Historic background and perspectives

Tatiana Tchouvileva and Giuseppe Caglioti


If we had ability to watch air during the concert, while it oscillates, simultaneously influenced by different voices and instruments, we would see with great surprise very alive and nicely organized colors in it.
A. Kircher


In the history of culture very few phenomena have occurred capable to attract and to intrigue not only artists and musicians but also scientists and philosophers. Colored music is one of them.
Since the early Newton's attempts to the contemporary studies of synaesthesia, attention of many cultural milieux is focused on the correlation between colors and music.
Thanks to the present technological development, the handling of colors and sound is much easier now than in the past. Also in order to assess the opportunity of possible actions in this field by the DMC ColorLab of Villa Tosca, it is interesting to survey historical attempts aiming to attribute colors to sounds, as well as to report the feelings and expectations of eminent musicians intrigued by the potentialities of synaesthesia as a tool for triggering, amplifying and transferring emotions.

Early attempts

The development of the earliest scientific theory of colored music dates back to the XVII century. In his analysis of the spectrum of light, I. Newton correlated musical notes with colors through a direct analogy between optic and acoustic phenomena. In his Optics he proposed a strict correspondence between the seven colors of the rainbow and the seven notes of the musical scale: increasing frequencies of light oscillations in the spectrum (from red to violet) correspond to increasing frequencies of sound oscillation in the diatonic major scale. For Newton, who firmly believed on the universal character of mechanical laws, colors and sounds were governed by the same numbers underlying the Pithagor doctrine of harmony of celestial spheres: the same ratios between small numbers must be the natural basis for the equivalence of notes and colors, of visual and acoustic phenomena. And if the statement of G. W. Leibnitz (1712) is true that musica est exercitium arithmeticae occultum nescientis se numerare animi (''music is a hidden arithmetic exercise of the soul which doesn't know that it is counting''), why should not be allowed to refer the same aphorism also to the game of colors in a harmonic painting.
A practical realization of Newton's idea was attempted by the monk L.B. Castel (1688-1757), who intended to make people unable to hear ''to see the music''. Castel constructed a colored clavichord, perhaps the first colored musical instrument in history. As keys were pressed, in a panel beyond the clavichord small blinds came up, disclosing different colors which had been preselected according to the correlation between the musical scale and the chromatic spectrum. In other experiments he proposed to use colored crystals even of different size. However the available resource of light - candles -, was not powerful enough to produce desirable effect.
Similar experiments were made later by G.V. Craft, I.G. Cruger, D. James who were among the first ones to put forward the idea of ''visualizing'' music. But all those experimental attempts to merge sound into color were criticized as primitive by artists and musicians. Due to the absence of powerful sources of light, it had been impossible at that time to produce a dynamic visualization of music introducing not only colors but also forms.

