From music to colours

‘Various attempts have been made throughout the centuries to determine correspondences between sounds and colours. Science and art meet here.’ Bernard Valeur

In the quest to find correspondences between sounds and colours, history is full of attempts to link sound and light frequencies. The first experiments date as far back as Ancient times.

From Ancient Greece to the 17th century:

Aristotle (384BC to 322 BC), the Ancient Greek philosopher, observed that if there were melodious and dissonant sounds, there were also pleasant and unpleasant colours. He thought that the harmony between colours, like musical harmony, was determined by numerical relations. Pythagoras had already studied this relationship with the use of chords. Aristotle’s classification endured through to the 17th century. However, several approaches to colour and musical harmony were put forward, such as that of the French philosopher Marin Cureau de la Chambre (1594-1669), who was an advisor and doctor to Louis XIV.

The Age of Enlightenment

It was in the early 18th century that Isaac Newton finally brought a more scientific understanding to the field of colours. He demonstrated that white light is made up of different rays which appear coloured and can be combined to reproduce white light.

Newton (1643–1727) sought to establish an analogy between colours and the seven notes of the diatonic scale, i.e. do, re, mi, fa, so, la and si. He was convinced that there must be a perfect correspondence between the various colours and the notes of the scale.

He based this analogue on the width of colour wavebands produced by the decomposition of the sun’s white light through a prism. He then established a correspondence with the length of the vibrating chords that emit the notes of the diatonic scale.

Elsewhere, Voltaire (1694–1778), the 18th century French philosopher and author, wrote in Elements of Newton’s Philosophy (1738): ‘This secret analogy between light and sound leads us to suspect that all natural things have a hidden relationship which we might one day discover.

Newton, in his quest to establish a correspondence between colours and notes, was far from being alone. Mission impossible

In reality, however, it is impossible to isolate the bands corresponding to a particular colour in the rainbow with distinct frontiers. So why did this renowned scholar explore this hypothesis? In fact, towards the end of his life, his desire to be at one with the coherence of creation and the harmony of the world took precedence over scientific rigour. This is particularly true for the colour indigo. Newton actually added indigo to his list of colours in order to have seven (7 is considered to be a scared number, and he was very attached to this notion). So if you learnt that the rainbow has seven colours (violet, indigo, blue, green, yellow, orange and red), it is down to Newton!

The 19th century

Moving forward through history, we encounter a 19th century occultist, Master Philippe de Lyon. He believed the following: ‘Sounds, like light, are formed by colours which exert a considerable influence on our organism. Do (red) excites the brain and acts on the stomach and intestines. Re (orange) acts on the stomach, the abdomen and the intestines. Mi (yellow) has an action on the heart and the spleen. Fa (green) contracts the diaphragm. So (blue) acts mainly on the upper organs and the arms. La (indigo) causes trembling (heart and cardiac area). Si (violet) acts directly on the heart.

If we pay close attention to this, we can observe the similitude with the notes and colours of the 7 main chakras according to the Vedic tradition. In India:

  • Do is linked to muladhara chakra
  • Re is linked to svadhishthana chakra
  • Mi is linked to manipura chakra
  • Fa is linked to anahata chakra
  • So is linked to vishuddha chakra
  • La is linked to bindu chakra (ajna)
  • Si is linked to Sahasrara chakra

Can a credible correspondence be established between sounds and colours?

In terms of wave frequencies, no bridge can be built between sounds and colours. There are no links between the sound frequencies audible to the human ear, and light frequencies visible to the human eye. Nor is there is an analogue wavelength for sounds and light. Can we move from one field of frequency to another by an octave interval (= doubling of the frequency)? The answer is no! The field of light frequencies covers approximately one octave, whereas sound frequencies cover more than 10 octaves! So, what should we understand?

Colours do not really exist

In terms of physiological perception, colour in itself does not exist, it is a construction of our brain. For if our brain associates a colour with a particular light wavelength, the opposite is not true: the impression of yellow can result from either a monochromatic light or a combination of green and red lights.

Thus, there is no relation between colour and wavelength (or frequency). On the other hand, our ear can distinguish a pure sound (a single frequency) from a compound sound (several frequencies), and recognise several notes in a chord!

For all these reasons, the sound-colour correspondence is impossible in rational terms. Yet, certain people experience a colour sensation on hearing sounds: this is known as synesthesia. The plot thickens!

From the 20th century to today

If nothing rational can confirm these correlations, let us consider the fields of subjectivity, art and creativity!

Among the composers who sought to establish links between music and colours, there are three key figures:

  • 1. Alexander Scriabin (1872-1915), a Russian pianist and composer
  • 2. Arnold Schoenberg (1874-1951), an Austrian composer, painter and theorist.
  • 3. Olivier Messiaen (1908-1992) a French organist, painter and composer

3 musicians of notable work.

Alexander Scriabin was an eccentric figure, largely misunderstood by the critics and the Russian public. This mystic of ecstasy left behind a highly original body of work. In fact, he had synesthesia. This ability enabled him to associate a colour with every note. On the score of his symphonic poem Prometheus, he indicated the colours that should be projected at the same time as his music. Moreover, in 1915 at the Carnegie Hall, a colour keyboard, the Chromola, (made especially for the occasion by Bell Laboratories) projected colours on a screen. There was a colour for every note! A magnificent attempt to illustrate his personal perceptions!

Arnold Schoenberg was an Austrian composer, painter and theorist. In his opera, The Lucky Hand, he also included colour projections to accompany the performance of this work.

In more recent times, Olivier Messiaen is undoubtedly the musician who went the furthest in exploring relations between sound and colour in music. He had the mental ability to see colours when he heard music or read a musical score although he did not have synesthesia. He believed ‘music is a perpetual dialogue between space and time, between sound and colour, a dialogue which results in a unification: time is a space, sound is a colour, space is a compound of overlapping time, and sound compounds exist simultaneously, as do colour compounds.’

Contemporary experiences

Today, there are professionals of therapy and sound. Fabien Maman for example, established his school of Tama-Do, and has had his research published (The Tao of Sound, originally published by Trédanial). He did not write about the direct links between music and colours. He did, however, offer an interesting approach to chakras and their correspondence to sound. In particular, the Circle of Fifths for chakras or the series of realignment sounds where he evokes specific colours.

There is thus a wealth of research and potential interpretations of the note/colour correspondence. Traditions also have their approach to the truth in this field.

Nevertheless, the spectrum of our perceptions is always simply limited to the possibilities of our sensory functions. How then can we claim to know the reality of the living?