Vladimir Tamari

February 2002, revised September 2005. This essay is an appendix to Painting the Music


I  The Beginnings
For several millennia the worlds of visual art and of music have followed different but adjacent paths that only began to cross relatively recently. Early on, people learned to use 'abstract', artificial forms not normally found in nature, to express ideas or emotions - in music it was notes played on flutes or stringed instruments, drumbeats, songs. In the visual arts it started with hand prints on cave walls, line drawings of animals, decorations on pottery or on the walls of dwellings. Occasionally, by accident, the two worlds would merge, perhaps a colorful banner is waved accompanied by the sound of trumpets, or puffs of pink and then green powder thrown in some Indian village festival, in time to a drummer's beat.  Perhaps the first work of art consciously intended to merge sound and light, albeit in a haphazard way, was Handel’s Royal Fireworks Music  (1749).  One might add Tchaikovsky's 1812 Overture (written in 1880) because the guns fired at the climax must have given a convincing flare of light as well as sound.
II  Modernism
Apart from such stunts, it was only during the Romantic era in the West that the first questions were raised about the relation between painting and music. The German philosopher Herder stressed the importance of inspiration in all the arts[2]
Schopenhauer said that music manifested "the innermost reality of the world", or, as Pater phrased it, "all art constantly aspires towards the condition of music."[3] Beethoven's comment about his own Sixth 'Pastoral' Symphony seems to confirm this: "it is more an expression of feeling than a painting"[4]. Wagner proclaimed his ideals in his Gesamtkunstwerk (theory of the unity of the arts including music and painting)[5], and applied them in his operas.
At about this time an artist called Bainbride Bishop fitted an organ with prisms and reflectors so that when a sound chord was struck a corresponding harmonious and diffuse display of colors appeared on a semicircular screen. He published a short account of these experiments, which included the following excerpt describing his feelings when he saw a double-rainbow in the sky[6]: "Why, there were all the colors my instrument gave when this chord was played, with the same number of octaves of color, and in the same order and intervals. The warm reddish glow over the sky was the fundamental C; the secondary bow, although reversed, presented the octave and fifth or dominant as its strongest colors (red and greenish-blue); the primary bow to the eye seemed to give four principal colors, red, yellow, i.e. green-gold,  greenish-blue, and violet, the very same colors my organ gave, and in the same order, when playing the harmonic series or chord; the supernumerary bow on the inner edge represented the higher notes of the series". Alexander Rimington patented a Color Organ, and described it in “The Art of Mobile Color” in 1911. Later Thomas Wilfrid built his Clarilux, a keyboard instrument to project colors onto a large screen.
In Pictures at an Exhibition  (1874), the composer Mussorgsky paid tribute to the works of his late friend the painter Victor Hartmann, describing each painting in terms of music. Rachmaninov's tone poem The Isle of the Dead (1909) was directly inspired by a painting of the same name by Böcklin.  Inspired by Wagner, and perhaps by reports of the earlier of the color organs mentioned, Scriabin created Prometheus (1910) the first work by a serious composer in which music and ordered colored forms appeared together. Scriabin's work, in turn, inspired his fellow Russian, Kandinsky, to develop this synthesis further. His first step, even before he painted the very first, epoch-making abstract painting, was to create an abstract musical drama, The yellow sound concerning which he wrote:"...the impression of garish yellow on the bass keys of the piano..." [7]. Later Kandinsky also designed and directed a production based on Mussorgsky's Pictures at an Exhibition, showing the correspondence between painting and music.[8]Continuing these developments, the American painter Stanton MacDonald-Wright and his friends developed Synchronism, whereby the painter orchestrates his colors as a musician would. It is apt here to quote Puccini's bon mot that stage lighting for his operas should be planned "with an attentive ear”! [9]
III  Colors and Notes
 Additional and even earlier efforts and references to combine color or painting with music have been outlined and analyzed by the artist Karl Gerstner[10] Surprisingly, it all started with Aristotle’s words “colors may mutually relate like musical concords, for their pleasantest arrangement, like those concords, mutually proportionate.”[11] Sir Isaac Newton, the great scientist who first demonstrated that white light is made up of a mixture of colors[12] suggested that each of the seven colors of the rainbow is to be equated with the notes of the natural musical scale: C=red, D=orange, E=yellow and so on (an idea Goethe later rejected). The French cleric Louis Castel built a clavecin oculaire a visual keyboard on which colors and notes were struck simultaneously. Chaldini made a fascinating invention, whereby a metal plate covered with a thin layer of sand, created moving patterns when the plate was made to vibrate by drawing a violin bow against it. Van Gogh repeatedly used musical allusions in his letters describing his paintings, written  to his brother Theo.
