Sound and color

La symphonie printanière, 1936 (Henry Valensi, 1883-1960)

La symphonie printanière, 1936 (Henry Valensi, 1883-1960)

“Sound and colour, towards a synesthetic approach to art” by Jean-Yves Bosseur

By the 16th century, Arcimboldo had already imagined a system of equivalences between graduated values of black and white and heights of sound. In 1740, the Jesuit mathematician Louis-Bertrand Castel advanced, in his treatise on colour optics, a table comparing the time scale and the colour spectrum, basing his reasoning on two trios: primary colours and the notes in a perfect chord. Castel underlined the common importance of the circle in visual and sound art, which is found in both tones and colours; he also insisted on the importance of the numbers 3, 7 and 12 in the theories governing each field and goes as far as sketching, in 1734, the plans for an “ocular clavichord” and a “musical tapestry” which aroused the interest of Rameau, Telemann and Jean-Jacques Rousseau among others.

But it was really in the late 19th century that numerous attempts were made to examine the phenomena of sound and colour together in creation and perception. Scriabin for example can be considered as one of the major figures of this aspiration to synaesthesia, which included olfactory sensations; throughout the century, many artists and theoreticians of sight and sound have continued to examine the phenomenon (Kandinsky, Schoenberg, Hauer, Itten, Herbin, Messiaen and others). In the same vane as Scriabin’s plan, the American architect Claude Bragdon experimented with different mechanical keyboards to create shows that were simultaneously visual and musical, like Cathedral without Walls, presented in Central Park in 1916. A studio was created in Long Island by the “Prometheans”, a group of artists who devoted themselves to creating instruments combining colour and movement. Bragdon had a decisive influence on Thomas Wilfred, who used the term “lumia” to describe his colour kinetic projections, and in 1921, worked with him to invent the first “clavilux”. Scriabin’s approach caused a whole series of poly-sensory attempts. In Kazan, Bulat Galeyev, author of several works and articles on the union of colour and music, created the “Prometheus” group which made two films, Prometheus (1965) and Perpetual Movement (1969), and several “coloured music” installations, including Aurora borealis, for the Kazan planetarium.

Approaches aiming to achieve a sensory connection as organic as possible between sound, colour and movement began to appear in the 1920s with the artists in the musicalist movement created by the painter Henry Valensi. One of its members, Charles Blanc-Gatti had prolific discussions with Olivier Messiaen, who remains one of the most representative composers of the synesthetic influence in 20th century music.


Jean-Yves Bosseur is a composer and a musicologist.