Color & Music

I often see similarities between the field of visual arts and music. I’m not referring to how a painting makes you feel, as this is a too elusive a discussion in which peoples’ own personal opinion shall ultimately be the ruling decider. I would like to compare art and music through a more quantifiable approach by linking both fields to certain aspects of science. I see color as almost a visual version of sound. We see color only because our eyes contain receptors to facilitate a response to light energy. We hear sounds due to the fact that our ears have mechanisms which respond to sound energy. Both our eyes and ears send these signals to our brain which then interprets the energy as either colors or sounds.

There are limits or a range to what our eyes and ears can see and hear. There are sounds we can’t hear and there are forms of light energy we can’t see. Take a dog whistle for example, it is out of the range from what a normal human ear can detect and interpret. This is also true for color. Color is merely the result from our brain’s response to a certain part of the electromagnetic spectrum known as the visible light spectrum. Microwaves, infrared, television waves- they are all the same wave, electromagnetic waves; they differ in their frequency and wavelength. As a result their different frequencies have different properties according to how they interact with matter. Microwaves for example have the potential to excite water molecules. This is how food gets heated up in a microwave.

A musician thinks of music in terms of notes, take the western music scale for example: A,B,C,D,E,F,G forms the basic backbone for a system of music that can be played, recorded and discussed in terms of this music “scale”. This scale is a system, a language of its own that allows musicians to communicate and relate various sounds to one another. When we strip away the musicians scale system we can get to heart of what’s really happening with sounds at the scientific level. We can discuss sounds in terms of various frequencies. The sounds we hear as being different from one another are usually the result of sound waves that have different frequencies. So what a musician might know as middle A on the piano is known to a scientist as a sound wave that has a frequency of 440 Hz. Light and color can be paralleled to this aspect of sound in this and many other ways. Light waves come in various frequencies and as a result we are able to see different colors. So when we see red our brain is responding to a certain frequency of light wave(s) that has entered our eye. Please note: This is a simplified explanation; the complete story involves complex mixes of light rays and an even more complicated interpretation of this light energy accomplished by the eye and the brain.

To conclude, light and sound are very similar in that they both come in a variety of frequencies which ultimately leads us to have distinguished colors and sounds. To make the connection short and sweet, musical notes on a scale are similar to hues placed around the circular color wheel.


note = color

value = volume (provide contrast)

slurs (trombone) = gradations

long note = larger area

geometric vs. organic

purity closeness to sine wave = geometric


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *