What can possibly the concepts of colour in music and colour in words have in common? (It’s a sort of reply to our latest post)

[I know, it’s Christmas time, how boring a few scattered thoughts on such stuff today. Merry Christmas in any case to all of you!]

Tone Colour in Music

Colour in music may refer to timbre, which is what allows us to distinguish a clarinet from an oboe, a sax from a trumpet and so on.

Usually even just a single instrument (the horn, the trumpet or the piano for example) can change its sound according to how it is played and to who is playing it, so we somewhat have different colours within the same timbre.

A piano played by different artists can produce very different results. I find the piano amazing since it can greatly vary its timbre especially considering that piano tones are directly produced by a mechanism and the only thing a performer can do is just a variation in velocity, ie in the speed and strength in which a key is pressed.

“When Ferruccio Busoni played [the piano] – Heinrich Neuhaus wrote (Neuhaus was Sviatoslav Richter‘s and Emil Gilels‘ teacher) – you heard the brass of trumpets, the trill of violins and the soft chords of harps.”

Classical Guitar. Expressive but Neglected

The classical guitar is even richer in colours than the piano [but unfortunately very few great musicians wrote music for this delightful instrument.]

Not only for the very sensitive human fingers (especially with no nails!) touching the strings directly without any mechanical intervention, but also for the right hand (the plucking one) that can move above, over, or below the sound hole thus greatly modifying the sound. Additionally the same string on a guitar sounds differently when plucked by the index, medium or ring-finger fingertips (again, with no nails). Last and not least, the same note can (pitch) be played on different strings, which varies the colour even more.

[As a break listen to Filomena Moretti from Sardinia (Italy) playing a prelude and fugue by Bach on the guitar. I wonder what her playing would be like without nails. Notice how the sound changes as she moves her hand from and to the guitar sound hole.]


In some languages the connection between the concepts of colour and of timbre is more evident: Klangfarbe is musical timbre in German (Farbe = colour), and in English we have timbre but also tone colour, an exact equivalent of Klangfarbe.

Do We See ‘la Vie en Rose’?

Paul Costopoulos: “Someone feeling sad has the “blues”; we are “green” with envy or we are “green behind the ears” when we are new to something. One may be “red” with confusion and we see “la vie en rose”. Tying colors and feelings is nothing new and music is feelings.”

MoR: “Colours and feelings. Interesting. I never heard “green behind the ears”, but numerous are the English phrases I don’t know.”

Sledpress: “Color is vibration — the wavelengths of light — so sound full of vibrations and harmonics, created as one vibration overlaps another, could be called sound full of color. I remember reading a saying of Goethe about the world being composed of the “deeds and sufferings of light.”

MoR: “Goethe’s theory of colours is a splendid nightmare. And I wonder how these waves being so different can interact. Unknown territory.”

Sledpress: “I have a special fondness for splendid nightmares, like phlogiston (…) I do think there has to be some intrinsic connection between the measurable effects of certain types of vibrations on the human system and the subjective experience of those colors, sounds and so on.”

MoR: “Various are the effects of sound and colour vibrations on people and I ignore the progress of psychology and neuropsychology of colour and music in order to escape subjectiveness. I know there’s a lot of music and colour therapy based on some research being made.”

[Have another break by listening to these amazing Japanese little girls. They are in my view almost perfect artists already at their age!]

Colour in Writing

Mario: “And colour in writing? Forgetful you are.”

MoR: “Right. To me colour in writing is given by the vivacity of images. Examples of very colourful writers are to me Homer, Tolstoy, Gramsci, Garcia Marquez or Garcia Lorca. Also in the real sense that I see colours when I read them. Here, as with music (although I left it unexpressed above,) we have what is called synaesthesia.”

Mario: “Synaesthesia?”

MoR: “It’s when the sensory perceptions of taste, vision, hearing, etc.. mix. We receive them from our sensory organs, but they are processed, and sometimes mixed, by our brain.”

Mario: “So sounds can evoke colours, or the vision of an apple its taste, and so on.”

