The next step in my project is linking colours to sounds. People have been doing this for a very long time. Aristotle created a colour spectrum and assigned colours to musical tones. Sir Isaac Newton intentionally split the rainbow into seven sections to mirror the seven notes of the musical scale and the Johannes Itten colour wheel, (above) has been used to assign the 12 colours/hues in the outer ring to the 12 semitones in the Western scale. But this approach doesn’t take us very far because, whilst there is only one colour wheel, there can be several octaves in a work of music.
The fact that sound and light both have waves is another possible way to connect them – except their wavelike characteristics are very different. Sound is produced mechanically, whilst colour is only seen when electrical and magnetic fields react to an object – and sound and colour waves are vastly different in size and speed. So it’s technically very complicated to link the two. A collective of artists, researchers, programmers and sound engineers, called the Analema Group, have explored this and created KIMA which they demonstrated at a Sound event organised by Chelsea Grad Dip students earlier this year. As I sung into a microphone, different colours were projected onto the ceiling based on the pitch, rhythm and volume of my singing.
About one in 3000 people spontaneously “see” colours as they listen to music because they have chromesthesia. Kandinsky, Scriabin, David Hockney and Pharrell Williams all had/have this form of synesthesia. There’s an interesting example of what it might be like in the 2009 film The Soloist: https//youtube/PTLdTP-gJeA
Emotions may also influence how we associate music and colours. Researchers in the States asked people to choose the colours that went best with clips of music and rate the music and colours on different emotional dimensions. They found that colours and emotions were almost perfectly aligned: for example the happiest sounding music elicited bright, vivid and yellowish colours whilst the saddest sounding music elicited dark, grayish and bluish ones. To check whether this was influenced by cultural factors they tested participants from the States and from Mexico and found virtually no difference. This suggests that the brain is very effective and efficient in coming up with abstract associations and that emotions are central to how we interpret and respond to incoming information. It is this research that I find most helpful in linking colours to music.