Colour and Music

by Nick Woodeson

The relationship of colour and music has inspired philosophical and creative discovery throughout the ages. It has shaped our references and language in curious ways. The fact that we typically refer to seven colours of the spectrum is the result of Isaac Newton’s discovery of the refraction of white light into colours in the 17th century, and his decision to denote seven colours in association with the seven notes of the musical scale. He commented to the Royal Society in 1675 “And possibly colour may be distinguished into its principle degrees, red, orange, yellow, green, blue, indigo and deep violet, on the same ground that sound within an eighth is graduated into tones.”

Inspired and driven like the ancient Greeks before him to discover an integrated cosmology, Newton believed that the division of light into colours should correlate to seven notes of the musical scale, given that seven was a key principle in alchemy, religious philosophy and ancient cosmology. His famous published ‘colour wheel’ shows a primary division of seven colours to match the seven notes of the ancient Greek Dorian mode scale, also a scale predominant in Church music of Newton's time.

The search for correlation of colour to music throughout history has been more than a mathematical quest. For the Greeks, for Newton, Kepler and many others, it was a religious quest in the discovery of meaning, and the discovery of connection between the seen and heard worlds of light and sound, and the unseen, unheard worlds of cause and influence. Like the alchemical search for the Philosopher’s stone it was a search for harmony, not just of understanding but also of being.

It is also curious that music and colour share common language references. We speak of tone in relation to both light and sound; and music, as well as having a seven note scale, has a chromatic (from the Greek for colour: Chroma) 12 note scale. Links between music and colour appear throughout history in sporadic places. There is some evidence to suggest that musicians in Ancient Egypt played to a sequence of colours as a form of musical score, a concept echoed by the composer Debussy, in the late 19th century when he supposed, “I am more and more convinced that music by its nature is something that cannot be cast into traditional and fixed form. It is made up of colours and rhythms”.

Parallel to the philosophical quest throughout history has been the search to understand the effects of colour and sound. Plato in his Republic ascribed very specific effects and meanings to the seven modes of ancient Greek music for example, indicating which modes were good for education, order, and well-being. This Greek heritage is behind the concept today of major and minor, and their respective moods.

In terms of the effects of colour, Colour Therapy, a modern complementary medicine has its precedents. The notion of the physiological response to colour gave rise to Chromotherapy in the 19th century. By World War I there were colour-cure wards in some London hospitals, for shell-shock and nerve cases. Paint manufacturers also marketed paints for therapeutic purposes during that same period. Blue was seen as calm and cooling, and red as stimulating.

The combination of colour and music and its application in well-being has also found more recent advocates.

Jimi Hendrix in 1970 reflected, “I'm thinking of the days when people will be able to have this little room, a total audio-visual environment type of thing. So that you can go in there and lay back and the whole thing just blossoms with colour and sound. Like a reflection room. You can just go in and jingle out your nerves. It would be incredible if you could produce music so perfect that it would filter through you like rays, and ultimately cure.”

The search for meaning in colour, and its application in well-being has persisted. As people question the limits of science to explain all human phenomena, today there is perhaps beginning to be more credence given to human experience and anecdotal evidence that colour does have specific effects.

The search for understanding about the significance of colour and music and their application, has been a recurring human quest. The rigours of scientific thinking may cause people to think of colour and sound as arbitrary frequencies in the electromagnetic spectrum, but our human experience tells us something different.

We all know that colour and sound affects us. We choose colour and music to either invite or confirm a mood and feeling. We find colour or music, exciting, vibrant, oppressive, uplifting – as many descriptive words for feeling as there are in the dictionary. In many cases, our experience of music and colour can induce states of feeling and connection which are beyond our ability in words to describe. Language, like science, still strives to reflect human experience.

Sound, rhythm and colour are an integral part of creation and how we experience life. Both are a media of human expression and the means by which creation and the natural worlds express themselves to us. There is an intelligence within sound and colour to discover, a gateway to the unseen worlds of energy that enhance and sustain life. Our perception of this may rely upon spiritual and feeling awareness within our inner life, as to what is readily able to be objectively measured. Perhaps the music and art of the future will tap into this intelligence, bringing us closer to direct experience and connection with the intelligence of the creation in which we live.

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