MoR: “Exactly. In literature the synaesthetic effect of colour could be triggered by the vivacity of images. The authors mentioned are full of glowing images. So if I say that a writer’s text is colourful I refer to his / her vigour, vitality, expressiveness as for the images he / she evokes. In music it is clear that tone colours – but also expressiveness of melodies etc. – can favour synaesthesia.”


Mario: “How do you know those girls are Japanese and not Chinese?”

MoR: “Because a Chinese friend of mine has told me.” 🙂

40 thoughts on “Color in Music and Color in Words. Have We Got the Christmas Blues?

  1. So, I was out of commission for just a few days, and, as a result, I missed my chance to be among the quoted commenters in your latest blog post. Now I have the Christmas blues.

    Is it too early to say “Auguri”? I spent a Christmas in a farm house outside of Tavernelle, and this is one of the words I learned.

    OK, MoR, I’ll stop back tomorrow to listen to your clips. A fine occupation for Christmas day.

    Polpastrelli. A great sounding word, by the way. Is it also a surname?


    1. No it isn’t.
      And don’t worry. You’ll be surely quoted in my next posts since you’re often here. It’s nice of you to pop up at this time when the web is so silent. Makes me feel warm. Christmas warm.

      Ciao e tanti auguri a te e a tua figlia.


  2. La signora Moretti goes through a large gamut of emotions while playing. I watched her fingers as you advised…but I was fascinated by her facial expressions going from joy to extasy to terror and relaxation as the music progressed. This was most remarkable.
    I had never heard Dean Martin’s Christmas blues, nice but sad, as it should be for blues.
    Those two young Asian girls show lots of promises, let’s wish them well.


    1. The Christmas blues was an homage to you, since you said “someone feeling sad has the ‘blues’.”
      The beauty of signora Moretti disturbs a bit the focus on music. Yes, she expresses emotions quite a lot, as it is the custom in the deep Mediterranean. And, in my opinion, the two Asian girls are more than a promise.


  3. About the Asian girls, let’s talk about them again in 20 years to see if the promise is fulfilled. So many wunderkind turn sour before they fully mature or never do. Mozarts are few and far between.


    1. The Japanese have a straightforward, realistic and methodical way of teaching music, so their wunderkinder are not such wunders (in the sense of rarities); they have just been taught what to do without confusing or vague admonitions like “produce a pear shaped tone.” Or a dark or light or purple tone, come to that. I had a Japanese voice teacher when I was twenty-five or so and wished I had had her when I was these girls’ age.

      Art is so much about craft, which then permits expression, something Americans especially always want to put first.


      1. Art is so much about craft, which then permits expression, something Americans especially always want to put first.

        You touched a very interesting theme. Is art (music, literature etc.) careful craft (artist = engineer) or the free expression of the inner feelings ( artist = an inspired poet)?

        Don’t blame America: the entire Western criticism is torn between these two opposites.

        But I think the medium path is to be preferred, since it is clear that Dante, Bach or Joyce were great poets and great engineers at the same time. Which applies to any of us average people. Without realistic discipline any talent, small or big, gets lost.

        In any case the term ‘art’ and ‘artist’ have been mythicized, at least since Beethoven onwards [possibly the Japanese skipped romanticism]. Ars for the Greco-Romans meant just a technique, being a translation of the Greek ‘techne’.


        1. Exactly, and I am still bitter that this perspective was becoming unfashionable just about the time I was in college. Poetry became a matter of barfing your raw thoughts and feelings out onto a blank page (I once ghost-wrote a term paper about Denise Levertov — oh, the horror, the horror), and the visual and plastic arts have never recovered as far as I can tell.

          I was dragged to a few exhibits in the art galleries of Washington last year and had to keep my lip zipped while people oohed and aahed over some poles painted in different colors and some headless mannequins dressed in batik clothing which apparently said something important about racism.

          Then there is the craze for “installations,” which means finding a bunch of junk and arranging it in a public place. Some of this is done, or swooned over, by people who actually have both talent and well developed technique. I believe we lost something when the artist no longer had to be in any way an artisan producing something that people required of him, and working inside the structure available.

