Into the Relationship
Sound and Color
presents a short investigation into the concepts of sound
and color. Is there a theoretical relationship between sound
and color that explains the behavior of each and proves some
objective correlations? The physical properties of both sound
and light including concepts of blending and origin are discussed
and then compared and contrasted. A brief history of related
studies are also discussed with some examples of color and
music wheels. Finally, the synesthetic experience of hearing
colors is investigated.
Characteristics of Sound and Color
Sound is produced by a mechanical means.
Sound travels in waves and exists only within a medium. Light
also travels in a wavelike manner but light has electric and
magnetic properties and accordingly it is an electromagnetic
(EM) wave. Sound travels at 343 m/s in air and light
travels through all mediums at almost 300,000,000 m/s. Everyone
has heard that light travels faster than sound. In fact, light
travels 1 million times faster than sound. One way to describe
waves is according to the distance between each peak of the
wave, just as in a wave at sea. This distance is called the
wavelength and is measure in meters. Another way to describe
waves is according to how many peaks pass through a point
in one minute (how many waves crash upon the shore in a second?),
and is labeled cycles per second of Hertz(Hz).
The electromagnetic spectrum is pictured
in Figure 1. This spectrum shows all known types of
EM waves. Visible light occupies a very small portion
of the spectrum.
Figure 1. The Electromagnetic Spectrum
The range of wavelengths for visible light is between 400
nm and 700nm shown in Figure 2. One nanometer (nm)
is a trillionth of a meter.
Visible light when broken up, forms the colors of the rainbow
also shown in Figure 2.
Figure 2. The Visible Light Spectrum
Characteristics of Sound
Sound is also classified by wavelength,
but keep in mind that sound is produced by mechanical means.
Sound does not have the electrical and magnetic fields that
visible light does.
Sound also travels much slower than does
light. The audible sound spectrum consists of sounds between
frequencies of 20 Hz and 20,000 Hz. These waves are very large
and very slow compared to light waves. Sound waves are approximately
1,000,000,000,000 times larger than light waves.
Sound Blending/Color Blending
Sound and color (light) both have
a wavelike character but are very different. They are vastly
different in both size and speed. Both color and sound cover
a range of wavelengths, but color is not restricted to a single
wavelength. The pitch of the note A has a frequency of 440
Hz. If notes were sounded around the A but of slightly smaller
or greater frequencies, the result would produce pulses in
the sound and an unclear tone. As the size of difference in
frequency is increased, the sound would be dissonant and very
unpleasant to listen to for an extended period of time. Sound
is not continuous in this sense. Color on the other hand is
continuous. If a red were produced at one particular wavelength
of light and slightly different wavelengths added into the
color, the appearance would change subtly and the eye would
start to notice the red deepening or lightening depending
upon the color being added. There is not a dissonance in color
blending as there is in sound blending of similar notes. This
is because of the continuous nature of light, and the step
nature of sound.
Not all sound blending is dissonant.
There are certain combinations of sound intervals that produce
very pleasing relationships. These instances comprise the
relationship between harmony and melody. When two harmonious
notes are sounded, each note can be heard and both sound complementary
to the other. When color is blended, each color loses its
individuality and a new color results. Two colors placed next
to each other would have the same effect as two notes. The
observer could see both colors and comment on the relationship
between them. Perhaps an untrained ear could not distinguish
between two notes, but no amount of eye training will free
the eye to separate blue and yellow from green.
Sources of Color and Sound
Sound and color also have different origins.
Sound emanates from an object that acts mechanically to produce
the sound. The object produces the sound. A large rock thrown
into water will create a splash. Shattering glass creates
quite a pleasant sound to some people. The sound comes from
the object. On the other hand, an object appears to be colored
because of the interaction of white light with the object.
White light strikes an object, the object absorbs certain
parts of the light, one might say it absorbs all colors but
blue, and the light leaving the object would then contain
whatever color is left, or blue for the example. In a sense
the real color of a blue book is a combination of every color
but blue. This is not accurate because the object itself it
not colored. Color is perceived as the reaction of light with
History of the Studies
the idea of eight concentric circles each with a distinctive
color and tone. The eighth note was a repeat of the first
note and all the notes sounded together produced what he termed
as the "music of the spheres". This was quite an
advanced idea for a time when there were no prisms and rainbows
were not frequently seen. Aristotle suggested the first
color-music formula. He had no conception of the color spectrum
so he invented his own spectrum with black and white as the
ends and several colors in the middle including red and purple.
Aristotle assigned colors to musical tones according to how
the colors and tones blended. Much of this early work on color
and music was purely speculative.
Sir Isaac Newton observed the
colors of the rainbow via a prism in the 17th century.
He ascribed the acronym ROYGBIV to the seven colors. Niels
Hutchinson writes that Newton split the rainbow into seven
sections intentionally to mirror the seven notes of the musical
scale. With a good prism, seven colors are clearly visible
and so the necessary relationship between the seven colors
and seven principle notes should be challenged. This will
be addressed shortly. Newton also attempted to create a music-color
wheel, shown in Figure 3.
Figure 3. Newton’s Music-Color Wheel
Each wedge is assigned a color and the note
preceding each wedge corresponds to the color. The design
of this wheel was entirely arbitrary. Another arbitrary formation
of a color wheel can be seen in Figure 4. Each color
is assigned to a key on the piano. This coordination was developed
by Dominic De Clario and used in a presentation of
light and sound in 1995. All of the colors in the show were
coordinated to the particular key of the music and the particular
notes being played.
