Around the circumference of Sir Isaac Newton's colour-music wheel, letters denote the musical notes of the Dorian mode. They are equivalent to a run of white notes on a keyboard, starting on D. It is the only white-note scale that shows symmetry, since the semitone intervals E-F and B-C are equidistant from the starting-point D. Coloured orange and indigo, these smaller intervals are positioned opposite each other about the horizontal axis of symmetry, DOs. To underline his musical reference to the Dorian mode, Newton's instructions for constructing the diagram began with the radius OD, rather than OA as per the usual mathematical protocol.
Red, as the colour that is least 'refrangible' (ie with the lowest degree of refraction), immediately follows D, the note with the lowest frequency. As the spectrum climbs the musical scale, the primary colours - the red, yellow and blue familiar to painters and from which most other colours can be mixed - start on the notes, D, F and A: these comprise, appropriately enough, the primary triad of the D scale, which is sufficient to define the chord and the key of D minor. One cycle of the colour music wheel spans a subunit of sound, the octave, and many turns, round and round, could be taken before the limits of the audible range were reached. But one journey alone is sufficient to visit the total visible spectrum, from red to violet. By joining the ends of the spectrum to form a circle, Newton created the impression of a repeating cycle of pure colours, equivalent to the musical octave. A seamless blend from violet through purple to red would enhanced the illusion, though violet and red never actually meet in the natural spectrum.
Newton was ever a pragmatic man, and intended the diagram for practical purposes. He meant it to calculate components of any mix of pure, coloured lights: the radius OY (as shown above) was drawn to demonstrate a procedure for determining the proportional composition of a colour at z. (The mathematical method, of determining centres of gravity, has profitably been used since in calculating colour values.) Newton's construction might even be put to more immediate use: with the spokes coloured in and a spindle inserted through the centre of the wheel, it could become a top. When spun fast enough, its colours would blur together to approximate the white from which they were derived. But Newton, "by Painting a Top (such as Boys play with) of divers colours", could only achieve a 'dirty' colour by this method, comparable to a dry mix of painter's pigments.
"I shall not scruple to confess to you that I disdain not to take notice even of ludicrous experiments, and think that the 'plays of boys' may sometimes deserve to be the study of philosophers."
So wrote Robert Boyle, a respected contemporary of Newton, and a founding member of London's Royal Society. Simple toys, like the spinning top, became investigative tools in the hands of a new breed of natural philosophers, seeking insights into physical phenomena. And after all, the spinning top had a considerable pedigree, as Pliny and Ptolemy had both described its use in antiquity. Early in the 6th century, Boethius likened its blending of colours to the production of sound: a vibrating string sent a rapid succession of pulses through the air, to create the illusion of a continuous note.
"It is as if someone carefully fashions a cone - which people call a 'top' - and applies one stripe of red or some other colour to it and spins it as fast as possible, then the whole cone seems dyed with the red colour, not because the whole thing is thus, but because the velocity of the red stripe overwhelms the clear parts, and they are not allowed to appear."
But perhaps the technique achieved its greatest success in the mid-19th century. James Clerk Maxwell used a refined, calibrated colour-top to investigate normal colour vision as well as colour blindness; he would frequently delight children, too, with displays of changing colour on his magical spinning top. Shortly after, Hermann von Helmholtz balanced opposing colours on a rotating disc, leading to radical refinements to Newton's diagram - even its circular geometry was modified, to the familiar tongue shape of contemporary chromaticity diagrams. The 'philosophers' whirligig' became a teaching tool in the early 1920s, when Ludwig Hirschfeld Mack manufactured tops at the Weimar Bauhaus: seven differently-coloured papers could be spun on his device, to demonstrate the colour-mixing theories of Goethe, Schopenhauer, Bezold and others. In their day, Hirschfeld Mack's tops were a real money-spinner for the Bauhaus, and are still being manufactured. The principles they illustrate are demonstrated in many modern museums, where rotating colour discs show the optical illusion of colour mixing.
