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Light-sound Musical Harmony:  An Elementary Theory of Audio-Visual Stimuli

by V.V. Afanasjev
Muzyka Publishers, Moscow, 2002
72 pp., ISBN 5-7140-1225-9.

Reviewed by Bulat M. Galeyev
Kazan State Technical University
Academy of Sciences of Tatarstan


Likely, everyone sometimes has conceived a wish to make mankind happy, in easy and simple way, by opening universal law of nature, or creating new device which would release us either from toilsome work or the throes of creation. Until now there were enthusiasts with sparkling eyes, hoping to transform lead into gold or to invent perpetuum mobiles. An old dream to find an algorithm of transformation of audible music into sort of 'music of colors' relates to the same category. The first attempts in that direction had been made as early as in XVI-XVII century by the Italian artist D. Archimboldo and the German philosopher A. Kircher. Let's note that the analogies between colors and musical tones were drawn long before that, in Ancient East cultures. But ancient people never thought of creating news sort of art ('music for eyes,' 'music of colors') on the basis if that analogy. This idea is a product of later European rationalistic thinking. One of its most active protagonists was scientist-monk L.B. Castel (1688-1757), who was fascinated by A. Kircher's dream 'that the air should sparkle in various under the influence of music.' To realize this dream, Castel turned to the analogy 'spectrum-octave' proposed by his contemporary, the great physicist Isaac Newton. Following the ancient Greeks, Newton attached mystic sense to the digit '7' (and Greeks borrowed such sense from the structure of octave). For this reason, he divided a spectrum into 7 parts, though in many European countries not 7, but 5 main colors are discerned up to now. Later on, Newton admitted that he had fallen a prey to the analogy that was false even from merely physical point of view. As for Castel, he was admired for that simplest analogy-'seven tones' / 'seven colors'-and put forward an idea of 'color harpsichord,' enabling even the tone death to perceive music. He distributed his book, among other countries, to Russia, and it was specially discussed by the St-Petersburg Academy of Sciences in 1742 [1].After Diderot, D'Alembert, Rousseau, and Voltaire, Russian academicians, too, pointed out the incorrectness of the analogy 'color-tone' ('spectrum-octave') from the point of view of physics, psychology, and art.It was emphasized that potentialities of sight and hearing are very different and if one of them could replace another, there would be no necessity for such duplication of sensor organs. One of the speakers observed wittily that musical influence of that kind could be just as well expected from the shuffled cards with the numerical designations of the notes on them (for example, 'do'-No.1, 're'-No.2, etc.). As one can see, in spite of that, Castel's concept had been scoffed at already by his contemporaries.  It was revived more than once afterwards-just as an idea of perpetuum mobile was revived (and still is) in various modifications.  Some people suggested that the beginning of an octave should be compared with the red part of the spectrum, others-with the blue one. In some cases, the spectrum was compared not with the octave, but with the sequence of notes arranged along the circle of fifths. The division of octave into 12 semitones caused similar division of a spectrum into 12 colors. And selecting of 7 colors out of 12 in accordance with various diatonic scales gave rise to more concepts, such as 'tonalities of color,' 'color chords,' etc. The archives of our Institute 'Prometheus' contain dozens of books and hundreds of papers in various languages written by the followers of Castel, having been published until the end of XX century [2], including such editions as our journal Leonardo, where these ideas were discussed rather actively [3]. New Castelians always hoped: 'Suppose, a miracle happens this time?' Yet any verification showed one and the same result: the gleams of colored squares, according to this algorithm or another. This made us recall the conclusions of one American art critic, who wittingly spoke of the naive, attractive yet wrong ideas of Castel and his followers as 'fascinating nonsense' [4]. Well said, there is nothing to add!  All the more, in the purely conceptual sense the idea of music-to-color 'translation' appeared to be faulty by its nature, as the theory of information and semiotics have shown-aesthetic information differs from the semantic one just because it is 'untranslatable' [5].

Alas, the XXI century began, and Russian author Afanasjev, being fascinated with the possibility of dividing the spectrum into 7 or 12 parts ('just as in music'), has determined to make mankind happy by one more discovery of 'fascinating nonsense.' And he has written a book about it. It's remarkable that he did not reference his direct predecessors, Castel and his numerous followers. Either he is unaware of their existence or simply does not think them worthy of notice. Anyway, it is a quite common and notable situation for all of the 'pioneers' of that kind. His own algorithms of 'color visualization' of music have some distinctive features (believe me, there is no point to retell these usual exercises la Castel in details). The more so, as they are not so remarkable and original to be developed into something more than 'fascinating nonsense.' I have seen videos with the author's 'computer realization' of these algorithms-just the same incoherent freak of colored squares on the screen. There is no difference whether it is made by means of a computer or by wax candles as in Castel's 'color organ' and what music is sounding-rock'n'roll or requiem . . .

And just to finish this review in not an ironical, but more elevated style, let's recall Hermann. Hesse's book The Glass Bead Game. Its character, in his dream, gets into a mysterious library where he sees ancient manuscripts-about perpetuum mobile, about squaring the circle and . . . about the transposition of music into color. He peers into the librarian's face and suddenly realizes that it is none other than God . . .


[1] Galeyev B. 'At the Source of Idea of 'Visible Music' in Russia.' Leonardo, v.21, 1988, No.4, pp.383-391.

[2] See, for example: Hay D.R., 'Laws of harmonious colouring.' Edinburgh, 1828;  Jameson D.D., 'Colour-music.' London, 1844; Drobisch M.W., 'Ueber musikalische Ton-Bestimmung.' Berlin, 1852; Huth C.A., 'Farbiqe Noten.' Hamburg, 1883; Hughes F.J., 'Harmonies of tone and colours.' London, 1883; Favre M.L., 'La musique des couleurs.' Paris, 1890; Bishop B., 'A souvenir of the color organ.' New Russia, 1893; Lind E.G., 'The music of colour.' Baltimore, 1894; Cozanet A., 'L'orchestration des couleurs. Correlation des son et des couleurs.' Paris, 1897;  Schrodez H., 'Ton und Farbe.' Berlin, 1906; Rimimgton A.W., 'Color-music.' London, 1911; Hughey F.E., 'Color music for children'. N.Y., 1912; Brand H.B., 'Der Akkord und Quintenzirkel in Farben und Tonen'. Munchen, 1914; Maryon E., 'Marcotone. The Science of the Tone-color'. N.Y., 1919; Sinnot S.H., 'Tone Bow: Application of color to music.' N.Y., 1939; Lune D.D., 'Color music book for children.' Musette, 1942;  Hunt R., 'Seven Keys to Colour Heating.' De Vorss, 1949; Kellog J.L., 'Color; the analog between color and music. The Kellog system.' Palo Alto, 1949; Adams D., 'Musical colour.' London, 1962; Heline C.S., 'Color and music in the New Age.' Los Angeles, 1964; Yuriev F., 'Music of Light.' Kiev, 1971 (in Russian); Loef K., 'Farbe-Musik-Form.' Goettingen, 1974.

[3] It's not a full list, but: Leonardo, v.1, 1968, p.187; v.1, 1968, p.457; v.3, 1970, p.275; v.5, 1972, p.27; v.8, 1975, p.13; v.11, 1978, p.225; v.11, 1978, p.301; v.12, 1979, p.218; v.12, 1979, p.349; v.13, 1980, p.101; Leonardo Music Journal, v.5, 1995, p.5.

[4] Pierce A.D., 'Color and Music.' The American Mercury, nd. pp.243-246.

[5] Moles A., 'Theorie de l'information et perception esthetique.' Paris, 1958



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