Liszt described his dramatic intentions for his music with decorative phrases: “More pink here,” “This is too black,” “I want it all azure.” Beethoven is reported to have referred to B minor as the black key.

Schubert is said to have compared the E minor key to “a maiden robed in white and with a rose-red bow on her breast”. And Rimsky-Korsakoff associated the color of sunlight with the key of C major and a strawberry red with the note F sharp.

Louis Betrand Castel Ocular Harpsichord for Visual Music

Diagrams Showing Color Music Correspondences (1770)
Image Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons, Public Domain

Visual Music Instruments

Leonardo da Vinci (1452-1519), who insisted on rational and geometric arguments for the color music connection, was sufficiently convinced of the consonances between color and music to draw diagrams of instruments called color organs. Other inventors also created a variety of instruments in which movement was simulated by “wheels spinning in front of a light, revolving discs, … and innumerable crude … devices that created a variety of visual effects” (Lee R. Bobker, The New Art: A Critical Anthology, 1973).

Athanasius Kircher designed an early projecting instrument in 1648. He proposed the utilization of candlelight and colored glass lenses, but his instrument was never built. The first visual music instrument that was actually built was the creation of a French Jesuit priest, Louis-Bertrand Castel. The number of color organs and visual music instruments invented in the first half of the 20th century is legion: the Clavilux, the Sarabet, the Light Console, the Clavier a Lumieres, the Colortron, Chromaton, Celeston, and the Sculptachrome are among the more well known.

The Amazing Ocular Harpsichord

Louis-Bertrand Castel (1688-1757) was a mathematician and writer with an interest in aesthetics. In 1730, he built a musical instrument that combined sound with prisms intended to cast colored light. Castel began by placing a square frame above a standard harpsichord. This frame supported sixty small windows of different colored glass panes.

Small curtains were attached by pullies in front of each pane. Candles burned behind each curtain to give light. When a key was struck, the associated curtain would lift to reveal the corresponding color. According to William Moritz, a professor of film and animation history and author of the Animation World Magazine article entitled The Dream of Color Music and the Machines That Made It Possible, the ocular harpsichord was a phenomena in its day:

“Enlightenment society was dazzled and fascinated by this invention, and flocked to [Castel’s] Paris studio for demonstrations. The German composer Telemann traveled to France to see it, composed some pieces to be played on the Ocular Harpsichord, and wrote a German-language book about it.” 

Castel later went on to create a second, improved model with greater projecting power for the benefit of larger audience. This new model, built in 1754, used about five hundred candles with reflecting mirrors to provide greater light to shine through the colored glass.

Castel’s approach was clearly a color-for-note correspondence, but how he arrived at his choice of colors is unclear. The instrument was clumsy and there was “considerable chance of noise and malfunction between the pullies, curtains and candles” (Moritz).

However, Castel believed that the Ocular Harpsichord would one day be mass-produced. He envisioned his instrument in the parlor of every home in Paris, but Castel’s dream was not to be fulfilled. Real progress had to await the invention of electricity.

Visual Music Instruments Using Electricity

Each of the many visual music instruments created after the invention of electricity was unique. Dozens of devoted artists and musicians dedicated virtually endless hours and years to perfecting their instruments and compositions.

Indeed, a number of creative artists and inventors made the development of this new visual music the focus of their life’s work. This level of commitment underscores their fundamental conviction that a color-music connection not only exists, but that the conscious unification of color and sound is a viable and important dramatic artform. 

Variations in visual music instruments:

  • Some visual music instruments created geometric, angular forms.
  • Some visual music instruments produced soft, flowing images.
  • Some instruments linked certain colors directly with particular tones.
  • Other instruments aimed at generating colorful atmospheres that loosely interpreted associated music.
  • Some visual music instruments created moving color shapes analogous to music, but were not accompanied by sound.
  • A few of these visual music instruments produced representational images. 
Thomas Wilfred Visual Music Composer

Thomas Wilfred, Visual Music Artist and Inventor
Photo Courtesy of Newberry and Wikimedia Commons

Visual Music and the Clavilux

Thomas Wilfred named his first successful visual music instrument the Clavilux after the Latin terms meaning “light played by key.” This complex instrument was the result of fourteen years of experimentation. The Clavilux included a keyboard, numerous powerful light projectors, condensing lenses, filters and an assortment of discs.

