Color and Sound: Lolita Does the Math

Color and Sound: Lolita Does the Math

There is a prevalent misconception that vampires are good at math. Not true! Nevertheless, I finally wrapped my head around some basic calculations so our composers can continue exploring practical relationships between sound and color.

Audio Sparks for Art composers seek to enhance the experience of visual art through music. We look for points of connection between sound and image and how these points can be developed to deepen the appreciation of art. The relationship between color and sound is one potential point of connection. Music is well-suited to express the emotional content of visual art, including the emotional impact of colors, but is there any way that music for art can actually depict color itself? Can the music paint in the mind’s eye the colors the physical eye sees in the painting, such that a resonance, a sort of sympathetic vibration of internal with external colors occurs?

There is some mathematical basis for the possibility of expressing color with music. Sound and color is partly descrbed in terms of frequency, i.e., the number of wave oscillations per second. Frequency is measured in Hertz (Hz). The human ear can detect sound in the approximate range of 16Hz to 20MHz (megahertz). The visible light spectrum (deep red through deep violet) occurs at the level of THz (terahertz), trillions of hertz. Specifically, color is visible in the range of 384 to 769 THz.

The connection between sound waves and color waves exists, mathematically at least, through the sympathetic vibrations or overtones which are generated when a musical instrument sounds a note. These overtones are multiples of the fundamental tone. For example, the fundamental tone Middle C, in one system understood as C-256(Hz), emits overtones of 512 Hz, 768 Hz, 1,024 Hz, 1,280 Hz, and onward. As the overtones become more distant from the fundamental, they also become less audible. Nevertheless, in theory the overtone series extends infinitely.

In theory then, overtones of a musical note eventually find their way to the terahertz frequency range of visible light. In the single piano keyboard octave starting at Middle C, overtones knock on color’s door at a constant multiple of 2,199,023,255,552. When we use this constant to calculate the relevant overtone of C-256, the result is approximately 563 Thz, very nearly the midpoint of the green range in the color spectrum. One can say, on a theoretical level at least, that Middle C is family (albeit a very distant cousin) with the color green.

Does this mathematical relationship hold any promise on a practical level for the composer of music for art? It seems if our composer bangs out Middle C long enough on the keyboard we are most likely to begin acquiring a headache and to leave the room, soon before any inklings of green start swimming around in our brain. But perhaps we should not throw in the towel quite so soon. There is at least one open door offering some hope for investigation – synesthesia.

Synesthesia is a union or blending of the senses in such a way that odors might be perceived audibly, visual images perceived tactilely, or sounds perceived visually, especially as colors!

In our next installment, we will spend some time looking at the synesthesia phenomenon and perhaps some others which argue for a closer look at the mathematical relationship between sound and color and the implications for the composition of music for art.

Until then, if you happen to be staring at your (finally) green lawn and of a sudden Middle C begins ringing in your ears, please do let us know.

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