Sound and Color
“I hear a note by one of the fellows in the band and it’s one color. I hear the same note played by someone else and it’s a different color. When I hear sustained musical tones, I see just about the same colors that you do, but I see them in textures. If Harry Carney is playing, D is dark blue burlap. If Johnny Hodges is playing, G becomes light blue satin.” — Duke Ellington
Take the seven colors of the rainbow: violet, indigo, blue, green, yellow, orange and red. Arrange them in a semicircle and lay them atop the circle of fifths starting with the color red aligned with the note C, and you have one of many attempts to connect sound and color. From the violet color and the note B, the sharp notes on the ascending fifths are F#, C#, G#, D# and A#. No colors are associated with them in this system, on the grounds that these higher notes in the cycle create ultraviolet colors we can’t see or sense because of our spiritual density as earthbound mortals.
New Age composer Steve Halpern has an entirely different system. He starts with the note C and the color red, and spreads the visible spectrum across an entire octave. So each half-step takes you up 1/12th of the visible spectrum, which as it happens is only about an “octave” in width anyway.
Athanasius Kircher, a 17th-century German Jesuit scholar and polymath in the fields of comparative religion, geology, and medicine created a system of correspondences between musical intervals and colors
major: sixth fire red
minor: sixth red-violet
augmented fifth: dark brown
diminished fifth: blue
major third: bright red
minor third: gold
major wholetone: black
minor second: white
minor wholetone: grey
Isaac Newton made similar connections between colors and intervals. Newton’s efforts were far more elaborate and mathematical.
red = tonic
orange = minor third
yellow = fourth
green = fifth
blue = major sixth
indigo = seventh
violet = eighth (octave)
In 1742, a French Jesuit monk, mathematician and physicist Louis Bertrand Castel, advocated for a direct solid relationship between seven colors and seven scale notes. Castel proposed a clavecin oculaire, a light-keyboard, as a musical instrument which would simultaneously produce both sound and the “correct” color for each note (see Galeyev 1988; Dann 1998; Riccò 1999). In 1790, Erasmus Darwin (Charles Darwin’s grandfather) compared colors and musical notes.
Here is L. B. Castel’s “sound-color” system:
B = (dark) violet
Bb = agate
A = violet
Ab = crimson
G = red
F# = orange
F = golden yellow
E = yellow
Eb = olive green
D = green
C# = pale green
C = blue
We do know that the major Classical-Era composers associated different key signatures with varying moods, and they may well have been influenced by the color-pitch systems floating around Europe at the time. Here are some examples of correlations between key signatures and moods through several eras of music theory history: “… (quoted from Rita Steblin, A History of Key Characteristics in the 18th and Early 19th Centuries. UMI Research Press (1983).):
“Completely pure” (Schubart, 1784)
“Cheerful and pure” (Knecht, 1792)
“State of nature, virginal chastity and purity, lovely innocence of youth” (Heinse, 1795)
“Naturalness and nobility” (Gervasoni, 1812)
“Cheerful and pure; innocence and simplicity” (Weikert, 1827)
“Simple, unadorned” (Schumann, 1835)
“Concerning the physical expression of this key, it appears to be completely pure” (Schilling, 1835)
“Penitential lamentation, intimate conversation with God” (Schubart, 1784)
“Despair” (Knecht, 1792; Schrader, 1827; Weikert, 1827; Ebhardt, 1830)
“Gay things and grandeur” (Rousseau, 1691)
“Joyful and very militant” (Charpentier, 1692)
“Pleasant, joyful, bright, songs of victory” (Masson, 1697)
“Songs of mirth and rejoicing; grandeur and magnificence” (Rameau, 1722)
“Martial ardour” (Hawkins, 1776)
“The key of triumph, of Hallelujahs, of war-cries, of victory-rejoicing” (Gathy, 1835)
“Horrible, frightful” (Charpentier, 1692)
“Feelings of the anxiety of the soul’s deepest distress, of brooding despair, of blackest depression, of the most gloomy condition of the soul. Every fear, every hesitation of the shuddering heart, breathes out of horrible Eb minor. If ghosts could speak, their speech would approximate this key” (Schubart, 1784)
“Uplifting” (Junker, 1777)
“Bright” (Gretry, 1797)
“Gloomy and terrible” (Charpentier, 1692)
“Mournful songs” (Rameau, 1722)
“Preparation for suicide sounds in this key” (Schubart, 1784)
Of course, in a 53-eq template, it’s possible to imagine a much more subtle collection of 106 moods in all the major and minor keys!
In 1893, Alexander Wallace Rimington created a color-organ, in England. Rimington’s first concerts were in 1895, and were a hit both in Europe and in the U.S.
Alexander Scriabin developed a tone organ for his tone poem Prometheus: Poem of Fire. He too starts with C = red, then goes up by perfect fifths: G = orange, D = Yellow, A = Green, E = moonlight, B = pearly blue, F# = Blue, C# = Violet, G# = Violet/purple, D# = Steel, A# = Glinty steel. So confident was he in his color scheme that he chided Wagner for failing to compose his “Magic Fire Music” in G!
People who have synesthesia (the ability to see colors when hearing music) never seem to agree on which colors go with which tones. In 2015, synesthetic pianist Joyce Yang told me her own color perceptions change day by day.
To try to be scientifically objective, you can take the “octave” of colors in the visible spectrum (actually, just a bit more than an octave, as you can see below where the lower F = Red and one octave higher = violet) and descend 41 “octaves” to the spectrum of sound represented by the 12 notes surrounding Middle C on the piano. The colors thus associated with the pitches might look something like this (Figure 16-5):
F (one full “octave” higher than the color red)
The nineteenth century scientist Hermann Helmholtz, in his article “Physiological Optics,” associated the color red with F# instead of F. This is perhaps the least subjective alignment of pitch and color. Interestingly, the ancient Rosicrucian Order had this exact same association with pitches and colors. In 53-eq, you are welcome to divide the color spectrum into 53 equal parts and see what you get with this wider array of colors. Or, if you are a synesthetic, you can simply attempt to record whichever colors you see as you play these 53 distinct pitches. Does the color you associate with each tone change, or is it the same day after day, year after year? It certainly is a more interesting palette (literally this time) of colors than the 12 colors we’re accustomed to using in attempts to merge sound and light! 53 is a big box of multi-colored Crayolas.
The mystically inclined will of course associate different pitches and different colors with different spiritual states, chakras, times of the day, planetary alignments, etc. A few minutes of googling will give you more ideas in this realm than you will ever know how to wade through.
If you would like to learn more about the ancient tunings worldwide you can buy the entire book, The Grand Unified Theory of Music, in pdf form for $25 with hundreds of embedded musical examples of scales and chords from all over the world.
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