The research since the middle of the XIX century to the present days

Some hope appeared to create dynamically visible music when the German physicist Ern. Chladni (1756-1827) discovered a method to visualize the form of sounds through the sand patterns produced on a glass disc set on a pivot, forced into vibration by a fiddle stick of a cello. A detailed description of this method to produce Chladni figures can be found in T. Mann's Doctor Faustus. Although the problem of coupling Chladni's arabesques with a musical piece during its performance was technically insurmountable at that time, the aesthetics of romanticism estimated a lot those arabesques. Enthusiastic appraisals of the visual image of sound were expressed by J. W. Goethe, O. de Balzac, V.G. Wackenroder. Chladni figures are yet brilliant demonstrative examples of acoustic stationary waves.
In the second part of the XIX century, the aim at unification of visual and auditory sensations became fashionable: the synaesthetic image of ''visual music'', such metaphors as ''music is arabesque or ornament'' or ''architecture is hardened music'' were broadly used by artists and critics. This conception received its most synthetic and expressive form in the work of Ed. Hansliek.
Another step in the direction of correlation of sounds and colors according to emotional semantics was made by K. Ekkartsgausen and P. Gonzag. They stressed the necessity of a plastic organization of color for pieces of colored music. It's the time when new musical instruments had been created, and the cultural milieux felt urged to explore their new potentialities.
''Colored hearing'' was pursued and practiced by such composers as V. Berlios, F List, R. Wagner, N. Rimsky-Korsakov, A. Skriabin etc.
Each of these musicians possessed a specific ''colored'' perception of the keys. A. Skriabin, for instance, perceived sharply in colors C-dur, G-dur and F-dur: other keys didn't suggest him any definite color. For A. Skriabin C-dur was perceived as red. However, the same C-dur for N. Rimsky-Korsakov was perceived as white. For Skriabin G-dur was as orange, while for Rimsky-Korsakov it was brown. These different reactions to the same musical stimulus confirm that colored hearing is a very individual, subjective phenomenon.
Since the beginning of the present century, the problem of colored music has started to intrigue also engineers and psychologists interested to the identification of objective bases for making music vivid. The reason for their attention could be ascribed to a historic event in the art of sounds and colors: the first colored symphony Prometheus - Poem of Flame, by A. Skriabin (1910).
In the score of this composition a part of a virtual, non-existent colored musical instrument was included under the title Luce (= light). The composer dreamed that during the performance of his symphony, all the space around the listeners would exhibit correlated color changes. Colored waves would absorb people. He succeeded even to build a rather primitive instrument for this purpose, but decided to limit its use only at home performances. This instrument is demonstrated at the Museum of Skriabin in Moscow.
The thread of Skriabin's musical works is the fluttering of a creative spirit associated with the image of flame: a spirit burning and destroying everything in order to transform and to create everything. In many parts of the symphony the composer depicts different phases of flame: from weak glimmers of smolder transforming to flourishing fire to the dynamic game of sparkling colors of tongues of flame.
For these kinds of associations Skriabin elaborated a whole system of expressive sound means. In harmony with them, the score of Luce must represent music as a light carrying phenomenon: not with the purpose of illustrating sound or transferring it into color, but rather in order to enrich aesthetic information with the means of both and to intensify the artistic impression.
In his realization of the idea of colored music, Skriabin goes along all historical steps of the development of this idea again, unaware of previous attempts: he passed from Newton-like correlation between notes and colors to the idea of light carrying music, creating spatial dynamics of light. Certainly in Prometheus the score of light plays its own artistic and aesthetic role. ''In Prometheus I wanted first a kind of parallelism, I wanted to strengthen the effect of sound by light impression, but now I'm not satisfied with this. Light counterpoints are necessary for me now. Light goes according to its melody and sound to its own one. [...] Even such case is possible: the line of melody begins in one kind of art but ends in another one. It resembles an instrumentation, where the theme is given to a clarinet first but then it is taken by violins. [...] So melody can start from the sounds but continues in a symphony of light lines.'' These are Skriabin's dreams in 1910, as reported by L. Sabaneev, in Memoirs of A. Skriabin, Moscow. So already ninety years ago, for Skriabin, the idea of a new synthetic art as vivid music, where sound and colored light stand on equal footings, was firmly established, and clearly and poetically expressed. Skriabin exceeded the technical limits of his time.
Three years later, in Austria, A. Schoenberg, independently of Skriabin, included the score of light in his musical drama Happy Hand (1913). But his one was a kind of theater performance.
