Music for Eyes: Synthesis of Colour and Sound

The past century was the period of integration of scientific knowledge and art. One of its displays was the idea of colour music, which had emerged several centuries before and led to grandiose discoveries of modernity. What prompted human to start thinking over the influence of light and colour on the mood of any person? Probably, it can be connected with some natural phenomenons.

Anyway, the powerful impact of the simultaneous usage of visual and audial senses on the mental condition was obvious and attracted attention of inventors and artists since the ancient times.

It was as early as in primordial culture, when syncretic art, without division on types, originated. Colour and sound in the perception of our ancestors were inherent to certain objects; their perception was extremely concrete, reflecting entity in it wholeness. 

From Antiquity to the Renaissance

Later, in Ancient Greek period, the problem of synthesis of colour and sound was solved in theater, where action, singing of choir, movement and lightning effects were submitted to the rhythmic and spatial organization, that added feeling of integrity to the play. Aristotle in his “Sense and Sensibilia” wrote, “We may regard all these colours [viz. all those based on numerical ratios] as analogous to the sound that enter into music.”


Sounding images and moving colours can be seen in folk dances. But it’s not colour music yet, only its origins. The problem significantly developed in the Renaissance art, when natural science and artistic endeavors elaborated shoulder to shoulder. In the end of the 16th century in Milano, according to the eyewitnesses account, some fundamental backgrounds for colourific music was invented. Giuseppe Arcimboldo, a painter and a musician, created a new method of musical notation using colours: he played a certain key and showed to his students a colour card, which was relevant, as he thought, to that key. For sure, Arcimboldo’s system wasn’t colourific music itself, yet an important step towards it.

Science on the service of Arts

ocular-organThe 17th century gave the origin to the scientific approach to colour music. In 1665 Sir Isaac Newton, interested in researching features of the sunlight, made an experiment: he observed the way each colour of light would bend as it passed through the prism and searched for the connection between the spectrum and musical octave. Newton associated the length of the wave of each colour and vibration frequency of the note. According to that C (do) was Red, D (re) – Orange, E (mi) – Yellow, F (fa) – Green, G (so) – Blue, A (la) – Indigo or Blue Violet, B (ti) – Purple or Red Violet.

In the 18th century the idea of colour music as a self-sufficient art emerged. Jesuit mathematician Louis Bertrand Castel proposed a Clavecin pour les yeux (Ocular Harpsichord, 1725) as an illustration for his optical theories. It had sixty small coloured glass panes with curtains that opened when a certain key was pressing. In 1754 the model was improved: now strucking a key caused a small shaft to open, allowing light to shine through a piece of stained glass.

This invention led to heated disputes, prompting scientists to consider various things, that had been perceived as common and plain: what is colour, what is sound (from physical aspect), how are they perceived and interconnected?

First Colour Musical Instruments

Since the second half of the 19th century the problem synthesis of visual and audial perception draw attention of psychologists, who became interested in problem of colour hearing and synesthesia. At the same time, first demonstration samples of colour organs were created. In 1877 American Bainbridge Bishop placed a small screen of the lusterless glass, which reflected light, admitted through multicoloured filters. For illumination of the screen, Bishop used sunlight and later – electric arc. Playing the Colour Organ musician had to open and close at the same time colour filters, creating a vibrant and dynamic picture. High pitch were represented with bright colours in the center, whereas low ones – with blurred colours over the entire surface.

Another person, Australian Alexander Hector, devoted himself to researching colour and sound. He wanted to find the way of transferring sound into colour, believing each musical phrase corresponds to the colour gamma, and each musical sound – to a certain hue. Hector created an apparatus, which looked a piano wired up to a series of coloured electric lights covered with a transparent veil. And colours fleshed, as the player touched the correspondent key. One journalist described the scene in such poetic words – “Mauve flashed to magenta, pearl and sapphire flashed and were gone, creating visions of colour thought, the music of the mind and eye.” The inventor wanted to find the method to make the unique language of emotions appeal to both the eyes and ears.


Dane-born musician and inventor Thomas Wilfred, conversely, was interested in colour music without sound broadcasting – the eights art he called “Lumia”. In his researches, Wildfred came to the conclusion it can be achieved with colour, forms and movement that match with melody, harmony and rhythm in music. His Clavilux with a colour-producing keyboards with a screen, where different figures, circles or quadrates, for instance, which were revolving and intertwining like hands. They could grow thinner or thicker come nearer or farer. Colours accompanied to that ‘solo’ of shapes. Wilfred made a great contribution into development of the colour music as a self-sufficient type of art.

prometheus-The-Poem-of-FireIn Russia Alexander Scriabin was its father. He created the first piece in the history of music, where the part of the colour itself was equal to the instrumental ones and was written on the separate stave. This piece was called “Prometheus” (1909-1910). Its subtitle “The Poem of Fire” isn’t random as well, reflecting the idea of the elemental movement, a powerful flow of colour.

Scriabin’s grandiose idea couldn’t but influenced the typical instrumentation of a symphonic orchestra, including piano, organ, choir and colour-light keyboard, which illuminated the hall with colour waves. But imperfect technical equipment of that time didn’t allow the author to fully realize his concept. The first attempt ended with a failure, as the machine, mad by the composer himself, was too primitive to accompany suc magnificent music. In the Scriabin’s museum in Moscow there’s a light device, produced in 1911 – the clavier à lumières or Tastiéra per luce. It was a disk with twelve colour light bulbs and switches, connected with wires. When the music was played, bulbs flickered with various, though very pale, colours. With such apparatus Scriabin couldn’t play the mystic part of Luce and its flashing just annoyed the audience. Nevertheless, we have to do justice to him, as the composer managed to foresee the expressive means of media art decades beyond.

The idea of synthesis of music and colour kept on developing. A few experiments were held in the electro studio of the French composer Pierre Boulez. One of his pieces he presented in a very original way: the sound was transmitted through loudspeakers with dynamic colour installations, set in a circle, creating an outstanding space of spatial and audial perception. Nowadays a popular 3D Video mapping turns whole buildings into living, dancing organisms and fascinates viewers with amazing stories. Moreover, some artists try to capture music on canvas: for example, a painter and a tango-dancer from Turkey, Murat Erdemsel depicts famous tango melodies on his abstract canvases, embodying his attitude to motion, colour and melody in them. Sometimes he even project them on the dancefloor, while performing, so all the elements interflow into integrity.

Latest Articles