Schönberg's composition Die glückliche Hand contains a 'light storm' passage emulating Scriabin's efforts. Le Corbusier created a theatrical display that combined colors and forms with music. Albert Einstein, who was an accomplished violinist, befriended Leonid Theremin, the inventor of the pioneering electronic musical instrument the thereminvox. In the late 1920’s (or early 1930’s) Theremin set up a room with the instrument where Einstein experimented with the instrument and made many drawings assisted by Mary-Ellen Bute, herself a pioneer of kinetic animation and electronic art[13]. “Einstein was more interested in the connection between music and geometrical figures: not only color, but mostly triangles, hexagons, heptagons, different kinds of geometrical figures. He wanted to combine these into drawings.”[14] The artist Robert Strübin  (d.1965) meticulously transcribed music by Bach and others into hundreds of paintings[15]. He did that note by note, according to an arbitrary music-to-color scale of his own. For example the note G=terracotta and A=sea green. I now think that there is enough difference between the perception of color and of musical notes that such 'automatic' translation between the two sensations should be avoided.  Perhaps inspired by the action paintings of Jackson Pollock and spontaneous performance art of the 60’s, and the development of new technologies like TV, video and colorful diode displays, there has been an upsurge of experimentation with various forms spontaneous expression combining music and painting. In the 1970’s Frank Malina described his experiments and ideas about kinetic art[16]. Most new developments in the field are now described in the journal Leonardo for the arts and sciences  which he founded (MIT Press). I had the honor to be an International co-editor of Leonardo journal for several years in the 1980’s.
IV  The New Artist-Musicians

With the advent of sophisticated computer graphics, laser and video displays, virtual reality and interactive media, a unique opportunity has now arrived for creating a complete unification of music and painting  - even three dimensional forms in color. Popular songs released in video format often contain stunningly beautiful graphics that accompany the music[17]. At the same time scientists are discovering that our visual perception can be altered with what we hear [18],[19], showing there is a lot that needs to be discovered about audio-visual interactions. The Greek mathematician and philosopher Pythagoras noticed that vibrating strings produce harmonious tones when the ratios of the lengths of the strings are whole numbers[20]. In a recent application linking mathematics with music, WolframTones have created a program to automatically generate simple tunes and rhythms based on  mathematical algorithms, with an accompanying colorful (but unfortunately static) 'notation' of colored marks matching the notes.[21]  Apple computer now offers the iTunes software which can display stunning automatically generated graphics moving with any piece of music being played.    I hope that a simple systematic standardized "language" of shapes and colors moving in time is being created and used. Mathematics may be a necessary tool to create such a language.
This language would be comparable to the creation of the musical scale and the various instruments to play it.  Luckily the color-scale has been thoroughly analyzed; available computerized programs assign numbers to describe or display any conceivable hue, tone or concentration. The geometry of shapes, tessellations in two and three dimensions, as well as more recent developments in topology promise that a table of geometrical shapes can be standardized and tabulated. It would be in the spirit of Cezanne's famous exhortation to "interpret nature in terms of the cylinder, the sphere, the cone"[22]. Movement in time has now been greatly facilitated by animated computer graphics.  All this will now help visual artists to create colored shapes moving in time. Such animated forms could be viewed in silence, or they could be freely combined with traditional or synthesized music to create a whole world of new and inexhaustible artistic expression.
