Russian painter Wassily Kandinsky literally saw sounds and heard colors. The artist is believed to have had synaesthesia, a harmless condition where people experience sounds, colors, or words simultaneously through several senses. Kandinsky used this gift to create what many believe are the world’s first abstract paintings.
Most of us do not experience sound in this way. Evidence is mounting, however, that we do link our senses, and tie emotions, colors, and sounds together in predictable ways. Psychologists from the University of California, Berkeley and the University of Guadalajara report on these associations in a new PNAS Early Edition paper.
Other studies have found such associations before, for instance, music with major chords (often called “bright”) seems to go best with lighter colors than music with minor chords. Gray has been associated with “sadder” music, while reds, yellows, blues, and greens seem right with “happier” tunes.
To dive into these associations, Palmer and his colleagues conducted three experiments. In the first they explored how dimensions of color (such as saturation, lightness, and yellowness or blueness) associate with musical dimensions (tempo, major or minor chords).
They then explore how emotionally expressive faces are assigned colors, and finally how those emotions are associated with music. Each experiment was done twice: once with study subjects from the United States, once with subjects from Mexico. Despite slight differences (Mexican participants chose somewhat lighter, yellower, and greener colors than US participants) the patterns reported were the same in each country and may, the researchers suggest, be universal.
In general, the faster tempoed Bach, Brahms and Mozart “went best” with more saturated, lighter, and yellower (warmer) colors. “By the same token,” they write, “slower tempi and music in the minor mode were associated with less saturated, darker/cooler colors. For major (but not minor) music, slow tempi were associated with greener colors than medium or faster tempi.”
When viewing faces, participants linked moderately light, slightly cool colors (light blues and greens) with neutral or calm faces. Sad faces looked darker and cooler (bluish or deep greenish gray). Happy faces seemed brightly colored and warm (yellows, oranges and reds, in both vivid and pastel colors). Angry faces were were associated with dark, rather reddish colors.
In the final experiment, researchers assumed if “music and color can be related through emotional associations and … color and faces can be related through the same emotional associations, it follows that music and faces should be analogously relatable.” They found the same strong correlations.
This, they believe, is evidence that color and music are linked through shared emotional associations, dubbed the “emotional mediation hypothesis.” An alternate theory, the “direct connection hypothesis” holds that there are direct, unmediated associations between colors and musical sounds.
“The fact that the pattern of cross-domain matching results is so clearly and consistently related to emotion in all three studies,” write the authors, “provides strong support for emotional mediation as a mechanism of at least some cross-modal associations.” However, they say, “It does not rule out the possibility that there might also be direct or other sorts of associations.”
The experiment opens a host intriguing questions. Where do cross-modal associations (“hearing color” for instance) come from? How are they processed in the brain? Do the results generalize beyond classical orchestral music to non-western music? Do music-color synesthetes have the same associations as the rest of us?
It may help if we knew what Kandinsky listened to as he painted.