Strangely enough those facts verified the forecast of the famous American physicist S. Michelson, who back in 1902, in his book Light waves and their applications wrote: ''a new art of colors analogous to the art of sounds would appear. It's possible to call it as music of colors''. The idea of colored music and musical painting inspired also artists such as V. Kandinskij, M. Churlionis and G. Belmont: It's enough to recollect here the titles of their paintings: Improvisation, prelude, suite, etc.. For the theory of synaesthesia those were unique attempts to transfer literally synaesthetic metaphors on the canvas, with the fixation of images simultaneously evoked by music. These paintings represent exceptional materials for a development of a theory of synaesthesia. Soundless music of colors was realized in America at the beginning of the Twenties by T. Wilfred, who created ''clavelucs'' for performing soundless, dynamic, abstract colored light compositions such as Triangular Etude, Gothic Suite etc. Though fascinated by the pure music of colors, he didn't refuse to integrate colors in musical performances: In 1926 the Philadelphia orchestra, together with Wilfred's clavelucs performed Scheherazade by N Rimsky-Korsakov. In France, a bit later, N. Schefer constructed a similar instrument for ''making music of colors''. In the early Thirties, the Hungarian pianist A. Laszlo, together with the German painter M. Hall, created a colored music instrument and performed with it several successful concerts of colored music all over Europe.
F. Bentan conducted several experiments for presenting music in light: in 1951 he constructed a special chromatic organ and installed it at the Royal Festival Hall in London. This is the first non-itinerant colored musical instrument. In this framework, V. Eggeling, G. Richter and V. Rutman set up a branch of colored music in cinematography, creating films of the so called ''absolute cinema''. In the late Twenties and early Thirties, colored music acquired the status of an independent kind of art. Topical congresses of colored music were organized in Germany with relevant publications in the collections Fabre-Ton-Forschungen. A lot of concerts, exhibitions, scientific and technological meetings on colored music had been holding all over the world.
At that time, in Russia, A. Lentulov and and G. Gidoni tried to further develop Skriabin's approach to the performance of music in light. But their attempts to play Prometheus were not so successful.
In 1930-1950 research and performance in this field decayed, partly for ideological reasons, partly as a consequence of lack of communication with the West. However special mention deserves S. Eisenstein's work on synthesis of visual and audio aspects, Vertical montage, which is a milestone for all audiovisual arts.
In Russia, in the Sixties, colored music again resumed a key position in artistic and technological research. Several centers of theoretical and experimental development of this conception were founded: the center at the Institute of Automation and Telemechanics in Moscow, the experimental studio of electronic music at the Museum of Skriabin, Moscow, the design office ''Prometheus'' at the State Aircraft Institute, Kasan. A great number of conferences and schools on this topic had been organized not only in Russia, but in many other Soviet republics: musicians, artists, engineers, cyberneticists, physiologists, psychologists and philosophers shared their experience in interdisciplinary debates. From 1967 to 1971 the questioning of 25.000 professional musicians, artists, cinematographists on the research of objective signs of musical synaesthesia were carried out and analyzed statistically. Interesting results were obtained also from questionnaires distributed among children on their perception of music.
Similar studies had been carried at the Budapest Institute of Color, at the Vienna Institute of Musical Graphics as well as at some universities in USA and Germany. In the Sixties K. Leontiev, Moscow and B. Galeev, Kazan, constructed colored musical instruments following different aesthetic and technical principles and demonstrated them in the performance of Skriabin's music.
Leontiev's system Colored music automatically converts music into colors according to a program based on the formal structure of music: rhythm, pitch of the sound, intensity, timbre... The criterion driving this conversion is based on the fact that everybody's physiological interaction of the senses of looking and hearing are common to the majority of people in ordinary situations. ''The main principle of transformation of audio information into visual must be such correlation of the sound and color, on the basis of which audio and visual impressions reinforce each other.'' (K. Leontiev. Music and Color. ''Znanie'' Moscow, 1961, p.43). Common correlation to him are dynamics and rhythm, so his electronic machine producing colors utilizes dynamics and rhythm to regulate the intensity and the rate of changes of it and of the colors. Installed in the machine is also a program of comparison of the sounds according to their affinity. Color of music in every moment depends on contrast of adjacent sounds in their pitch and volume. If these sounds are repeated or in harmonic relatios with each other the screen is illuminated by the calm colors in the blue part of spectrum, while if they are contrasting the machine produces shocking colors in the red part of the spectrum. This rigid transcodification met the favor of the public attending the performance of Skriabin's colored music compositions in Moscow in 1962. However the low content of artistic creativity was revealed and emphasized by musicians, painters and art critics.
Galeev's approach, following Skriabin's conception, implies creativity and artistic sensitivity in the operation of his colored music instrument. His goal is to reach the effect of ''sound-light'' based on synaesthesia: In aesthetic perception of the performance, the correlated interaction of looking and hearing should evoke a unique dynamic process. Galeev underlined the necessity, for realization of those purposes, to have a register, who combines professional skills of an artist of light and a musician. Only a master with the help of machine could fully realize the synaesthetic dream of colored music.
Today sophisticated electronic apparatus are designed and realized, following demoscopic indications: but the technology usually adopts the automatic, rigid approach of L. Castel.
We believe that any further step in this direction should consider attentively the mechanisms of artistic creation and its aesthetic perception, and the underlying common basis of synaesthesia.