Tops were not the only playthings to attract the serious attention of the fathers of modern science. Boyle, again, commented on the 'orient' colours of the rainbow, painted on the surfaces of "Spherical Bubbles as Boys are wont to make and play with". Sure enough, Newton followed suit, making precise observations of bubble colours in "Opticks". Since seeing was believing (then as now), experimenters throughout Europe tried to replicate Newton's success with "the celebrated Phenomena of Colours". Scholars would write (or even travel) from the continent to England, to inquire how sunlight was split into colours with a prism. Such experiments were taken seriously, as part of the investigative methods of natural philosophy. They were much discussed at the emergent scientific academies of 17th century Europe, whose networks of correspondences conveyed news of any developments.
Musical science, too, played a prominent part in the science of the early 17th century. Galileo Galilei, in Italy, was one of the first to connect the resonance of a musical instrument with the notes we hear in our mind, by measured pulses of pressure transferred through the air. The same issues, around music and acoustics, were being debated at the fledgling Royal Society in the early 1660s. A guest musician would be invited to expound his theory of tuning, after which members could retire to a musical tavern to hear a practical example. Or a simple experiment might be made. One such demonstration required two lutes: a straw was placed across a string of one of them, while the corresponding string was plucked on the other, a short distance away. When the straw on the untouched lute was dislodged, it was considered that vibrations through the air had caused its string to resonate in sympathy. The same phenomena had long been known - it was the explanation that was now different. Previous ages had seen the spirits at work, creating magical connections between similar things, across the entire span of heaven and earth. The two approaches - scientific and magical - co-existed throughout the 17th century, and it was common for individuals to subscribe to both.
The diagram at left was copied from "The Crowning of Nature", an Elizabethan text on alchemy, by none less than Isaac Newton. He labelled it the Philosopher's Stone - the goal and active principle of alchemy - and wrote numbered colouring instructions alongside, for black, green, blue, yellow and red. In the original manuscript, it appeared as the first figure named Chaos; a central disk is surrounded by seven smaller disks, each segmented by a seven-pointed star. Signs of the seven most notable heavenly bodies (the planets Mercury, Venus, Mars, Jupiter and Saturn, plus the Sun and the Moon) are assigned to the points of each star, and inscribed in rings around each disk. The archetypal forces of the seven planets surround the four elements of earth, water, air and fire in the centre. Out of these ingredients, the Great Work of alchemy proceeds. The use of occult symbolism seems at odds to the modern eye, especially at the hand of the man who established our understanding of the solar system. But Newton believed in the possibilities of alchemy, if the half-million words he wrote on the subject are anything to go by. On one level, the planetary signs were merely the common symbols for known metals; Venus was copper, and Saturn lead, for example. The seven metals - lead, tin, iron, copper, mercury, silver and gold - were the basic materials of any alchemist and, for Newton, they were transformed by a vital spirit. Code-named 'magnesia', 'mercurial spirit', 'body of light', etc., it was responsible for all growth and decay, and represented God's will at the heart of all matter.
It is clear Newton gave credence to unseen forces, including gravity, which operated at a distance in some mysterious way. He drew an historical parallel between the mathematical laws that governed music and gravity; likewise, the relationships between musical notes, and between colours, were described by the same ratios. Since a symbolic interpretation of his work cannot be precluded, we may find a prototype for Newton's colour music wheel in his depiction of the philosophers' stone. The occult diagram is in the shape of a heptagram, with seven circles forming the vertices; each circle is also divided into seven segments, by the points of a star. Both as a whole and in its parts, the representation of the philosophers' stone provides a formal exemplar for the colour disc. The latter is segmented by seven musical notes, enclosing seven 'simple' colours - red, orange, yellow, green, blue, indigo and violet. (And, in the text of "Opticks", the formal association of colour to music is made - you guessed it - seven times.) Chosen to approximate the spectrum Newton observed, the colours streamed to earth in the light of the sun. Light, as colour, came closer to the secret of nature than other, earthbound operations of "vulgar Chymistry". The symbolic function of colour music, interpreted within broader seven-based systems, expands to include metaphysical connections to metals, planets, and much more.