          Japanese culture strikes me as magnificently pragmatic with a highly contained (and therefore volatile) place for the romantic impulse in all its forms, one which is recognized and slightly dreaded, as with the Greeks.


          1. When mannequins say something about anything I’m impressed. When headless mannequins manage to speak, it just plain knocks my socks off.

            Let me take you out for a drink, Sled. 🙂


    1. Thank you very much AutumnSnow!! And to you too! – if Christmas may make sense to a Chinese.
      Now I can reveal it is you who told me those girls are Japanese, and not Chinese 🙂


  4. Perhaps you weren’t thinking of it this way, but these music video clips, posted just before Christmas, are just like presents. Thank you. Very nice with my morning coffee, long before my teenagers decide to roll out of bed. Thanks.

    Next, as I listened, I wondered why anyone bothers trying to say anything with words, when music is so much more effective.

    And now, having mentioned my nearly-grown children, and the power of music, here is (surely not news to you) a favorite of mine. I think of it as the musical accompaniment as I send my children out into the world, and it is not a bad new year’s sentiment either.


    1. I appreciate very much the choice, Jenny. And the Da Ponte’s /Mozart’s concepts are suave:

      Soave sia il vento
      Tranquilla sia l’onda
      Ed ogni elemento
      Benigno risponda
      Ai nostri desir

      Suave be the wind,
      And tranquil the wave,
      And every element
      May benign respond
      to our desires.

      I mean, if you send your children out into the world with this, hope you’re aware the overall opera message is that of very joyful fiancée swapping etc. etc. etc. 🙂


  5. Hi Giovanni,
    Merry Christmas to you and your family in Roma. Oh, to walk through Rome’s narrow streets, listening to the language and stopping for coffee. Wish we were there! The rain in unrelenting here in California; the southland threatens to wash away.
    The Judge and I will journey to the Central Coast for New Year’s. On Thursday, I will dash to the elephant seal rookery to photograph the birthing of the new babies.
    If I get some great shots, I’ll post.
    For now, I am reading about Copernicus. Had coffee with Joe. He’s OK, but not great. I told him about your posts about your grandfather. I am going to print them out for him to read; he seemed interested.

    Good bye for now, Giovanni.


    1. Hi Cheri,

      Merry Christmas to you too and to all your beloved ones. I wonder if it may console you that the rain is unrelenting here too.

      Ah, you cruelly remind me about that text I have to buy and read for you. I’ll send an order through Amazon, I am a terrible procrastinator. And I hope Joe can read the original text in Italian. My English translation is uncertain.

      It’s lovely to have friends like you on the web dear dear Cheri.

      A presto dunque.


      If you wanted infos on Prague I haven’t. Went there only once for a short time 😦


  6. No, I don’t want to think of Roma covered with rain. I will stay with my vision of the last time I was there in late October of 2007 when you had an unseasonable cold snap. We left Santa Chiara out onto the cobblestones and found a delightful little restaurant, full of locals, so happy and warm.

    We walked, arm in arm, at least three miles through the streets. The whole night was Roman magic.

    Joe is doing his best to stay vital and gruff. I believe my reading assignments to him are very important. I know he’s slowing down when he agreed to read only five of the books assigned. 🙂

    He’s a tremendous intellect, refusing a television or computer.

    Prague…We are going in May. Now that I am reading The Book Nobody Read, I learn that one of the most important first editions of De Revolutionibus is in Prague. Also in Prague is the best preserved medieval helmet of the 11th century.


    1. Today we had some sun by the way. I confess I don’t like Rome’s cobblestones, not the aesthetics of it, but the ankle twists one gets now and then.

      Certainly no lack of restaurants full of loud locals here. But Italians are not as happy as they used to be, although the Roman magic is still present fortunately.

      Joe is doing his best to stay vital and gruff. I believe my reading assignments to him are very important. I know he’s slowing down when he agreed to read “only five” of the books assigned.

