Sound and Color Theory: An Application

Sound and Color Theory: An Application

Webmaster Dan’s latest grasping for connections between the mediums of music and art has been an extended exploration of relationships, real and imagined, between color and pitch.

Dan’s process went something like this. Using a neat (and free) phone app he recently discovered (Color ID), he identified five colors which are predominant in the background of Holly’s ‘Oboe’. (reader’s note: Holly’s art is no longer found on the site.)  For his composition, he decided to restrict the sonic palette to three of these colors (Deep Pink, Deep Yellow Pink, Strong Red). According to the theory, those colors have associated musical pitches whose overtone frequencies eventually reach the magnitude of the visible light spectrum and presumably resonate sympathetically with the corresponding colors in the painting.  This sympathetic resonance, or vibration, presumably intensifies the experience of those colors by introducing a sonic reinforcement.

A significant problem arose in Dan’s application of the sound and color theory to Holly’s painting.  The fact is that not every color visible to us is part of the visible light spectrum.  None of our colors have exact matches on the visible light spectrum.  Dan came up with a partial method to reconcile between the actual color values in the painting and the available values in the visible light spectrum.  He looked at differences between RGB (Red, Green, Blue) values of the actual colors and the RGB values of the light spectrum colors and, where possible, added pure Red, Green, or Blue.  Pure Red turns out to be the note G#4 +30 cents.  Pure Green turns out to be the note C4 +37 cents. Pure Blue is the note D#4 -7 cents.

For example, the deep pink has a Red value of 225 (out of a possible 255 in the RGB scale). The closest (higher) light spectrum color has a Red value of 255. This suggests that we need to reduce Red from the light spectrum color by 25 units. It is possible that we could reduce Red by adding Red’s compliment (Green). Dan did not try this. But if we look at the Blue value of Deep Pink, 84, we see that the closest, higher light spectrum Blue value is 0. This suggests that we could add 84 units of Blue, in other words some audible amount of the note D#4 -7 cents, to act as a modifier to the musical pitch associated with the light spectrum value, which turns out to be A4 – 15 cents. Dan created an RGB to decibel conversion scale to determine how loud the modifying note should be. He assumed that the light spectrum pitch should always dominate, so the scale allows a maximum adjusting note value of 5 decibels below that of the light spectrum note. If, for example, the light spectrum note sounds at 0 decibels, the maximum allowable decibel value for the adjusting note (RGB adjustment of 255 units) would be -5 decibels. The scale then assumes a maximum adjustment range of 1 decibel so that an adjustment of 127.5 RGB units would assign a decibel value to the adjusting note of 5.5 decibels below the light spectrum note decibel value. If, as in our example, we are trying to add 84 units of Blue (D#4 -7 cents) to the light spectrum value, we would assign a decibel value to the adjusting note of 5.67 decibels below the light spectrum note.

It is not at all clear that Dan succeeds in the goal of describing color sonically, of actually creating a sympathetic vibration between sound and visible color in the painting which is experienced by the art fan. The harmonic palette, however, that results from this rather esoteric approach is interesting to your devoted Blogger. We use modifications of the notes A, D#, G#, G, and C, volume-balanced such that G, G# and C predominate.

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