Colours here gave a key to the old meanings, the prisca sapientia (ancient wisdom) which Newton believed lost to the world, since the time of the Egyptians and Chaldeans. The notes might be interpreted as the music of the spheres, a cosmic harmony familiar from the Pythagoreans and Plato, where each of the seven planets was assigned a musical tone. Planets (and their related metals) were sometimes assigned colours, too, culminating in the system of heraldry formulated in the Middle Ages. And, occasionally, direct connections of colours to musical notes or modes were made, mainly in books on magic and the occult arts. The unity of colour and music, presented as science, invoked a philosophical overview, wherein all phenomena could be synthesized into the whole. Newton was seeking a secret, divine order, to be uncovered by scrutinizing the natural world. As well as consulting his peers, he sought clues in the Bible, selected myths, alchemical literature, and in textbooks of natural magic - weighty tomes that listed the significance of most anything you care to name and the relations between them. Without this approach, seemingly so queer and redundant, Newton's little diagram of the spectrum might still be hailed as the first accurate pie chart of colours. As it is, science has superseded it, and tends to sweep the musical analogy under the carpet as an embarrassing blot on the reputation of the great man.
Newton's colour-music code is rarely remembered today, for what it once represented. An acronym of the colours' names, ROY G BIV, is often used as a mnemonic to teach children the colours of the rainbow. Otherwise, the coded association of colour to music (as well as to chakras, emotions, and the like) survives on the fringes of society, in holistic movements of the New Age. The correspondence then surfaces as an unquestioned belief and, despite obvious similarities, any Newtonian origins are rarely acknowledged. But it must be remembered that the 17th century was a different age to our own; natural philosophers could hold a variety of beliefs that, to us, seem mutually contradictory. Francis Bacon, an inspirational figure at the start of the scientific revolution in England, was one. He hoped for a utopian future, in which the highest kind of magic could be used to probe causes of things systematically. In many ways, Bacon anticipated the future direction of science, even including an analogy between colour and music:
"The pleasing of colour symbolizeth with the pleasing of any single tone to the ear...And both these pleasures, that of the eye, and that of the ear, are but the effects of equality, good proportion, and correspondence."
In his imagined land of New Atlantis, Bacon described a science that could convey sound over great distances in "trunks and pipes", and create musical harmonies with "slides of sounds" separated by less than a quarter-tone. In 'perspective houses', artificial rainbows were made; transparent devices isolated colours "not in rainbows, as it is in gems and prisms, but of themselves single." While Newton lacked the technological marvels Bacon envisaged, he was able to pick apart the prismatic colours with geometry, and house them in a more orthodox musical setting. Henceforth, rainbows became basic to the study of physical colours - so much so that, little more than a century after "Opticks" was first published, the poet Keats was to protest against the excessive claim made by intellectuals to this phenomenon of nature.
Historians, anthropologists and other specialists have since spent considerable effort in trying to unravel the entanglement of myth, magic and science, but an apparent incompatibility of mysticism and materialism plagues western thinkers today. In the arena of science, questions about the nature of human consciousness, including belief in God, are vociferously debated. Most researchers see mystical concerns, quite properly, as superfluous to the strict requirements of laboratory science, though it has become fashionable for theorists to point up any metaphysical implications. Some neurologists describe the workings of the human mind as entirely biological, reducing the capacity for religious sentiment to mere chemical functions within the brain. Yet others counter with studies (into the effect of prayer on hospital recovery rates, for example) to claim that outside agencies are at work. Whatever one makes of the current divide between reason and belief, the jury is still out. Even more basic questions have troubled Western philosophy from the outset, as to the ultimate way the brain organizes sensory impressions, how our minds decipher the world around us.
In the last thirty years, physiological study of the human brain - and the related search for computerized artificial intelligence - has thrown new light on the operations of thought. Neurologists, hoping to uncover clues to understanding, track responses to sensory stimuli along the nerve pathways. It is yet moot whether fixed patterns of brain activity correspond to specific colours, or to particular musical sounds. In any case, most of us will have little everyday need for this complex data: we learn from the earliest age to form our perceptions into more or less useful pictures of the world. So it is usually pathologies, and any other anomalies encountered along the way, that attract the attention of science. Synaesthesia is one variation, often involving the senses of sight and hearing, in which some people may experience coloured hallucinations while listening to music. These visions suggest that, at some level deep within the brain, our perceptions may overlap, and are capable of synthesizing multi-sensual responses.
