The Color of Music

Karen B. Schloss, Patrick Lawler and Stephen E. Palmer

We investigated the relations among color, music, and emotion for the 37 colors of the Berkeley Color Project: saturated, desaturated, light, and dark shades of red, orange, yellow, yellow-green, green, blue-green, blue, and purple, plus white, black, and 3 grays. To study color/music relations, participants viewed all 37 colors while listening to 18 orchestral selections in major and minor keys by Bach, Mozart, and Brahms that had slow, moderate, and fast tempos. For each selection, participants chose the five most-consistent and the five least-consistent colors. Across composers, faster tempos and major keys were both associated with brighter, warmer, more saturated colors than slower tempos and minor keys. To determine whether affective responses might mediate these color/emotion associations, we also studied the relation between the color samples and emotion words and between the musical selections and emotion words. Participants produced color/emotion associations by rating the consistency between 16 emotion words and each of the 37 colors. Strong associations were found between many emotion words and colorimetric dimensions: e.g., happy, lively, and enthusiastic with light-warm-saturated colors; sad, dreary, and unenthusiastic with dark-cool-desaturated colors; strong and aggressive with warm-saturated colors; and weak and shy with cool-desaturated colors. Participants also produced music/emotion associations by rating the consistency between each emotion word and each of the 18 musical selections. We found a strong link between the affective response to musical selections and the affective response to the corresponding chosen colors. Specifically, there was a strong positive correlation between the ratings of emotional associations to the 18 musical selections and the ratings of emotional association to the colors people chose as most/least consistent with the same musical selection. This finding suggests that effective response may mediate the relations between color and music.