Scientists call it synesthesia, a neurological the way your emotions can color the music that you hear. Whether you’re listening to Bach or the blues, human brains are wired to make music-color connections depending on how the melodies make us feel, according to new research from the University of California – Berkeley, reports a May 16, 2013 news release by Yasmin Anwar from the University of California, Berkeley, “Bach to the blues, our emotions match music to colors.” For instance, Mozart’s jaunty Flute Concerto No. 1 in G major is most often associated with bright yellow and orange, whereas his dour Requiem in D minor is more likely to be linked to dark, bluish gray.
Mozart’s Flute Concerto No.1 in G major evokes yellows and oranges in those who see colors when they hear specific compositions of music. Moreover, people in both the United States and Mexico linked the same pieces of classical orchestral music with the same colors. This suggests that humans share a common emotional palette – when it comes to music and color – that appears to be intuitive and can cross cultural barriers, UC Berkeley researchers said.
“The results were remarkably strong and consistent across individuals and cultures and clearly pointed to the powerful role that emotions play in how the human brain maps from hearing music to seeing colors,” said UC Berkeley vision scientist Stephen Palmer, lead author of a paper published this week in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, according to the news release. For example, using a 37-color palette, the University of California – Berkeley study found that people tend to pair faster-paced music in a major key with lighter, more vivid, yellow colors, whereas slower-paced music in a minor key is more likely to be teamed up with darker, grayer, bluer colors.
Happy and sad colors chosen based on happy or sad music: Mood, texture, and tone of music and colors that correspond the the emotions evoked by the sound of the music
“Surprisingly, we can predict with 95 percent accuracy how happy or sad the colors people pick will be based on how happy or sad the music is that they are listening to,” said Palmer, who will present these and related findings at the International Association of Color conference at the University of Newcastle in the U.K. on July 8. At the conference, a color light show will accompany a performance by the Northern Sinfonia orchestra to demonstrate “the patterns aroused by music and color converging on the neural circuits that register emotion,” he said, according to the news release.
The findings may have implications for creative therapies, advertising and even music player gadgetry. For example, they could be used to create more emotionally engaging electronic music visualizers, computer software that generates animated imagery synchronized to the music being played. Right now, the colors and patterns appear to be randomly generated and do not take emotion into account, researchers explained in the news release.
Insight into synesthesia
They may also provide insight into synesthesia, a neurological condition in which the stimulation of one perceptual pathway, such as hearing music, leads to automatic, involuntary experiences in a different perceptual pathway, such as seeing colors. An example of sound-to-color synesthesia was portrayed in the 2009 movie The Soloist when cellist Nathaniel Ayers experiences a mesmerizing interplay of swirling colors while listening to the Los Angeles symphony. Artists such as Wassily Kandinksky and Paul Klee may have used music-to-color synesthesia in their creative endeavors.
Nearly 100 men and women participated in the UC Berkeley music-color study, of which half resided in the San Francisco Bay Area and the other half in Guadalajara, Mexico. In three experiments, they listened to 18 classical music pieces by composers Johann Sebastian Bach, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart and Johannes Brahms that varied in tempo (slow, medium, fast) and in major versus minor keys.
Major versus minor keys
Musican listeners and composers in the past divided music into sad (minor key) and happy (major key) scales. But people of different ethnic origins divide minor key music into Eastern European, Middle Eastern, or Central Asian/Persian/Turkish scales or Western, major key melodies, based on the scales. Middle Eastern/Central Asian and South Asian music may incorporate quarter-tone notes and/or scales, whereas Western/European music uses half-tone scales. The field is called ethnomusicology.
Each ethnic group follows its own tradition of scales and tones. Africa and Latin America, for example, may focus on rhythms or beats accompanying any melodies, beats people can move to according to the accents on the rhythms. And Middle Eastern music may use rhythm along with minor scales and quarter tone notes rather than only half-tone tones regarding pitch.
In the first experiment, participants were asked to pick five of the 37 colors that best matched the music to which they were listening. The palette consisted of vivid, light, medium, and dark shades of red, orange, yellow, green, yellow-green, green, blue-green, blue, and purple.
Participants in the study chose vivid colors with upbeat music and cool colors with somber pieces
Music was rated on a scale of happy, sad, strong, or weak. Participants consistently picked bright, vivid, warm colors to go with upbeat music and dark, dull, cool colors to match the more tearful or somber pieces. Separately, they rated each piece of music on a scale of happy to sad, strong to weak, lively to dreary and angry to calm.
Two subsequent experiments studying music-to-face and face-to-color associations supported the researchers’ hypothesis that “common emotions are responsible for music-to-color associations,” said Karen Schloss, according to the news release. Schloss is a postdoctoral researchers at UC Berkeley and co-author of the paper.
Facial expressions were made that best described, illustrated or depicted the music selections
As if in a type of show-and-tell (what you feel from the music) presentation, for example, the same pattern occurred when participants chose the facial expressions that “went best” with the music selections, Schloss said, according to the news release. Upbeat music in major keys was consistently paired with happy-looking faces while subdued music in minor keys was paired with sad-looking faces. Similarly, happy faces were paired with yellow and other bright colors and angry faces with dark red hues.
Next, Palmer and his research team plan to study participants in Turkey where traditional music employs a wider range of scales than just major and minor. “We know that in Mexico and the U.S. the responses are very similar,” he said in the news release. “But we don’t yet know about China or Turkey.” Do people listening to ethnic music of another scale or tone measurement have the same responses? Other co-authors of the study are Zoe Xu of UC Berkeley and Lilia Prado-Leon of the University of Guadalajara, Mexico.
Upbeat music and colors: Faces of energy
How about colors seen with energetic, upbeat bellydance music in minor scales and quarter tones that many would classify as ‘sad’ music because the notes are written in a minor scale instead of a Western major scale, such as most American and European music? Or how would one move to the beat of African or Latin rhythms of various drums? Sob-shocks or bellydance hip drop gyrations? Or what colors and emotions are evoked with Caribbean dancing at festivals or Samba music, say compared to a Renaissance era dance played on lute and flute? Elizabethan era music?
The colors seen here (by this author) are bright royal blue, metallic gold, and white. Same with 19th century Venetian masked ball era tunes that also have a tinge of apricot over striped with violet. Most favored at least here? The balance of Chinese Tai chi music that represents slow, constant movement and improved circulation, happy and upbeat, yet relaxing and serene.