It is tempting to see, in the phenomenon of synaesthesia, a genuine source of colour music - albeit shrouded in visionary import and formalistic interpretations passed down by history. Indeed, current understanding of synaesthesia has reignited interest in putative links between music and colour, as they are deployed in the arts. Just so, studies of synaesthetes in the late 1800s had formed a backdrop for major overhauls in aesthetic attitudes in the early 20th century. However, orthodox colour music is slow to adapt to even the most fundamental shifts in scientific thinking: it is likely to prove resistant to any fresh biological imperatives based on the neurology of synaesthesia.
Challenges to the basis of Newton's schema had arisen during the 19th century, with fresh developments in the science of light and new understandings of colour theory. That leviathan of mid-century natural sciences, Hermann von Helmholtz, extended previous research by Thomas Young, James Clerk Maxwell and others, outlining science's new position from 1856-67, with his "Handbook of Physiological Optics". The traditional set of painters' primaries - red, yellow, and blue - was supplemented with a set of additive ones - red, green and blue-violet, known as the Young-Helmholtz primaries. The tonal range, from the darkest colour to the lightest, became more clearly defined. Particularly, pairs of complementary colours, such as red and blue-green, were isolated in the spectrum; Helmholtz considered their combined effect harmonious, and likened them to consonant musical intervals. He eventually demonstrated that any such pair, of its own, could reconstitute a white light, when painted on a spinning disc.
Helmholtz was very taken by the colour-music analogy: as author of "On the Sensation of Tone as a Physiological Basis for the Theory of Music" (1863), and as a pianist himself with a father who painted, he was in an excellent position to provide an evaluation of colour music. In "Simple Colours", Chapter 19 in Book II of his Handbook, Helmholtz constructed a colour-music scale. The note G was anchored to Fraunhofer line A (a dark band in the far reaches of deep red). Running up the scale from G to g, the white notes of the piano would align approximately with deep red, red, orange, yellow, greenish-blue, indigo-blue violet and ultra-violet. Personally, Helmholtz preferred an A scale, so its major chord of A, C# and E most closely matched his additive primaries of red, green and blue-violet.
In his epochal works on optics and acoustics, Helmholtz had described the stimulating effects of colour and music in similar terms. Though he would divide the spectrum "on the principle of the musical scale, because this seemed to be the best method for physiological reasons", Helmholtz remained ambivalent, at best, towards colour music. He recognized his own scheme did not give preferred colours for the chord at A major: the note E aligned with indigo-blue, rather than the ideal blue-violet primary. But he reserved his harshest criticisms for the colour-music codes of others, as "forced musical analogies", concluding that:
"At any rate, it is clear that in the so-called colour harmony no such absolute definite relations are to be expected as are characteristic of the musical intervals."
In one of the very rare examples of major painting directly based on a colour-music code, the Czech artist Frantisek Kupka payed homage to Helmholtz in "Piano Keyboard/Lake". At the bottom of the canvas, a hand is shown playing the A major chord that is basic to Helmholtz's scheme, while the colours themselves are almost exclusively tonal varieties of the Young-Helmholtz primaries, red, green and blue-violet. Kupka was an avid amateur scientist, attending laboratory sessions at the Sorbonne, and was soon to be nominated as a member for the Czech Academy of Arts and Sciences. His notes reveal he was aware of Helmholtz's "Handbook of Physiological Optics", a standard textbook undergoing its third reprint in Paris at the time. While adopting the colour-music code he found there, Kupka chose to ignore Helmholtz's reservations about its validity - which, in any case, were buried in notes at the end of the chapter on "Simple Colours".
The picture's subject was taken from a previous painting of an embarkation scene by Kupka. It was an apt choice, as the waves in the water could be seen as a metaphor for the wave-like natures of sound and light. The subject was important to 19th century scientists, not only because it overturned Newton's corpuscular theories of light, but also because, through Maxwell's work on electro-magnetic fields, wave theory could be applied to other phenomena such as magnetism and X-rays. Wave theories were also vital in occult circles, to which Kupka belonged: all reality, including the spiritual realm, was seen to be interconnected by vibrations, according to the Theosophical beliefs that permeated European avant-garde thinking at the turn of the century.
