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The COLOR of MUSIC

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The Color of Music by Ken Davies

Music, like color, is not easily categorized. Broad musical classifications including: Jazz, Blues, Rap, Classical, Heavy Metal, Celtic, Pop, Rock, Country, Easy Listening, Muzak, and so forth - provide only a simple description for a vast variety of expressionistic styles.

Musical styles can also be associated with color, texture, and flavor. Think of the Blues, purple Jazz, white noise, and other descriptive attributes such as: dark, light, gray, raspy, sweet, sour, sharp, harmonious and disharmonious.

Music can also be described in terms of melody, harmony, and rhythm, with different musical compositions placing different emphasis on each of the three musical elements. Coincidentally, color too can be described in terms of elements, or primaries, where the three primaries cyan, magenta, and yellow, mixed in combination with white define a visible color space.

The COLORCUBE, a recent invention designed to help visualize color relationships within the three dimensional color space, also can be used as a visualization tool in mapping the color of music.

To understand this concept, first envision a cube made up of smaller cubes, each one a distinct color. Starting with white in one corner, there are three directions of movement within the cube. In the one direction you add cyan, in the other you add magenta, and the third direction you add yellow. In terms of geographic directions, as you move through the COLORCUBE away from white, you can either move north/south, east/west, or up/down.

Any color within the COLORCUBE can now be defined as some unique combination of each of the three primaries. Light brown is 100% yellow, 50% cyan, and 25% magenta. Chromatic green is 100% yellow, 100% cyan, and 0% magenta. The absence of color is white. All three primaries in equal combination yield black. In other words, a particular color can be categorized by where it lies in the color space in relation to the other colors.

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Relating this back to music, if we were to map melody, rhythm and harmony onto cyan, magenta, and yellow within the COLORCUBE, we could then talk about music in terms of its color, and describe the relationship between different styles of music as differences in color within a three dimensional framework.

For example, sound without melody, harmony, or rhythm is known as white noise. Speech, or the sound of someone talking, takes on the equal attributes of melody, rhythm and harmony, and extends along the gray line within the interior of the COLORCUBE. Chimes, which are harmonious, without melody or rhythm, map to the color yellow. Classical music, with melody and harmony, but without the hard driving rhythm of rock, is appropriately green in color. Pop music, with lots of melody, but without complicated rhythm or harmony is cyan in color. A simple melody with hard driving rhythm gives you the Blues. Jazz, with lots of rhythm, some melody, and some harmony, is predominantly purple in color. Rap music, with lots of rhythm and some harmony, but little melody, is red in color. And finally, take a song with lots of rhythm, harmony and melody, and you've got Black Music, Man!

This is not meant to infer that all Classical music is green, or that all Jazz is purple. Celtic music, for example, is a genre containing large differences in melodic, rhythmic and harmonic content. Mapping the various flavors of Celtic music to colors within a color space provides a second classification index indicating what type of music it is. Two different songs within a particular genre of music can then be compared as being ‘greener’, or ‘redder’ than the other, or being ‘too yellow’ or ‘too magenta’, or ‘too red’.

Music, like color, if categorized in terms of melody, harmony, and rhythm, can be described in relation to other musical styles as differences in color by mapping it to a three dimensional structure based on color space. This method of categorization can be used to describe differences between music within, and between, various musical genres, in a way that enhances what is already intuitively understood by those who love and enjoy music.


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