Color and Music, the phenomina of synaesthesia

Whether listeners fully realize it or not, the key in which a composition is written gives it a ‘feel’ of its own. Attempts are occasionally made to express this in verbal terms, and some have even sought to find color and music equivalents.Andre Gretry, one of the masters of opera-comique and a prolific composer and writer on music, listed psychological characterizations of 14 music keys in his Memoires, published in 1797.

The relation between color and key has interested a number of composers; one of them, the British musician Arthur Bliss, even wrote a ‘Color Symphony’, each movement devoted to a different hue. The Russians have seemed especially interested in the question, with both Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov and Alexander Scriabin striving to codify the relationship.

Color equivalents of eleven keys:

Key Rimsky-Korsakov's list Scriabin's list
C major White Red
G major Brownish-gold Orange-rose
D major Yellow Yellow
A major Rosy Green
E major Sapphire blue Bluish-white
B major Dark Blue Bluish-white
F-sharp major Grayish-green Bright-blue
D-flat major Dusky Violet
A-flat major Grayish-violet Purple-violet
E-flat major Bluish-grey Steely
E major Green Red

(Musicus Vol. 21.1, UNISA 1993)

From an early age, I discovered that I also associate certain colors with specific pitches. While studying for a degree in Musicology, I’ve learned that the phenomenon is called ‘synaesthesia’. Mine is very distinctive and it feels as if it’s something that’s always been there. At first, I didn’t even know that there was a name for this. I was astonished when my harmony lecturer at the University of Stellenbosch, Mr. Lucas Wentzel, mentioned that for him, “ C is White, D is Brown, E is Blue, F is Green, G is orange, A is Red and B is Purple”: Those are exactly my colors! I guess some things are just unexplainable.

This is what the ‘Harvard Dictionary of Music’ (edited by Don Randel) has to say about the subject:

“Associations between pitch-class names and frequencies of the audible continuum have varied considerably during the recorded history of music. Nevertheless, there has persisted a class of listeners for whom specific vowels, pitches, timbres, chords and chord progressions, keys, entire compositions, and even styles have specific color analogs. This is explainable in large part by a cognitive anomaly known as synaesthesia, in which a given stimulus within the domain of one sense (in this case, sound waves) elicits percepts belonging to the domain of another sense (in this case, images).”