Colour and Sound/ Colour in Sound

By Coila-Leah Enderstein

Whether you know it or not, you are constantly forming new associations in your mind, and drawing on old ones.  Creating associations and discerning patterns are hallmarks of the human mind that help us understand and remember the way the world operates.  Associations with colour are imbued in so much of music-making, music-teaching, and music-receiving. Sit down and listen to a section of music. Now, try to describe it. Which words do you find yourself using?


Bright / Bouncy / Joyous / Placid / Muted / Melancholic / Morose / Laboured / Muddy / Dark


Isn’t it peculiar that describing music mostly draws on metaphors, as opposed to few words used specifically for sound, such as shrill, piercing, rumbling… Colour is one of the richest metaphorical resources. Indeed, the word ‘colour’ is an important part of the musician’s vocabulary. 


Tone colour is a term used to refer to the characteristics of a sound. It comprises multiple aspects of a sound’s makeup: the frequencies that make up the pitch, the duration of the sound, the attack and decay. Think of your favourite melody being played on a guitar. Now, imagine it on flute. And now on a synth! What differentiates these, is what one could call tone colour. How does this happen? 


Firstly, the two instruments are made of different materials, which affect which combination of frequencies make up the sound and at which point it reaches your ear, not to mention the multitude of manners in which a note can be produced; a key struck, air pushed into a cylinder, friction created against a string, an electronic signal manipulated with software. The sensation of sound playing out in our consciousness begs many questions that entangle aspects of the fields we call psychology, physiology, physics, linguistics, philosophy.


And so, the link between colour and sound has been explored by many artists, musicians, scientists and philosophers. Some people experience the link in a more direct sense than merely through associations, by way of a phenomenon called synaesthesia.


I quite enjoy my granny’s old dictionary’s definition of synaesthesia as “the production of an associated mental image of a sense-impression of one kind from a sense-impression of a different kind, as of a sound from seeing a form of colour” (Funk & Wagnalls Practical Standard Dictionary, 1945). In more psycho-physiological terms, synaesthesia can described as a condition whereby certain stimuli induce an involuntary response from another part of the brain. It therefore encapsulates various ‘sense-impressions’: a person may experience numbers or days of the week as colours, or look at a painting and hear sounds, or even smell certain odours when listening to music. I once listened to a podcast about a woman who suffered from synaesthesia to such an extent that she experienced what others were feeling just by looking at them and she had to cut herself off from the world to cope with it (from what I understand, though, that’s a pretty rare case!)


A number of renowned musicians and composers have professed to be ‘synaesthetes’ and some appear to have been verified by synaesthesia experts (however that might be achieved). Composers on the list include Beethoven, Franz Liszt (see Issue 3 of ABZ), Alexander Scriabin, Olivier Messiaen (apparently the most legit of them all), Laurie Spiegel (a pioneer in electronic music) and György Ligeti. Here, Messiaen describes some of the scales he devised to move away from functional harmony (the dominant system used for structuring pieces of music in the European tradition until the early 20th century):

“ …blue-violet rocks speckled with little gray cubes, cobalt blue, deep Prussian blue, highlighted by a bit of violet purple, gold, red, ruby, and starts of mauve, black, and white. Blue-violet is dominant… Mode 2 in its second transposition is totally different: Gold and silver spirals against background of brown and ruby-red vertical stripes.”


Aside from physiological conditions, there is a long history of people drawing associations with particular scales or keys, and even individual pitches. Linking pitches explicitly to colours brought about the crafting of peculiar instruments, from the earliest colour organs dating back to the 18th Century which revealed stained glass panels from behind tiny curtains upon the striking of each key, to Scriabin’s clavier à lumières, a keyboard light-projection instrument devised for his inspired Gesamtkunstwerk ‘Prometheus: the Poem of Fire’ (1910).


The key of C major is often linked with white (possibly because it has no sharps of flats in its key signature, that is, on a keyboard C major would only employ white keys), although there is little consensus on other keys. In my experience, I’ve often heard the key of E major described as bright.  


Some personal associations of mine are burgundy or deep red with C minor, deep purple with F minor, light blue with D major and darker blue with D minor. Though many have theorised about the innate affective properties of keys and pitches, it is currently generally believed, as with colour, that the physical properties are not the driving force behind these associations, but rather subjective experience and the ever-changing historical forces that shape culture.


Perhaps the affinity between sound and colour has something to do with their wavy nature? Personally, I’m not hankering after an explanation. In fact, I think colour is so important in music precisely because the link defies explanation. Metaphors are not only a performer’s most valuable tool, but also a teacher’s. It is the blurriness of these connections, rather than specific technical instructions for sound production, that often allows for an individual’s personality to come through. And it is critical that the developing musician be given the space to play with sound in a way that allows them to hone their own unique tools for creating a vast palette of colour.

Image by Usisipho Gogela: ‘Main Road Mess’ (30 May 2016):

Usisipho: “This is just a long exposure of Rondebosch Main Road in the early morning. I like the contrast between the grey sky, dark asphalt, and vibrant lights. The staccato/disjointed movement of some of the light trails (a Golden Arrow bus I think), the stillness of some of the cars. If you have ever tried to cross the road here at a busy time you will know just how chaotic it can be.” 
Check out Usisipho’s website too!