I have only recently become aware of the many enthusiastic and advanced practitioners of this new art form who are using computerized systems. Jack Ox described her work in, and was guest editor of a special issue of Leonardo journal, dedicated to synethesia[23]. This is the name of the psychological or neurological phenomena affecting (or enjoyed by)  some people, where, for example, hearing sounds create impressions of color. Before her involvement with developing a new computerized ‘color organ for the 21st c.’ she spent two decades creating traditional paintings mostly composed of vertical colored stripes in long oblongs that closely followed the music of Bruckner, Debussy and others. Ox and a group of collaborators from various universities and laboratories using supercomputers are now creating virtual-reality works of musical art[24]. For example, the Eighth Symphony of Bruckner was digitally 'translated', note by note, into a beautiful interactive 3D color abstract landscape undulating and pulsating to the music[25]. In this work the visual effects are synchronized with and added to an existing work of music. Fred Collopy[26] has written a programming language for producing geometrical forms moving in time, and maintains a web site dedicated to this art form29. 
A different way to proceed, however, and one I would like to be involved in some day, is to start from scratch, creating a simple new language of sound-with-music from first principles, rather than as a way of merely interpreting music (as I also have done in my watercolors).  Starting with basic shapes and colors, a visual-musical language could be invented. "Rules" of harmony, counterpoint, fugal arrangements of sounds and shapes, the effect of silence on a shape, or the effects of darkness or light on music can be used creatively in various "visic" pieces[27]. Mattisse's Jazz   collages (one can imagine him cutting the paper while listening to some 78 rpm record) are a good example of simple shapes and colors that might be modulated in time. A critic summarized this masterpiece using musical terms: "The dark rhythms, roiling counterpoint, happy staccatos, and jolting dissonances of this Jazz will sound forever. Matisse has taught the eye to hear."[28]
Lightning and thunder are created together, and some scientists claim that the auroras emit a sound that accompanied the color display. And as the flash of color from a canary's body occurs simultaneously with the trill of its song, the practitioners of visual music will have to be trained both as artists and as musicians. This would realize Ingre's exhortation: "if I could make you all musicians, you would gain as painters."[29] As in Leonardo's case, the congruence of artistic and musical talents in the same person has actually occurred from time to time:  One example is the powerful dynamic visual impact of Bach's 'musical handwriting', the patterns of his musical notation seen in surviving manuscripts. In contrast, the musical notation of Webern was precise and rigid. In a spirit remarkably similar to that of 'visual music', a biographer compared Webern's music with a painting Park Near Lu by his near-contemporary Klee: '[the painting] shares the same sparse qualities and a delight in the symmetry evident in nature that Webern's music expresses'[30]. Mendelsshon[31] and the French composer Eric Satie both made beautiful drawings. Shoenberg was an accomplished painter and exhibited with Kandinsky's Blaue Reiter group. His textbook Harmonielehre, confirms that 'for him music, life and art were indivisible'.[32] Paul Klee, Kandinsky's fellow-teacher at the Bauhaus, was also a serious amateur violinist. The English composer Arthur Bliss (d.1975) associated music with color and wrote a Color Symphony.  Visual music could also be made by a team of artists and musicians working closely together. The contemporary composer Philip Glass has collaborated with director Godfrey Reggio to create cinematic features entitled Koyaanisqatsi: Life Out of Balance, and Powaqqatsi: Life in Transformation, described as 'symphonies of light and color'.[33] This does not preclude more basic but sometimes equally effective methods: Adnan Sharif created large acrylic paintings on stage before an appreciative audience, painting in time to live jazz music.[34] It will be interesting if new compact computerized ‘color organs’ will become popular one day, so that playing one will be as natural as it is now to pick up a guitar and strum a few notes.
 Meanwhile, as we await a wider appreciation of works of visual music, we can simply enjoy watching the hands of any conductor or musician as shapes, moving in perfect unison to the music. In fact, dancers' bodies and limbs are perfect examples of visual music: we see them move according to a three-dimensional pattern choreographed for a particular piece of music![35].


[1] This account only mentions some episodes in the history of ideas and techniques of visual music. See for a rich collection of references on the subject.
