Emotions Link Sound to Color

This post is a culmination of articles found in public domain and written by certified professionals in a medical or psychological science

Music–color associations are mediated by emotion.

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.

Experimental evidence demonstrates robust cross-modal matches between music and colors that are mediated by emotional associations. US and Mexican participants chose colors that were most/least consistent with 18 selections of classical orchestral music by Bach, Mozart, and Brahms. In both cultures, faster music in the major mode produced color choices that were more saturated, lighter, and yellower whereas slower, minor music produced the opposite pattern (choices that were desaturated, darker, and bluer). There were strong correlations (0.89 < r < 0.99) between the emotional associations of the music and those of the colors chosen to go with the music, supporting an emotional mediation hypothesis in both cultures.

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).

*Stephen E. Palmer,a,1 Karen B. Schloss,a Zoe Xu,a and Lilia R. Prado-Leónb

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.”

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.

How might music-to-color associations occur in nonsynesthetes? The two most plausible hypotheses are (i) the direct connection hypothesis that there are direct, unmediated associations between colors and musical sounds and (ii) the emotional mediation hypothesis that color and music are linked through shared emotional associations.  Although some empirical support has been claimed for hypothesis ii, the small sets of colors and/or descriptors, the small set of musical selections, and the potential relevance of cultural comparisons preclude firm conclusions.

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?




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