Cymatic Music

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Colour Harmony

In thy Music, we will SEE Music,
In thy Light, we will HEAR Light.

Olivier Messaien (1908-1992)


Colour Keyboard


The Lambdoma could be better understood if this thicket of numbers were colour-coded.

Throughout history a correlation between music and colour has been assumed but, to my mind, never conclusively proved. The basic line of reasoning is this: both music and colour can be viewed in terms of vibration, graded pulses of energy. Just as a common principle of proportion forms the foundations of tone and rhythm, so on a grander scale, all forms of vibration can be considered subject to all-pervasive proportions. The difference between the vibrations of sound and light is seen as one of scale, implying that music can be transposed to colour simply by increasing its rate of oscillation. The fact that the vibrational span of the visible spectrum (390 trillion to 780 trillion pulses per second) is a doubling of frequency, like the musical octave, would seem to support this approach. The superficial attractiveness of such thinking, however, loses some of its sheen if we delve deeper.

Figure 16At an early age we are taught the seven colours of the rainbow, just as we learn the seven white notes on a piano - Do, Re, Me, Fa, Sol, La,Ti - (the diatonic scale). The apparent compatibility of the two generated both Pythagoras and Newton’s schemes for colour-coding musical tone.

Figure 16 highlights the obvious limitations of this approach. If the spectrum of music is supposed to reflect the myriad subtleties of colour, and vice versa, then this colour system has all the musicality of an over-elaborate traffic light. The chromatic continuum of the colour wheel corresponds in only the vaguest of ways with the discrete steps of the scale.


Figure 17The colouristic harmony of Scriabin, at the turn of the last century, heralded a renewed attempt at synthesis, with the emergence of colour-organs and similar contraptions designed to play music and project coloured light. While the results were undoubtedly evocative, nevertheless the systematic mis-match is still evident; as figure 17 shows, expressing the colour spectrum in terms of twelve-tone chromaticism is akin to slotting a round peg in an ill-fitting twelve-sided hole. Likewise the principle of complementary colours is at odds with the consonance of musical tone. The hues of the opposite sides of the dodecahedron are seen to harmonise: red with green, blue with orange, purple with yellow. However, the corresponding musical interval, the tritone, could hardly be called consonant; in fact it is commonly referred to as the devil’s interval due to its implacable dissonance.

Perhaps we will have more success in tracing any reciprocal relationship between colour and music if we shift our attention from the cyclic system of Equal Temperament which, as we noted above, is a cultural construct by nature closed and finite, towards the radial patterning of the Lambdoma which is infinite in nature.

If we transpose the spectral octave proportionally into a 16x16 Lamdoma grid, the following pattern emerges.

Figure 18

This gives a stronger impression of correlation: as the matrix radiates outwards we see a progressive refinement of spectral hue. Furthermore, the polar dynamics of the Lambdoma which we noted above are clearly reflected in the proportional changes of hue. We can, for instance, better understand the magnetic tendency of the supernumerary series towards unity by observing the ever subtler gradations of colour towards the central red.

However, while this colour-coding highlights the structural processes inherent within the matrix, it offers no solution to the problem of how musical consonance is reflected in colour.

Let's compare two ratios, 3/4 and 15/11; if the relative consonance of a ratio can be measured by adding the over and under number (the smaller the result the more consonant the ratio), then the latter is clearly a good deal more excruciating to the ear. But there is no indication of this difference in terms of their respective colours - both appear equally pleasing to the eye.

3/2 and 15/11 comparison

Indeed, if we overlay a graph of musical consonance on a colour spectrum, as in figure 19 below, there is only the vaguest of correspondences. The figure represents a musical range of one octave plotted against a commensurable spectrum. The higher the curve on the graph, the more consonant the musical interval perceived. Again, there are intriguing suggestions of concordance. The point at 3/2 (in western musical parlance a fifth above unity 1/1) seems to coincide with the the middle of blue. To a lesser extent this is true of 4/3 marking the transition between blue and green. Sadly beyond these hints there seems little sense of integrated mutual reflection. Furthermore, these interconnections may well be the happy accidental result of my choice of spectrum illustration!

Figure 19Figure 19

The problem remains inpenetrable, and thus probably all the more fascinating to the human mind which is always searching for meaningful order in a complex world.

In terms of my present research project, the issue is rather tangential. The important inference to be drawn is that colour does not strictly reflect the proportional intricacies inherent in natural acoustics; it is this lack of definition between colours which renders figure 18 redundant as a practical resource for codifying the Lambdoma. We have no sense of the distinct interrelationships between discrete ratios but rather one of a general flow of process within a continuum.