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Chord "colors"?


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Hello, newbie piano player here. I've heard some talk about how people can associate different chords with "colors" in their minds, and use these associations to improvise chord progressions and so forth. I tried it myself, and I was able to feel sort of a "cool" color associated with minor chords and a "warm" color associated with the majors, but that's about as far as I got. So I appeal to this forum, can anybody outline how this system works, give me any pointers, or perhaps refer me to a site or book that could teach me more? Thanks in advance.
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I think that's called 'synergy' or something. It's related to perfect pitch and confusing impressions; there are people who can taste the color yellow and so on. IIRC, Stravinsky was one of these people, and in the early 20th century there was a symposium on this in Russia, where several composers felt the same sensation - only with different colors, there was no common conception of C major as light blue or whatever. However, there is a system for this (I've seen charts with a system for 'lux'; light), and a lot of modern film composers use this stuff now and again; check out Eliot Goldenthal's work on Michael Mann's "Heat". Some people have trouble going to concerts because of thie; the band plays in E major and the lighting is red, but they associate E major with yellow, and red with D minor or whatever... Kind of sensory overload, I suppose.
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Google the words "chromesthesia" (nonvisual stimulus that causes the individual to perceive color) and more generally, "synesthesia" (stimulus to one sensory mode triggers sensations in one or more other sensory modes) and you'll find a ton of information and lots of wacky stories to entertain your friends with.



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The association of colors with the different key signatures is very subjective. Skriabin also studied this and came with an alternative color pattern around 1900.


Note that most color systems or particular mood/ambient definitions for the major/minor key signatures defined by famous classical composers were linked to non-equal temperaments.


This is mainly why nowadays these can't apply because 95% of current piano music is done in equal temperament, where all chords "sound the same", because all thirds and fifths have the same mathematical ratios between them. So in other words, color associations with equal temperament chords are purely imaginary, as they all "pulse" identically.


But it's a totally different story if you use non-equal temperaments... But I don't want to highjack your thread, so I'll stop here. ;)

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Personally I think it's a matter of subjectivity.

Each person would imagine differently.


To me it's a bit like (although much more individual) the idea that once held sway that different keys had different atmospheres or moods that were appropriate for them.

That idea actually had it's origins in the fact that early acoustic instuments had much less range & veratility than modern ones & when used ensemble their timbres were very different in various ranges or keys. That is, a horn or woodwind in one key would actully sound different, more strained or more "rounded" than the same instrument playing in a different range.

That was also very much affected by the nature of earlier keyboard instuments & their imprecision regarding tuning, so that different keys (then, at least) actually did have different characters due to the variances in scaling.


All that's fairly irrelevent, IMHO, these days.


BTW, this is not the same thing that is exhibited in Indian music & the prescibed use of certain ragas/scales for different moods/time of day/etc. That's tied to the actual scales & motifs involved more than just keys.

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Interesting link, Cy! I knew there were Late-Romantic era implimentations of musical color wheels & even performances involving light shows in the 19th C.


Here's my question, though: Though it seems highly subjective to me, there's certainly nothing "wrong" about it but if one subscibes to this sort of idea, what does it mean? How does it affect what a chord "means" or how the colors in harmonies mix?

Does it have any practical effect for the player or listener (as in music therapy) or is it just esoterica?



slightly OT section:

Also, re: equal temperament, I, like many, long thought that subject was just a matter of the practicality of modulating between keys, etc., that became needed as musicians sought to expand their possibilities but recent reading of a book by pianist/writer Stuart Isacoff reveals that it's actually the reverse---musicians were only able to develop such interest-piquing "tricks" after the long-sought development of equal temperament mathematics...& it's even deeper than that!

It's apparently, in fact, a matter of physics that merely doubling frequencies exactly doesn't duplicate what listeners perceive as the same pitch so even if one resticts notes to just tonics & 5ths, or even just a single note, raised or lowered through several octaves, the pitch is perceived as out of tune!

According to Isacoff's seeemingly well-researched book, this is a matter that was actually known to Pythagorus, the Greek developer of what became European music theory but was deliberately suppressed through history by those who sought to establish music as a perfect reflection of divine design.


