Somewhere Over the Rainbow: The Science of Sound and Color
For Wassily Kandinsky, the Russian painter generally credited as the pioneer of abstract art, music and color were inseparable. So much so that he once remarked, “the sound of colors is so definite that it would be hard to find anyone who would express bright yellow with bass notes or dark lake with treble.”
Kandinsky wasn’t just being poetic. There’s reason to suspect that the artist was a synesthete: a person with synesthesia, a condition in which sensory modalities are cross-wired in the brain. If that’s true, Kandinsky didn’t just see colors. He literally heard them, too. This kind of synesthesia, called “chromesthesia,” is relatively rare. While you might not be the one in three thousand individuals who have chromesthesia, research has demonstrated our brains are constantly processing sensory input to help us make sense of the world, and there are certainly ways in which we might experience consistent music-to-color associations.
Crossmodalism is a growing field of research that examines the ways that various sensory stimuli can alter perception of the world and our experiences in it. When our senses are simulated, our brains look for congruent connections that help inform our perception of what we taste, hear, touch, smell or see. We can use these crossmodal associations to “hack” our sensory perception. For example, we tend to associate high pitched sounds with sweetness, and lower pitched sounds with bitterness. Experiments have demonstrated that same piece of chocolate might taste sweet or bitter, depending what we put into your ears while you’re eating it. Our language is full of these comparisons: we talk about how something might “sound” sweet or dark, or we might refer to the “notes” of flavor and aroma in wine.
The same is true when we examine “crossmodally congruent” sound and color pairings. Fast paced music in a major key is associated with bright, vivid colors like yellow. Increase the tempo and energy and blend in a little distortion and you’ll be seeing red. Slow down the tempo, move into a minor key, lessen the attack of the notes, and you might be feeling blue. The lower the pitch the darker the hue. The higher the pitch, the brighter the hue.
In addition to crossmodal associations, researchers have found that emotion also plays a role in the way we attribute color to music. Red is often associated with anger and excitement. Yellow with happiness. Blue with calm or sadness. There are even styles of music that seem to produce strong color associations: jazz with blue, funk and hip-hop with indigo, bluegrass with green, and salsa with red.
Just as Kandinsky drew on a color palate to paint his masterpieces, composers draw on a sonic palate to paint their masterpieces as well. Color/Music associations are most determined by tempo (slow to fast), dynamics (low to high), volume (soft to loud), modality (major to minor), pitch (low to high), harmony (consonant to dissonant), complexity (simple to complex) and distortion (clear to distorted).
More than just entertaining trivia, crossmodal science has practical implications when it comes to crafting brand experiences. How do your brand colors play into other sensory expressions of your brand identity and personality? We can draw on sound/color research to help guide our sound choices, better aligning brand intent with consumer perception.
To bring the science to life, we’ve used it to inform the curation of seven color matched playlists, based on the seven colors of the visible spectrum (often listed as colors of the rainbow): red, orange, yellow, green blue, indigo and violet. You’ll hear (and see) a lot of difference between the music associated with brighter colors like red and yellow, and darker colors like blue and indigo. Some, like orange and violet, may play with the nuance of sonic colors: orange being a little more relaxed in tempo than red and yellow, and not as bright sonically; violet is in similar tempo territory to indigo, but higher in pitch, as violet tends to be perceived as a brighter color than indigo.
So put on a pair of headphones, close your eyes, and work your way through our color inspired playlists, unleashing your inner Kandinsky as you sonically paint the world around you:
Whiteford, K.L., Schloss, K.B., Helwig, N.E., Palmer, S.E. (2018) Color, Music, and Emotion: Bach to Blues. i-Perception, 9(6), 1-27.
Sun, X. et al. (2018), An Extended Research of Crossmodal Correspondence between Color and Sound in Psychology and Cognitive Ergonomics. PeerJ, 6, e4443
Bartram, L., Patra, A., Stone, M. (2017) “Affective Color in Visualization,” in Proceedings of the 2017 CHI Conference on Human Factors in Computing Systems, ACM pp. 1364–1374
Playlists designed by Stephanie Elkin, Music Curator, Pandora