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Who mixed sound and color?

Sound and color have long been connected in the human imagination. Many artists and thinkers have explored the relationship between what we hear and what we see. In the 19th and 20th centuries, the connection between sound and color was examined more systematically by composers, painters, and psychologists. In this article, we’ll look at some of the key figures who mixed sound and color in their work.

The Idea of a Color Organ

The concept of a “color organ” dates back centuries. The idea was to create an instrument that would display colors in correspondence with musical notes. In the 1700s, Louis-Bertrand Castel built an ocular harpsichord with colored glasses that were supposed to light up as notes were played. Sir Isaac Newton and others had theories about the precise ratios between musical tones and the color spectrum.

While these early color organs were limited, they began a long tradition of inventors and thinkers trying to systematically link sound and vision. The creation of new light technologies, like gas lighting in the early 1800s, allowed color organs to become more complex and spectacular. These instruments aimed to truly fuse sound and light into a new art form.

Bainbridge Bishop’s Color Organ

One of the most successful early color organs was developed by an American painter named Bainbridge Bishop. He patented his “Color Organ” in 1877. Bishop wanted to make a color organ that was easier to use and more musically flexible than previous instruments. His organ used a keyboard to control banks of lights in different colors. These lights were then projected through a magic lantern, which was an early type of slide projector.

Bishop’s organ let performers improvise colorful displays that responded to live music. The shows became very popular attractions in the late 1800s. Bishop himself toured the U.S. and Europe, playing music on the organ accompanied by orchestras, choirs, and solo musicians. The performances were advertised as a way to appeal to both eye and ear simultaneously.

Scriabin’s Color Music

The Russian composer Alexander Scriabin was one of the pioneers of making a connection between sound and color in classical music. Scriabin started exploring the relationship as a young man, and made it a central part of his musical philosophy.

Scriabin created a complex chart that linked each musical key with a specific color. He believed that certain tonalities naturally evoked certain colors. For example, Scriabin associated the key of F-sharp major with bright blue. He developed plans for a grand performance of his work Prometheus: The Poem of Fire, which would include a part for color organ.

Unfortunately, Scriabin died in 1915 before he could fully realize his vision. But in his personal notes, he left an ambitious design for a rotating stage surrounded by banks of colored lights. Modern performances of Prometheus sometimes try to incorporate colors or projections based on Scriabin’s notes.

The Color Keyboard of A. Wallace Rimington

An English painter named A. Wallace Rimington was one of the first researchers to systematically demonstrate how colors could evoke emotional responses that related to music. In his 1911 book Color-Music: The Art of Mobile Color, Rimington described his invention, the color keyboard.

Rimington’s keyboard allowed a performer to play colors and manipulate projected light. Different keys would trigger different shades and tones. Rimington gave public demonstrations of the instrument with live musical accompaniment. He could improvise colorful displays that shifted with the music, similar to Bishop’s earlier color organ.

In his writing, Rimington also published charts laying out his own theories on the emotional meanings of colors. For example, he connected middle blue-greens with “tranquility,” and middle yellows with “gaiety.” This attempt to codify synesthesia was influential on later thinkers.

Schoenberg and Kandinsky’s Collaboration

In 1911, the artist Wassily Kandinsky and the composer Arnold Schoenberg became friends and decided to collaborate on an opera that would unite music and painting. They shared a belief that they were pioneering a new, spiritually pure art form that went beyond traditional concepts.

Schoenberg wrote music for the opera Die glückliche Hand, full of unpredictable atonality and strange harmonies. He hoped the patterns in the music could be matched by Kandinsky’s use of shape and color on stage. The two artists exchanged paintings and musical sketches to share ideas.

Political tensions in Europe prevented the opera from ever being fully produced during Kandinsky and Schoenberg’s lifetimes. But their exchange of ideas helped spur each artist’s individual experiments in abstraction and chromatic expression.

Thomas Wilfred’s Lumia Compositions

In the 1920s, an artist named Thomas Wilfred developed a color organ he called the Clavilux. Wilfred’s invention used banks of incandescent bulbs and curved reflector dishes, allowing him to manipulate light in sweeping gestures. He named his performances on the instrument “lumia” compositions.

With his instrument, Wilfred crafted colorful, shifting light displays that were meant to be artistic statements on their own, independent of music. Pre-programmed sequences on the Clavilux created compositions in colored light. Wilfred’s Lumia Suite performances became popular with the public, reveling the imagination of abstract visuals.

Mary Hallock-Greenewalt’s Sarabet

Mary Hallock-Greenewalt was a pianist who premiered several compositions by Scriabin in the U.S. She became obsessed with the concept of color music after encountering Scriabin’s theories. Starting in the 1910s, Hallock-Greenewalt developed a visionary color organ she called the Sarabet. It was capable of displaying hundreds of different colored lights on a screen.

Like Wilfred, Hallock-Greenewalt believed her color compositions stood alone as art, not just musical accompaniment. She called her visual compositions “Nourathar,” meaning “spiritual.” Hallock-Greenewalt tried to patent the Sarabet as a new art form, but the U.S. Patent Office rejected her claim.

Disney’s Use of Color Music Concepts

The animators at Walt Disney’s studios drew heavily on theories of color music while developing the groundbreaking film Fantasia in 1940. The movie set animated stories and characters to classical music, trying to forge tight audio-visual connections.

Disney wanted each segment to express the mood of the accompanying music through artful use of color and lighting. The animators developed visual motifs for each piece, like the flashing yellow bursts timed to the rhythms of the “Dance of the Hours.” Disney’s exploration of “color music” helped drive innovations in effects animation and multiplane camera motion.

The Psychology of Synesthesia

Psychologists in the early 20th century, like Georg Anschütz, studied people with synesthesia who automatically perceived connections between sounds and colors. Composers like Scriabin and Rimington cited these scientific findings as “proof” of the emotional power of color music.

But more rigorous psychological research found people experienced synesthesia in widely varying, idiosyncratic ways. Two people might hear the same note as two completely different colors. This made universal sound-color symbolism dubious. But some theorists, like composer Olivier Messiaen, still believed in subjective synesthetic connections.

Op Art Kinetic Painting

Bridget Riley and other Op Art painters explored visual effects that seemed to vibrate and move like sound waves. Their black and white geometrical patterns manipulated optical illusions to appear as if in motion on the canvas. Riley’s Undulation paintings pulse with wave-like visual rhythms that some felt “sounded” like music for the eyes.

Riley researched color theory and science in depth to increase the illusory kinetic effects of her paintings. Works like Current deliver a visual sensation of shifting frequencies and amplitudes, like a pure abstract soundtrack translated into black and white stripes.

Psychedelic Light Shows

Rock concerts in the 1960s often featured psychedelic “liquid light shows” with pulsating, swirling oils and colors projected over the musicians. Visual artists used lenses, oils, and chemicals to improvise live visuals that responded to the sound and rhythms of the rock music.

These light shows directly picked up on a century of color music experiments. While not as complex as patents like Bishop’s color organ, the psychedelic projections aimed for a similar synesthetic experience for the audience, where colors could be “heard.”


The search for deeper connections between sound and color has followed a winding path from Isaac Newton to psychedelic rock shows. New technologies have opened up ever more possibilities to artists seeking to blend audio and visual art. Though the neurological basis for “hearing” colors remains elusive, creators have developed more and more ways to explore synesthetic experiences.

Color organs and light shows may not be able to match the logic and structure of music. But the continuing creative experiments show the human instinct to combine all the senses. In trying to merge sight and sound, artists have innovated new systems of visual expression. Perhaps no “universal” sounds and colors exist. But the urge to mesh them lives on.