Figure 4. Music-Color Assignment According
to Dominic De Clario
Declario wanted to have white light as
part of the color selection and he chose to add it as one
of the key colors. White light is the sum of all of the visible
colors. To replace indigo with violet demonstrates how this
music-color scheme is arbitrary and unscientific. It is particularly
easy to coordinate seven colors to seven notes. A relationship
is not established between sound and color because there are
equal numbers of each. In fact, the seven whole tones in the
western system of notation is also arbitrary. There are a
total of 12 notes in the western scale. Indian musicians use
a system of quarter tones for a total of 22 notes. The western
system of music has become a standard largely because it is
easier to use. It works, but just because it is easier does
not make it the standard. A popular way of dividing up an
octave of notes is with seven divisions. It is not the only
way and so the seemingly magical relationship between seven
colors and seven notes probably is not so magical. It probably
came around in a deductive application of the number seven
instead of objective study of the sound and color.
On the website The Metaphysics of
Music and Harmony another example of the relationship
between color and music is displayed. In Figure 5, the
12 tones are arranged around a wheel. Figure 6. has
the seven colors arranged around a wheel. Both charts show
a one third division. For the tones the relationship shown
is the notes C and E. These two notes create a harmonious
interval. The colors shown at the same distance are red and
yellow and are also harmonious colors. The author has taken
the music and color wheels an extra step in pointing out the
The author also explains out that opposite
colors yellow and purple and opposite notes C and F# are dissonant
and unharmonious. These are mainly opinions. The C and F#
relationship, the tritone, is a staple of jazz and
western music. The disharmony of yellow and purple
may be quite pleasant to some people. It is a rather common
color combination. These two wheels offer some insight into
sound consonance and dissonance but they are not firmly rooted
in a theoretical background. They do offer some insight into
music color relationships.
Figure 5. Music Wheel Figure
6. Color Wheel
The word synesthesia comes from the Greek
words syn meaning together, and aesthesis meaning
perception. Synesthesia literally means cross-sensing,
one of the senses being triggered by another sense. A synesthete
might hear colors, taste sounds, see smells or any combination
of the senses. Does this phenomenon offer any insight into
the relationship between sound and color, particularly from
individuals who hear colors? There has been significant study
of the phenomenon of synesthesia and some light has been brought
to the subject.
Females and left-handed people are typically
synesthetic. Ratios of women to men synesthetes have been
reported at 3/1 and even as high as 8/1. A typical feature
of synesthesia is that the particular sensations, the color
blue associated the pitch C, are consistently experienced.
Whatever sensations the subject experiences are always the
same sensations, the same tastes, sights, sounds, smells and
touches. These sensations frequently enhance memory and are
directly combined with the person’s memory functions. Synesthesia
is reported to run in families. It is not an abnormal phenomenon
but it happens in low frequency. A current understanding of
synesthesia is that it is a premature experience of the perception
like tapping into a signal and viewing it before it reaches
the television screen.
Synesthesia has been known to medicine
for 300 years. Traditional ideas about the experience have
consisted of a ‘crossed-wire’ explanation. Somehow the sensory
information is switching to a new channel and showing up in
a different sense. Many studies are underway today and much
information has been gathered about synesthesia. Richard
Cytowic diagnoses five characteristics of synesthesia
on his article Synesthesia: Phenomenology and Neuropsychology.
The five characteristics are 1) involuntary experience 2)
projection of sensations 3) sensations are durable and generic
4) sensations are memorable 5) sensations are emotional and
The first characteristic is that the
experiences are involuntary and passive. The subject does
not control them but experiences them as they happen. The
second characteristic means that the experiences of synesthesia
do not occur inside one’s mind, moreover they are perceived
to take place within the subject’s personal space. The third
characteristic of synesthesia is that the sensations are generic
and durable. Cytowic means that the experiences remain the
same for any particular person. The experiences are generic
in the opposite understanding of an elaborate memory that
might be awakened by a smell or a sound. These sensations
are simple colors, tastes, textures etc. They are not elaborate
in nature. The memorable quality of the synesthetic experiences
explains why synesthetes usually have good memory. The experiences
are tied into the person’s memory. Cytowic means by the last
characteristic that the experiences are real for the subject.
They are tangible and real to the mind of the perceiver.
Hearing colors is quite a common experience
among synesthetes. The perceptions of colors associated with
particular sounds has been found to be consistent among individuals
but not between individuals but no common set of color and
sound associations exist between individual synesthetes. Synesthesia
is a personal experience and the details of the perceptions
are completely subjective. This disgruntles the effort to
use a common experience of hearing colors to provide objective
data to explain a deeper relationship between sound and color.
If large groups of people would hear the color red when a
D was played, or the color green when the notes F and C were
played, there would be insight into a physical and a psycho-perceptive
understanding of how sound and color are connected. Future
studies of synesthesia may prove otherwise, but for now no
conclusions can be drawn.
Long has the question been pondered of
whether sound and color have some profound mathematical or
physical connection that explains related attributes of origin,
blending, contrasting or consonance and dissonance. Synesthesia,
although proves a relation between sound and color, is rooted
in subjective experience and cannot give light to physical
relation. The sciences will continue to elaborate upon this
field as studies continue and data is gathered.
Sound and Color
(seeing with your ears)
Sound and the Ear