"Piano Keyboard/Lake" represented a turning point in Kupka's career, marking a departure from realism and a move into pure abstraction. The unusual device in the bottom of the work, where the piano keys break away and rise toward the top of the picture, was to be re-employed many times. Soon it became the entire motif for abstract canvasses, in what has become known as his Vertical Planes style. A few of these marks in the centre of Kupka's painting are an anomalous yellow, and the general colours may, in fact, be a little deceptive. The green appears (at least in reproductions) to be a mix of indigo blue with the pure yellow, that leaves its trace in the few brushstrokes of unadulterated pigment. Kupka's homage to the Young-Helmholtz primaries might really have been created with a palette of red, yellow and blue - the traditional painters' primaries.
Kupka reproduced a circle of 'basic' colours in his "Creation in the Plastic Arts" of 1923, though he had apparently advocated this arrangement as early as 1910. Apart from the Czech writing and the anti-clockwise direction of the spectrum (possibly due to the reverse imprint of a woodblock), it is almost identical to Helmholtz's colour wheel. The latter pointed out quite clearly how he derived the arrangement from Newton's more ancient colour music wheel. Modifications were made, and reasons given, such that Helmholtz included an artificial purple to join the spectrum's ends of red and violet, and yellow-green and green-blue segments were inserted to expand its middle. His arrangement has provided a basis for many extant colour arrangements, such as the Munsell system. But clearly, the ten hues he arrived could no longer be interpreted as a colour-music code, nor distributed among the seven notes or twelve semitones of a musical scale. Helmholtz excused Newton his emphasis on indigo by blaming primitive prisms, but finally dismissed ROY G BIV with:
"These divisions are more or less capricious and largely the result of a mere love of calling things by names."
Theories of colour harmony arose, to rival colour music, that no longer relied on any spectral equivalents to musical harmony. But Kupka was not so easily put off. He painted a series of homages to Newton's discs with an array of rainbow colours, emphasizing, if anything, the painterly primaries red, yellow, and blue. Like other mystics of his day - he was a spirit medium in his youth, remained interested in the occult the rest of his life and, ultimate mystery, was buried (whereabouts unknown) by a secret society - he sought authority for a belief in the spiritual connection between colour and music by reaching into the past and, inevitably, finding Isaac Newton.
As with his earlier "Piano Keyboard/Lake", Kupka's disc paintings provided a starting point for venturing into abstraction, this time in his Circular Forms style. Their swaying, rhythmic lines evolved into the first large abstract canvasses, such as the "Amorpha" paintings exhibited at the 1912 Salon d'Automne in Paris. After the war, he systematically explored colours with a series called Forms of Colours, where each colour was associated with distinctive lines and shapes. Those works were often monochromatic exercises in a specific colour, with red, yellow and blue paintings in the majority, the remainder being in either the orange, green or purple secondaries.
Kupka may have been influenced by the contemporary spiritualist writer, Claude Bragdon, who held that everything in this world, including colours, had its counterpart in a specific form on another level. He held the astral plane existed in the fourth dimension, a geometrical artifice which mathematicians had ruminated over for the past hundred years. Bragdon's idea had seemed attractive to many - until Einstein decreed that time was the fourth dimension of space-time. (Einstein also side-stepped the aether, an Aristotelian staple of physicists and spiritualists alike, as it was unnecessary for the propagation of light.) By the completion of his Forms of Colours cycle, Kupka was ironically resigned to finding no occult connection between light and sound, seemingly disillusioned by all the speculation.
"All the same, it would be beneficial to take a more circumspect view of the analogy which some people claim to see between colours and sounds, and not to take all the theories put forward on this subject as gospel truth...That is to say that the chromatism of music and the musicality of colours have only metaphorical validity. A pity - one more illusion vanishes in smoke."