[2] Herder, J. Ideen zur Philosophie der Geschichte der Menschheit (Leipzig, 1821)
[3] Grout, D., and Palisca, C., A History of Western Music p.659 (Norton, N.Y. 1988)
[4] p. 19 of ref. 5
[5] Wagner, R., Das Kunstwerk der Zukunft  (The Art-work of the Fututre, 1849) English trans.  by Ellis, W.A., in Wagner, R. Prose Works Vol. 1, London, 1892, reprinted Broude Brothers, N.Y. 1966)
[6] Bishop, B. A Souvenir of the Color Organ with some suggestions in regard to the Soul of the Rainbow and the Harmony of Light ,The De Vinne Press, New Russia, N.Y. 1893. The text is reproduced online at
[7] Kandinsky, W. The Art of Spiritual Harmony, (Constable, London, 1914)
[8]  Made in 1928, at the Friedrich Theatre in Dessaueat a time when Kandinsky was teaching at the Bauhaus. See p.171, Rowland, A., Bauhaus Source Book. (Phaidon, Oxford 1990)
[9] p. 137 of ref. 5
[10] Gerstner, K. The Forms of Color (MIT Press, Cambridge, MA, 1986)
[11] Quoted by Bishop, op.cit.
[12]  Newton, I. Opticks  (London 1704, Dover, 1952)
[14]  Theremin, Leon , quoted in “Interview with leon Theremin” by Olivia  Mattis (1989), for Canal 16 TV, published online at
[15] Ref 33, p. 171 & ref. therein: Thomas Lehner Robert Strübin: Der Kunstkonverter, Institut für Moderne Kunst. Nuremberg 1973.
[16] Malina,F. “Kinetic Art”:Theory and Practice”. Dover Publications, 1974
[17] Electronic gadgets that automatically 'translate' music rhythms into pulsing lights of changing pattern and intensity have been available since the sixties, but meaningful visual music has to involve a more creative interaction.  A modest visual-musical effect is found in the children's computer program Kid's World programmed by Craig Hickman for Broderbund Software, Inc. 1991.  Visual effects, such as a 'snowfall' of graphic shapes, are accopmpanied by synchronized musical chords or other sounds. More recently Clan Analogue is an Australian online group of musicians and artists that create electronic music. Recently, two of its members, Kazumichi Grime and Steven Greenwood have developed software to make video images respond to music. See TIME, June 4, 2001 p.73.
[18] Chromaesthesia is a rare medical condition where the person experiences colors upon hearing sounds. In one case blue was seen whenever B-flat was sounded. Some have speculated that Scriabin himself suffered (?) from this condition. See entry in Dictionary of Psychology. J. Chaplin, ed. Laurel, 1975
[19]  Shams, L. et al.”Illusions - What you see is what you hear", Nature Vol 408 (14 Dec. 2000) p. 788.  It was shown that subjects perceived a single 50- millisecond flash as multiple flashes when there was a number of short beeps heard simultaneously.
[22]  Cézanne, P., in a letter to Emile Bernard (April 15, 1904). Quoted in Loran, E. Cézanne's Composition p. 8 (U of Calif. Press 1970).
43 Leonardo, Synethsesia issue Vol32, No.1 (1999) MIT Press, Cambridge, MA USA .
[24] Ox, Jack, “The 21st.c Virtual Color Organ”, Artful Media July, Sept. 2000 published by the Computer Society, a member-society of  IEEE.
[25] Ox, Jack, A Complex System for the Visualization of Music,
[26] Collopy,F. “Color, Form and Motion, Dimensions of a Musical art of Light”  Leonardo, Vol.33,No.5,2000 355-360.
[27] This contraction for "visual music" is due to my friend Chris Mosdell.
[28]  Riva Castleman: introduction to Henri Matisse's Jazz. See ref. 2 p. XII
[29] Quoted by Gerstner, ref.33 above, p. 165.
[30] Both the notation and painting are published on pp. 202,203 of ref. 5
[31] A beautiful aquatint by Mendelsshon is reproduced on p. 108 of ref. 5
[32] p. 152 of ref. 5; p. 23 shows an oil portrait of the composer Alban Berg, painted by Schoenberg. 
[33] As announced by the Singapore arts festival for May-June 2001
[34] Sharif, Adnan, private e-mail June 2002. The event took place at the 1994 Jerash Festival in Jordan , with the music played by the “faculty x” group.  Sharif also exhibited other works painted to the flamenco music of Paco de Lucia at the Spanish Cultural Center in Amman, Jordan , in 1996.
[35] 3D position sensors attached to the musician or dancer's limbs and bodies can act as digital inputs for computerized visual music systems that can then 'translate' the music in real time, into moving abstract colors and shapes appearing on a monitor or screen.