Seeing sounds, hearing colors, part I

I have often asked a student “what color does this movement (or excerpt, or chord progression) suggest to you?”  Color becomes a metaphor for sound – an additional tool for accessing the emotional content of the work, because most of us (even if unaware of it) associate colors with emotions – lighter colors for happiness, darker colors for sadness.   After all, babies, those bundles of happiness, are usually not wrapped in navy or black blankets. 

Imagine my surprise several years ago when a student playing a Chopin Prelude responded to my question about color by saying “This chord is a deep magenta, but it changes to a lighter pink here” and she pointed to another chord in the score.  As we talked, I discovered that she had synesthesia, which I had known about for years, but had never actually encountered in any of my students.  (Since then, I have had two other students with various forms of synesthesia.)

Synesthesia is a neurological condition in which a stimulus to one sense (e.g. sound) produces sensation in a second sense (e.g. taste).  Synesthesia is estimated to occur in 1 – 4% of the population, and over 60 types of synesthesia have been identified, including grapheme-color (letters or numbers perceived as color), touch-taste (touching a surface produces a particular taste), and sound-color (hearing sounds evokes colors).

I suppose this post could be considered a teaser because, having introduced the subject of synesthesia, I’m not actually going to talk about it, at least not today.  I will, however, in the next couple of posts.  But today I want to talk about research that suggests that color and music are connected in all of us through our emotions.  Researchers at the University of California at Berkeley and at the University of Guadalajara, Mexico have recently discovered that, whether or not we are actually synesthetic, our brains are wired to make music-color connections depending on how the music makes us feel.

There have been previous studies that have shown that people consistently pick lighter, brighter colors to go with music in a major mode, and darker, more intense colors to pair with minor.  Lead researcher Stephen Palmer, a UC Berkeley vision scientist, and his colleagues decided to explore the role that emotions play in assigning colors to kinds of music.  They designed three experiments that collectively demonstrate that we share a common emotional palette when it comes to both music and color and that this appears to be intuitive.

There were about 100 participants in the study – half in the San Francisco Bay Area and half in Screen Shot color palette editGuadalajara.  Researchers measured the emotional associations that each participant had for each color on a 37-color palette (shown to the left) and for each of 18 orchestral excerpts by Bach, Mozart and Brahms.  The participants rated each excerpt and each color for eight emotional descriptors:  happy – sad, angry – calm, strong – weak, lively – dreary.

In the first experiment, the participants listened to the 18 fifty-second musical excerpts while looking at the palette of 37 colors.  The musical excerpts varied from slow to fast and included both major and minor.  They were asked to choose the five colors from the palette that were most consistent with each musical excerpt and the five that were the least consistent.  So basically, they were matching colors carrying a particular emotion for them personally to musical excerpts that carried that same emotion.

Among both US and Mexican participants, faster excerpts in major were associated with lighter, warmer colors and slower excerpts in minor were associated with darker, cooler colors.  (The researchers plan to expand their study to Turkey and perhaps China to see what happens in cultures with a very different musical tradition.)

The researchers theorized that, if the links between color and musical excerpts had a common emotional thread, then similar results should occur if participants matched color to some other stimuli that carried emotion.  So in the second experiment, the participants were asked to pick colors that were most/least consistent with images of individual faces showing different emotions.  The faces were either happy, sad or angry in varying degrees, and again, the correlations between the emotional ratings of the faces and the emotional ratings of colors were strong.  Neutral or calm faces were paired with light, slightly cool colors – sad faces with dark, cool colors – happy faces with bright, warm colors – and angry faces with dark, reddish colors.

If common emotional associations were the link between music and color in the first experiment and between faces and colors in the second, researchers then theorized that any two sets of stimuli that have emotional content should be relatable.  So in the third experiment, participants were asked to choose the most/least consistent facial expressions that matched the 18 musical excerpts.  And again there was a strong correlation.

Palmer and his colleagues believe this is evidence that music and color are related in the brain through our emotions, and they call this the “emotional mediation hypothesis.”  So it would seem that if we all connect color and music through our emotions, then such titles as Miles Davis’s “Kind of Blue,”  the Beatles’ “Yellow Submarine,” or Scriabin’s Black Mass piano sonata are playing (pun intended) to that connection.

But synesthetes with sound-color synesthesia probably have a different, more direct, kind of connection in the brain, and we’ll talk about that and more  in “seeing sounds, hearing colors,” part II.

And the journal reference, in case you’re interested:

S. E. Palmer, K. B. Schloss, Z. Xu, L. R. Prado-Leon. Music-color associations are mediated by     emotion. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 2013; DOI: 10.1073/pnas.1212562110


5 responses to “Seeing sounds, hearing colors, part I”

  1. Rosalyn Richards Avatar

    Kandinsky’s “inner necessity” to express his emotional perceptions led to the development of an abstract style of painting that was based on the non-representational properties of color and form. Kandinsky’s compositions were the culmination of his efforts to create a “pure painting” that would provide the same emotional power as a musical composition.

    1. Lois Avatar

      Hi Roz, Thanks for bringing up Kandinsky. As you no doubt know, he actually was a synesthete and he is always brought up in the literature on synesthesia as someone who was attempting to create the same kind of movement in his paintings as was possible in music. Some researchers have wondered what music he was actually listening to as he worked. More on him next time.

  2. Avatar

    On occasion, a piece has awakened Erato within me. Here’s an example, compelled by Ernest Bloch’s Concerto Grosso #1:

    O my God! … O my God! …
    The dirge cuts to the soul,
    the cellos sob, violas weep,
    and strings keen on in agony.

    The blood and slaughter linger still,
    ours is the right, we say, and theirs is the wrong,
    While people … persons … die in excrement and terror.

    Above the prattling sound of syncophantic culture
    the bombs explode, the cannons spit …
    and shattered homes are sepulchres
    to shattered dreams,
    And human spirit rots in life’s despair.

    O my God! … O my God! …

    1. Lois Avatar

      What can I possibly say, Loren, except that I had no idea!!!

  3. Avatar

    As to the color of music, for me it varies. Verdi is usually a shade of red, the Dies Irae is a dark crimson. Much of Mozart and Haydn is yellow. Beethoven is orange, mostly. Puccini is blue, even purple, at the denouements, especially Butterfly and Tosca. Shostakovich gets very dark, close to black sometimes. Carmen starts bright blue and yellow, ends blood red. My younger brother was a much better pianist than I; he was also very temperamental, and the same piece varied day to day from bright to morose- he could make the Moonlight Sonata sound like a march for the dead!