On synaesthesia

We can think to synaesthesia as a nonlinear interaction between different sensations: if stimulus A alone triggers a sensation A' and stimulus B alone triggers a sensation B', the combination of A and B will trigger a response R qualitatively different from A' + B'. This definition could stand as a reference to most of the attempts in the field of color music presented in the previous section.
However, at an even deeper physiologic, psychological and philosophic level, synaesthesia could be defined also as the occurrence of an e.g. visual sensation triggered by a sound, a smell or by any physiologic stimulus not related to the eye. Problems as complex as synaesthesia would require much more space and time than those available here. We limit ourselves to only few words as a reminder of the problem.
In art, synaesthesia is the basis for the emotional perception of images where metaphors play a constructive role, due to their capacity to bring together different phenomena.
Think for instance, in literature, to the perception of metaphors based on associations such as ''The tooth ache in the heart ''(Geine). ''Blue mood'', ''White noise'', ''Silenzio verde'','' Black despair''. So it's also natural that in the process of perceiving a piece of art different senses interact, creating - if we are allowed to use an expression by S. Langer - a sensible metaphor. Think again to ''musical paintings'' like Kandinskiy's improvisations or Skriabin's colored ''Poem of Flame''.
In the history of art there are also unique attempts to realize directly synaesthetic metaphors by constructing on the canvas in real time images dictated by music (D. Belmont, USA; G. Maier, Germany, O. Sokolov, Russia and, nowadays, Daniela Bruni, Italy).
Records of synaesthetic phenomena are found already in the works of D. Lock in the XYII century, quoting the statement of a blind man, for whom the sound of trumpet appeared to him as scarlet.
However the beginning of significant research in this field is connected with the experimental psychology of creative activities based on new discoveries in physiology at the beginning of the XX century. At that time, the problem of synaesthesia becomes the objective for international congresses of physiologists and psychologists. A lot of statistic psychological tests among different groups of people in different countries are carried out, aiming at identifying intersubjective correlations between colors on the one hand and alphabetic letters, days of the week, notes, timbre, emotions... on the other hand. All memoirs of prominent composers are scrupulously analyzed also from this point of view.
On the basis of this systematic work, different manifestations of synaesthetic phenomena are classified, including quantitative assessments. The relevant bibliography counts more than one thousand papers in all European languages. However as indicated above, the results of these studies, though deserving specific attention, cannot be presented in this work.


The history of the development of creation and performance of colored music is long and rich. This testifies a human need for enrichment of the sensitive experience. Several recurring approaches have been attempted: from the rigid transcodification of sound into colors by L. Castel and K. Leontev on the wake of Newton, to the artistic interpretation and integration of the two components by A. Skriabin and B. Galeev, only to quote a few.
The present technological revolution in the handling of the media and a full exploitation of the principles of optical dichroism underlying the creation of Heliopolis - an endless source of chromatic offers -, fully justifies an interdisciplinary effort toward a qualitative improvement of the audiovisual art - Music Color -. This improvement can be efficiently pursued only if due attention is focused on the mechanisms of human sensitivity and creativity. Among these mechanisms, synaesthetic correlation of sound and colors plays a central role .