      Joe’s intellect is much more powerful than mine, no matter his age. And it is very astute of you (I mean female astute) to try to excite some male competition (in me) so that you get all possible help for your assignments 🙂

      But I’m a man who can accept resignation, defeat 😉


    2. Hi, Cheri. Merry late Christmas to you too. The Book Nobody Read you mention made me wonder if you ever read the Empty Book, from a wonderful Mexican-Spanish writer, Josefina Vicens.

      Un abrazo and if you ever come to our not so peaceful country let me know. And I hope 2011 brings bajo su brazo todos tus anhelos. Ana


      1. Hi Ana,
        I have not read the Empty Book. I will look it up and see what it is about. Thank you for suggesting it to me.
        I’ve been to Mexico only once and would very much like to go back. I have never seen Mexico City.

        I wish you and your family the very best in 2011. I wonder about your book.

        Peace in 2011 for todos las personas de Mexico.


  7. Late Merry Christmas, but nonetheless. An orchestra man playing on the street in a sunny Mexican midday reminded me of el hombre de Roma, God surely knows why. I dont. Pero. Aquí va mi abrazo y mis buenos deseos para un venturoso 2011.


  8. @Ana Téran

    A great pleasure to have you here as usual, Mujer de Mexico!

    Abrazos and wishes in your lovely language are the best greeting for the coming year.

    God knows always why. And I always thought I’d have had much more fun wandering around with a band singing in the streets 🙂 much more venturosa vida.

    All the wishes you sent me I send them back to you Ana.


  9. Do you suppose that all colour derives from microscopic, maybe unconscious, variations in rhythm. Do these mark out different performers and performances? Is this the underlying unity in all art that Sledpress alludes to?


  10. Hi Man of Roma,
    I’m late in saying how much I enjoyed this lovely colour/music post over the Christmas when I could find quiet moments.

    Dean Martin’s voice is one of my favourite male voices.

    In general, classical music can make me feel the blood flowing through my fingertips and pulsations on my face. A physical response that is arresting and beautiful.

    Have you ever thought of posting a youtube of yourself playing a piece on piano or guitar?

    Why not? Are we not a primed audience? Something to think about but perhaps one shouldn’t ask for MoR. 🙂

    Alors, Je vous remercie encore.


    1. Dear Geraldine,

      Thank you for your interest. I like Dean Martin’s voice too. And classical music has always been my biggest passion, although I like any type of music.

      I am thinking maybe of something with a guitar, which I started to study again after 40 years. In truth I’m more of a guitarist than a pianist. But it’ll take some time.

      You are a primed audience beyond a doubt. Until I can again play something non horrible all I’ve got are some old crazy improvisations (a mish-mash of all) performed in 1993 on an electronic keyboard (not as beautiful as a piano). They have little or no music value but I envy those days when my hands had more expressive dexterity. I have many and these only have been posted so far:

      Two *piano improvisations* with no musical logic. I just follow the flow (but what fun!). And here the *musical result* of a night of Dionysian revelry (no big deal: I had had fun at a party, was a bit high with wine when I came back home so I spent the rest of the night improvising like mad on that same keyboard and recorded it all) 🙂
      [the music is at the foot of the post]

      Dear friend, I hope my series on the Saturnalia hasn’t interfered with your sweet, compassionate feelings for Christmas.


      1. Man of Roma,
        I’ve listened to your three pieces. Keith Jarret! Yes, what a surprise. He was brought up in the midst of a breathtaking woodland region with stone houses, farms with large red barns surrounded by ponds, streams and rivers. Those river people tap into something.

        It seems to me your music expressions comes from three separate individuals. Each enjoyable in very different ways. Space and time, I suppose.

        The short second piece is calm (balanced) and I found it soothing to listen to after the first which starts slowly, deceptively and becomes beguiling with rambling happiness and fullness of experience and feelings. It was unsettling to me, as though I haven’t lived and was envious, but I’m not sure why. It is rather like a short story or a poem. Beautiful. How fortunate you are if you have lived so.