The minimum of four projection units was controlled through registers and dials arranged in tiers. Wilfred’s visual music instrument also featured a set of rollers on which the papers containing his vertical system of notation were mounted. The paper moved upward “like the record in a player-piano, disclosing only the passage to be played” (Donna M. Stein, Thomas Wilfred: Lumia, A Retrospective Exhibition).

Wilfred called this unique mechanical system, which also included a metronome, the Chronograph. Additional mechanisms related directly to artistic variations in the colored lights were actually developed for the Sarabet, an instrument created by Wilfred’s rival counterpart, Mary Hallock Greenewalt.

Mary Hallock Greenewalt Visual Music Composer

Mary Hallock Greenewalt and the Sarabet Color Organ
Photo Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons, Underwood & Underwood, Public Domain

The Sarabet by Mary Hallock Greenewalt

The visual music instrument constructed and patented by Mary Hallock Greenewalt was “capable of giving forth a light scale conforming with a musical scale” (Tom Douglas Jones, The Art of Light and Color, 1972). Greenewalt’s instrument won a gold medal at the Sesqui-Centennial International Exposition at Philadelphia in 1926.

Greenewalt invented two electrical mechanisms. These were the rheostat and the liquid-mercury switch. These mechanisms allowed her to modulate light smoothly on the Sarabet. A number of other composers (including Thomas Wilfred) began to invent variations of these two switches. Greenewalt tried to sue for patent infringement, but a judge denied her case, ruling that “these electric mechanisms were too complex to have been invented by a woman.”

The Colortron of Tom Douglas Jones

Tom Douglas Jones, the inventor of the Colortron, was a graphic designer, a professor, and a fairly competent engineer. The Colortron began as a teaching device that Jones used to demonstrate the additive color circle of light mixtures to his students at the University of Kansas during the. The Colortron, however, became much more than this.

According to Jones, the Colortron not only solved the immediate teaching problem but proved to be an invaluable tool for experimentation and for demonstration of colored shadows, afterimage, simultaneous contrast, irradiation, color constancy, and many other phenomena of light and color.  

Rather than a keyboard, Jones used a series of switches and dimmers that were calibrated so that he could record the settings. In this way, he could recreate particular compositions at will. Jones also experimented with illuminating silhouettes of sculptured forms and with colored lights through mobile metal stencil plates.

As the discs revolved in front of one another, fluid transitions of form and color were created like a type of kaleidoscope. Sets of discs could be used interchangeably to create a virtually infinite number of patterns. Even the relatively pragmatic Jones had to admit that the Celeston produced “amazing and beautiful results.”

The liquid effects produced by the projector-like Celeston were also characteristic of the compositions of other visual music artists who chose to work in the new medium of film. Early filmmakers in the color music genre used drawings, clay forms, hand painting and more.

The Best of Visual Music Before Film

With the creation of the Celeston, Tom Douglas Jones demonstrated an increased enthusiasm for uniting the arts of color and music. Although he continued to reject the notion of a concrete link between particular colors and notes of the musical scale, he worked carefully with correspondences of tempo and dynamics.

Jones matched softness in music with dimness in light. Likewise, he matched loudness with a greater intensity of light. He carefully paired appropriate moving color forms to his chosen musical scores. As Jones himself wrote in The Art of Light and Color: “the Gestalt thus produced was more than the sum of its parts—bringing a new excitement and pleasure to all who saw and heard it; even to those with little feeling for color or music alone.”

The Celeston was fairly simple in conception as a visual music instrument. A single light bulb shone through two rotating discs on which colored pieces of glass, small prisms, colored beads and colored acetate were mounted.

As the discs revolved in front of one another, fluid transitions of form and color were created like a type of kaleidoscope. Sets of discs could be used interchangeably to create a virtually infinite number of patterns. Even the relatively pragmatic Jones had to admit that the Celeston produced “amazing and beautiful results.”

The liquid effects produced by the projector-like Celeston were also characteristic of the compositions of other visual music artists who chose to work in the new medium of film. Early filmmakers in the visual music genre used drawings, clay forms, hand painting and more.

About the Author

The material in this article is taken from the thesis entitled “The Color-Music Connection: Aesthetic, Philosophical 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.

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Related Resources on This Site

For information on the history, psychology and other aspects of this artform, see Color Music Connection: Psychology, History & the Arts.

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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.

Visual Music Article Summary

A number of creative artists have applied correlations between color and music in a practical way. They have pioneered the development of visual music organs and other instruments for synthesizing the visual and auditory arts. This article covers a number of the major inventors and composers in the field of visual music from the classical to the modern era.

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