There are numerous conflicting theories on how colour and musical notes relate so in order to explore these different relationships the application will need to be configurable, enabling different colour-note mappings to be tried against various images. Some proposed relationships such as Isaac Newton’s colour wheel have since been discredited (University of Cambridge, 2010) however this is not entirely relevant to my project, while from a scientific point of view they may have been disproven they are still worth exploring for their potential musical merit. I have decided to implement four different colour-note relationships: Isaac Newton’s Colour Wheel, Alexander Rimington’s “Colour-Music”, Alexander Scriabin’s “clavier à lumières” and directly going up in octaves until the note frequencies fall within the visible light spectrum.

Isaac Newton’s note and colour relationship is based on the Diatonic note intervals, in his work “Opticks” newton noted his perceived correlation between the note intervals and the 7 colour of the visible light spectrum, this formed Newton’s colour wheel. (University of Cambridge, 2010) As the colour wheel only provides the colours between notes the rest will have to be generated through simple interpolation.

The colours used in Alexander Rimington’s book “Colour-Music” were chosen during development of the “Colour Organ”, the colour organ was a visual musical instrument that had coloured lamps that lit up when notes were played. The same note in each octave would have the same colour however as the notes got higher in pitch the lamps would be brighter. (Campen, 2008, p. 49)

Alexander Scriabin’s “Clavier à Lumières” is also a Colour-Organ however instead of a direct mapping between the musical scale and the colour spectrum the colours are related through the circle of fifths, this leads to a vastly different set of note colours. (B.Galeyev & I.Vanechkina, n.d.)

Finally, a more direct approach is to directly octave up the notes until the fundamental note frequency until they fall within the visible light spectrum. As described by the anonymous blogger “Endolith” in his blog post titled “A mapping between musical notes and colors”, by starting with the musical note F4 at 340Hz and adding 40 octaves the frequency falls within the visible spectrum at 407THz which results in a Deep Red. (Endolith, 2010)

Placing these onto an excel spreadsheet with some rough colouring shows the large contrast between each of the proposed mappings.

I have chosen these four as they are very different and likely to produce contrasting pieces of music.

Other Note Characteristics

None of these mappings have the ability to decide how loud a note should be played or for how long. For each pixel the Hue, Saturation and Brightness data is used to generate the MIDI instruction, Hue is the colour and is therefore used to decide which note to play which leaves Saturation and Brightness usable for the task of deciding the remaining note characteristics. I’ve decided to use the brightness to decide the loudness or “Velocity” of a note, this falls in line with the experiences of synesthetic people, according to Lawrence Marks synesthetic people match bright images to loud sounds and that in language both non synesthetic and synesthetic people agree on the principle that loud is bright and that dim is soft. (Marks, 1990, p. 35) This leaves one remaining piece of pixel data, Saturation, and one remaining basic note characteristic, length.

Using the data in a direct way like this will allow an image to create the same set of MIDI instructions each time it is “played”, no external factors will be used in creating the notes such as random numbers. Below is an overview of how the program will use the image’s pixel data to generate the MIDI instructions.

The Colour of Music - Program Overview

B.Galeyev & I.Vanechkina, n.d. Was Scriabin a Synaesthete?. [Online]
Available at:
[Accessed 2 January 2016].

Campen, C. v., 2008. The Hidden Sense: Synesthesia in Art and Science. Cambridge, Massachusetts: The MIT Press.

Endolith, 2010. A mapping between musical notes and colors. [Online]
Available at:
[Accessed 2 January 2016].

Marks, L. E., 1990. Synaesthesia: Perception and Metaphor. In: F. Burwick & W. Pape, eds. Aesthetic Illusion: Theoretical and Historical Approaches. New York: Walter de Gruyter, pp. 28-40.

Categories: Music

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