According to John Gage, in "Colour and Meaning: Art, Science and Symbolism" (a sequel to his encyclopaedic and endlessly fascinating "Colour and Culture"), colour music remains one of the three main streams of colour harmony in the west. The other two systems rely upon ordering colour according to its tone - light-dark values - or by its contrasting hues - whether as primaries or complementaries. The colour-music code, per se, may lapse into relative obscurity, to re-emerge spasmodically as a guiding principle. Isaac Newton's code has survived down the centuries as one guide to colour harmony, if not as a valid hypothesis of science. It matters little that its form mutates along the way: the ultimate purpose of Newton's code has ever been metaphorical, to bridge the gap between metaphysical priorities and the harsh prerogatives of experimental science.
Artists have frequently paid lip service to some principles of formal colour harmony, including colour music, though few have adhered to them as literal practice. The material limitations of painting ultimately restrict the usefulness of more elaborate colour schemes, that require ideal spectral colours and calculated effects of colour saturation and tonal variation. Pigments are rarely spectral hues and, in any case, strict sets of colours do not accommodate the nuances that most painters require. Yet scientific theories have supply some inspiring painterly insights, while their related technology has certainly provided new colour-toys for the artist to play with.
A better understanding of some visual artists' work might be achieved by considering the sometimes subtle influence of colour music. Signs of it may be apparent in a painting, or an artist's statements and writings could reveal its presence. (In the latter case, there are varying degrees of conviction, ranging from unsubstantiated enthusiasms to blatant self-promotion that relies on popular vogues in colour music.) In rare instances, an artist will consciously conform to colour music's prescriptions. Then some measure can be made of how the traditional concerns of colour music stack up against the preoccupations of a given era. The work of two Australian artists of the 20th century illustrate this point as well as any others: Roy De Maistre and Domenic De Clario adjusted the basics of their palettes and musical performances respectively, to accommodate the rules of a colour-music code. In doing so, both endorsed the metaphysical stance of cultural cabals - and both were surprisingly rewarded for doing so.
In 1919, the Sydney artist Roy De Maistre exhibited paintings based on a colour-music code: the press was most attentive and the Australian art world awarded him one of their first travelling scholarships. De Maistre returned to colour music painting after 1930, when he moved to England. There, he contributed to the growth of modern British painting, and counted the young painter Francis Bacon among his peers. De Maistre was also acknowledged as an intellectual and aesthetic mentor, by the expatriate author Patrick White.
See COLOUR MUSIC IN AUSTRALIA : Demystifying De Maistre
At the end of the 20th century, the Melbourne artist Domenic De Clario combined a colour-music code with yoga, therapy and mysticism, in accord with New Age influences. De Clario, too, has been accorded official recognition, the Australian government supplying him with studios in Italy and New York: twice he was invited to the Shaker Village in Maine, most recently to celebrate the 1998 summer solstice. He is currently an associate professor of Fine Arts at Monash University.
See COLOUR MUSIC IN THE NEW AGE : Demystifying De Clario
In any examination of colour music for the present era, the above artists serve us well - De Maistre because he executed several paintings that attempted, via a colour-music code, to translate music onto canvas, and De Clario for the copious notes he has supplied, to connect various artworks to an underlying, holistic belief system. The aesthetic merits of their work is not what is at question here, but rather the theoretical framework that each artist has put forward. With slight variations, De Clario's and De Maistre's arrangements of colours and notes were those that Isaac Newton recommended, over three centuries ago. With these they have attempted to justify their work; the virtue of colour music is central to understanding and appreciating their efforts.
Their codified understandings of colour and music may seem impoverished compared to any of our own, more intimate responses, with reason and belief being clearly beggared in the process. The meaning of colour music has become increasingly attenuated as the priorities of western society have shifted - a once-noble pursuit appears relegated to a fringe activity, fated to become a mere historical curio. But it is persistent: the supposed correspondence of colour to music has been restated again and again, in a variety of guises. It has held significance in many cultures, long before Newton dreamed up his scheme, and will no doubt re-emerge in ages to come. These essays may not explain your own preferences for certain tunes or favourite colours, nor why many of us detect a certain kinship in the creative processes of music and the fine arts. However, I hope to show how both can be connected within broader society, and that the search for a colour music is, indeed, a civilized pursuit.