There's certainly a clear difference between music in just or natural temperament (much sweeter & more grand) but even in that method one must apparently keep a range of only a few octaves before wolfish tones begin to clash.

I've only ever toyed briefly (& long ago) with keyboards that offered tuning options so I'd be interested in hearing thoughts from Cy or any who've worked enough in that area, either here or via PM.

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Originally posted by I & I mjrn:

Here's my question, though: Though it seems highly subjective to me, there's certainly nothing "wrong" about it but if one subscibes to this sort of idea, what does it mean?

Okay, I'll try to make a short story about something that needs dozens of pages. :) I'll limit my explanation to piano music only. About your first question, what I studied and I'm interested in is not much about color associations, but on the particular meanings of each chord used in certain non-equal temperaments.


You'll probably be surprised to hear that from around 1650 to 1850, equal temperament was considered anti-musical because it was seen as unable to reproduce the purity of sound and harmonies. A lot of Bach compositions were done specifically in non-equal temperament, to exploit particular effects. Mozart, Beethoven and other great composers of that era also relied on non-equal temperaments when they composed piano music.


Of course, after that, increasing complexity and liberty for more and more chord progressions and mixing more and more instruments in always bigger orchestras caused huge problems, so equal temperament became a necessity. Today, it is still a necessity for classical orchestras, big bands, etc. But certainly not for piano solo performance, especially now with all the possibilities that electronics can offer.


I personally always use a particular non-equal temperament every time possible. With it, I get 12 chords (6 majors, 6 minors) that are closer to just intonation, and 12 chords that get farther from the equal temp. Each one creates a new mood, because their minor and major thirds components get different pulses, instead of remaining all fixed like in equal temperament.


I believe that's one of the reasons why string instruments and choirs have a stronger musical impact than an acoustic piano. Because a string player or a singer can vary the pitch intervals at ease, to get a given effect.


So in order to give the piano a more direct (subconcious?) effect, I think the use of a non-equal temperament is sometimes a solution. Of course, as opposed to a string player who can play just intonation in any key, it's impossible to achieve this on a piano or synth without using a complex system of pedals or some other "key modulation system".


Sorry if my post was very long. :freak:

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[Apologies to Insect for "thread hi-jacking ;) ]

Originally posted by Cydonia:

[1]You'll probably be surprised to hear that from around 1650 to 1850, equal temperament was considered anti-musical ...


[2]Of course, after that, increasing complexity and liberty for more and more chord progressions and mixing more and more instruments in always bigger orchestras caused huge problems, so equal temperament became a necessity....




[3]Sorry if my post was very long. :freak:

[1]Not a surprise, really; in fact, it was more surprising to me to read ...

[in the book alluded to before:Temperament: the idea that solved music's greatest riddle/Stuart Isacoff/2001/Knopf*. This book, whether one likes equal temperament or not, seems to be authoratively researched & is a great source of info about the development of keyboard instruments as well as European music theory's development; his "revelations" about Pythagorus & the "meanings" that have been attached to musical systems were stunning to me]

... that long before the specifics of equal temperament were set, musicians & theorists had been fighting a religious war over it's correctness.

[2]Much of what seems to've been involved was not just in regard to harmonic complexity but the basic inability of any instruments---not just keyboards--- to play in wide ranges or ensembles without pitch clashes; e.g., early horns were much less well designed & made than modern ones & were especially bound by the "constraints" (if you will) of just/natural temperament.

[3]Like you said, a subject deserving many pages reduced to a few words! :D


I heartily suggest anyone interested in the subject----or even just the history of Western music---read Isacoff's book*.




* I've just been made aware that there seems to be another edition/version of this book, from 2003 & titled Temperament: how music became a battleground for the great minds of Europe, also from Knopf.



In any case, thanks for the info, Cydonia, & feel free to offer, here or via PM other thoughts.

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Pythagoras' deep, dark secret, "The Pythagorean Comma," was that the circle of fifths didn't come back to quite the same pitch after going all the way around it.


Isacoff's book is a good read.


Another one that I HIGHLY recommend for musicians to read is "Fundamentals of Musical Acoustics" by Arthur H. Benade. He's deceased, so it's in its final revision.

"A cheerful heart is good medicine."
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