Faster music was associated with lighter yellow shades

While it is well known that people associate colour with emotions and mood with music, it is not common knowledge that people associate colour with music and how it happens. Now a study, for the first time tests out 18 different pieces of music on about a hundred people by showing them 37 colour cards and pictures of human faces carrying expressions, and comes up with the result that people do have strong associations between music and colour and that this is mediated by the emotion evoked in them by the music.

Was this not known earlier? Wassily Kandinsky and Paul Klee were famous for their paintings of music, rich in colour and structure. People with synesthesia actually get visual experiences of colour, stimulated by music. But this study is different in that it deals with ordinary people without synesthesia and tests whether the association of music to colour is mediated by emotions and is not a direct relation.

The study was taken up by a collaboration of groups in the U.S. and Mexico. Stephen E. Palmer from the University of California, Berkeley is the first author of the paper published on May 28 in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. The participants in the study were asked to listen to Western classical music — Bach, Mozart and Brahms — each lasting 50 seconds. They were then asked to choose from a palette of 37 colours, the one that matched the music well and a remarkable agreement was seen. Major modes and faster music were associated with lighter yellow shades while slow music and minor modes went with the blues.

In a second experiment, the participants were shown colours and faces carrying expressions of sad/happy, angry/cool and so on, and there was a good amount of correlation in the way they picked the faces to match the colour. In the third and final experiment, the participants were asked to match the expressive faces to music. The results of the three experiments were merged and the conclusion that emotions mediated the choice of colour that matched the piece of music was arrived at.

The calculated correlations and the consistency of results implied that there is a definite association that people make between music and colour and that this is mediated by the emotion the music evokes in them.

Are there any possible applications of this? When questioned about this, Dr. Palmer, said in an email to this correspondent, “I'm not an applied psychologist, so the applications are less important to me than what the result tell us about the nature of the human mind and brain. But the most obvious application of these findings would be to help build better music visualisers by using colours that are consistent with the emotions people feel when they listen to it. There might also be applications to various forms of therapy (like art therapy, music therapy, play therapy) where stronger moods could be induced by using cross-modal stimulation.”

Perhaps the day is not far when the Indian classical music critics would rave about musicians’ rendition of a rich green Bhairavi or a cool blue Kalyani…

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