        There are pieces by Mozart I can’t listen to, however much I want to, because the perfect beauty is followed by the let down afterwards, when it’s over. The price to pay for listenning or tuning in to beauty and truth captured and removed from real time.

        You play lovingly, evocatively and fluidly.

        As for the PS: I can only respond with silence. The only thing that works when one doesn’t belong. No matter, at all.


  11. @Geraldine

    Dear Geraldine,

    Thank you for the info about Keith Jarret. So it seems his native woodland favoured his great musical meditations.

    Well, certainly my music, being light-years far from that of Mozart, no let down one gets afterwards :mrgreen:

    I thank you for your praise but I am convinced that my playing / improvising is trivial, although this encourages me a bit to post some more since music when at least sincere is communication and it can tell a bit of the person who made it, as in fact you said. But…

    [The first piano piece] becomes beguiling with rambling happiness and fullness of experience and feelings. It was unsettling to me, as though I haven’t lived… how fortunate you are if you have lived so.

    …don’t get deceived by a musical eye blink. I haven’t lived like that, maybe I have a tiny bit – like everybody – but my life has been overall not easy, and Italians are not as happy as ‘nordic’ people think (in case you were referring also to this): they are getting worse and worse.

    I respect your silence about PS. I knew you don’t belong and I didn’t want you to belong. I like you as you are. I hope you’ll also accept my being different. My story has been different.


  12. Oh, thank you, MoR, for saying that. I do indeed accept your being different, wholeheartedly, and I see how much of a treasure you must be to your family and friends. You know my views on your posts…joyous.

    Recently in a debate, Cornell West, a scholar, said that we owe it to the hard times in our lives for any joy we can feel in the present. I paraphrase. Or, my favourite from Joyce: “It’s too hard not to fail.” The latter I accept with equanimity, ha.

    I live easily between two worlds and eccentricities are well-accepted and liked in one of those worlds, not least because they’re rampant. And, I believe we are much more philosophical, or, daily doses of humour make life easier. Btw: I’m also a humanist in a way, like you and others on your blog, just never a cynic.

    PS: It will be great to hear you on your guitar one day.


    1. Geraldine, you’ll be surprised to learn that my beloved piano teacher (and Goddess of music still today) was Irish. I come from her school, which in turn came from Benedetti Michelangeli’s school.

      It tell her (sad) *story* in a post.

      I’m going out on my bicycle. Might come back.

      And, that McGuire, in case you get to listen to him via my post, WOW! In THAT music using nails on a guitar makes sense!


  13. MoR, I’m not truly surprised. Always go for brilliance. 🙂

    Pauline must have had compelling musical depth and true grit because Michelangeli is not easy. His passion is brilliant but forboding, almost.

    I would also add that it’s most likely your teacher never, ever forgot you and wondered how you fared all through her life. That would be in her nature.

    My God, you’re right, McGuire is fantastic. His right hand movements mesmerized me. Flamenco…my dance steps go well with this. I’ll exchange my poms for my hard tap shoes. Now there goes the early afternoon, time to belt the daylights out of the oak floor. 🙂


    1. Geraldine,

      I had a bad day because of our PM Berlusconi.

      Yes, Pauline was a strong though sensitive woman, an immense artistic personality (McGuire has something of her power). She may have remembered me, she once told me I was her most beloved pupil. Don’t know if she really meant it. She in any case said that I had started piano too late, and my muscles could not adapt. And in fact I was good only with scales and arpeggios, which is not enough.
      Michelangeli forboding? You are very perceptive Geraldine. I don’t think he led a happy life. But she adored him. He was a genius in his own way.


  14. Hmmm, so he influenced her s0 and made her a tad more critical than she would have been naturally. So typical of some difficult egos. No more ccomments…..under the influence of veuve cliquot. (Rule no. 1)


    1. I often break your rule num 1 so my blog is full of stupidities. But a blog is a web log isn’t it, so I guess can register the flux of life. Later on Michelangeli maybe.


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