The Etude magazine, August 1920, p 526

Color and Music

By Edwin Hall Pierce

    SOME have rather fancifully endeavored to trace an affinity between certain colors and the tone of certain instruments, making the trumpet red, the violin violet, etc.
    Certain Indian tribes (see the article by Thurlow Lieurance in THE ETUDE for January, 1918) actually associate colors with absolute pitch, calling F red, A blue, C yellow, D orange, E green.
    Again, in recent years, various composers, for instance Scriabin, in his Prometheus, have attempted to combine a display of changing colored light with the performance of a musical composition, in an elaborate and artistic manner. Yet, again, there are accounts of "Song and Light" Festivals in city parks, in which a display of colored lights adds to the charm of Community Singing.
    The question naturally arises in the mind: Is there any real affinity between sound and colored light, or between a particular sound and a particular color? Let us briefly consider the nature of each and we shall be better able to frame an intelligent answer.

What is Sound?    What is Color?

    Musical sound is that sensation caused in the ear by regular vibrations of the air at a rate not lower than 20 nor higher than 4000 a second (approximately).
    Color is that sensation received by the eye from vibrations ranging in frequency from 395 million million a second to 757 million million a second.
    Sound-waves must travel through the air; light-waves can pierce the emptiness of iriter-stellar space. A physicist would enumerate still other differences, but these are sufficient for our present purpose.

Hearing a More Perfect Sense Than Sight

    As every tyro in acoustics knows, the "octave" of any musical tone is that tone having just double the number of vibrations in a given time. The human ear can distinguish a range of nearly or quite eight octaves. On the other hand, if we attempt to find "octaves" in the color spectrum we are immediately struck by the fact that the whole range of color vibrations embraces less than one octave: violet, with 757 million million vibrations a second, has not quite twice as many as deep red, with 395 million million. The logical deduction is that hearing is eight times as efficient a sense as sight.

How To Connect Color and Tone?

    Professor Wallace Rimington, in his work on Colour Music (London, 1911) very ingeniously presents a table in which certain colors correspond to certain tones of the scale, according to their vibration numbers.

    The weak point of this, however, is that he has arbitrarily taken C to be the equivalent of "deep red." Now if C is deep red, then E is yellow, A is indigo, etc., exactly as he claims, but he has failed to determine the value of the constant, so to speak.
    Let us endeavor to trace more intelligently the mathematical relation between color vibrations and tone vibrations. Taking the vibration number of middle C (at International Pitch, 256 a second), and going upward by octaves, we have the numbers:

    Beyond this we pass the limit of human hearing, but let us suppose, nevertheless, that we can keep on going up octave over octave. By use of logarithms and the kindly co-operation of Professor Edward V. Huntington, of Harvard, we find

    The entire range of color vibrations would, therefore, lie between the 40th and 42nd octave above middle C.
    On comparing this with Professor Rimington's table, we find that middle C, raised 41 octaves, will be, not deep red, but yellow (tending slightly toward green) and that A flat below middle C, raised 41 octaves, will be the true "deep red." We may now easily prepare a simple table:

    This table rests, not on fancy, but on strictly scientific fact.
    An alternate play of various colored light would bear a very striking analogy to a simple melody. We might even transpose Gregorian Plain-Song from tone into color by the simple process of putting it "up" forty-one octaves. Take, for instance, the ancient Tonus Regius, and, writing it in the key of C (instead of F) in order that its highest notes shall not overstep the narrow bounds of the color scale, we would obtain the following:

    Probably the reason why our senses do not directly perceive the affinity between color and sound is that there lies between them a great void of more than 35 octaves of vibrations for which we have no bodily senses to correspond. Students of harmony are well aware of the fact that even within the limits of real musical tone the sense of concord or discord is much less keen when the component elements of a chord are separated by several octaves of pitch. But we leave to others the further investigation of this fascinating subject.