Forschungsprojekt CPiMaR

The Ear and the Eye: Historical and Contemporary Approaches to Navigating the Musical Octave Using Color

Mara Winter

01.09.2021 – 01.10.2022

The Ear and the Eye: Historical and Contemporary Approaches to Navigating the Musical Octave Using Color

This project, developed within the program "Creative Practice in Music and Research", will be structured according to two aspects. The first is to organize and reflect on the numerous historical sources which relate the rational gradation and perception of color to the various approaches to division and "coloration" of the musical octave by use of interval ratios in the 16th and 17th centuries. The second aspect of this project will be to develop a personal, color-informed intonation system and corresponding notation practice with the aim of composing a cycle of new pieces for the Renaissance traverso consort.

The earliest and most influential proposal of interval-color relationships came from Aristotle's De sensu et sensibilibus, in which the philosopher connected the ratios of consonant intervals with the varied combination of lightness and darkness to create color:

  1. "[...]Such, then, is a possible way of conceiving the existence of a plurality of colors besides the white and black; and we may suppose that many are the result of a ratio; for they may be juxtaposed in the ratio of 3 to 2, or of 3 to 4, or in ratios expressible by other numbers."
  2. De sens. (439b20)

From Aristotle's foundational theories about color perception and music came a handful of approaches, particularly in Italy roughly between 1555 - 1650, to the navigation of not only the consonant intervals in the musical octave, but more complex pitch relationships via systems of interval ratios assigned to various colors. Some more accessible examples of these octave-color systems have survived in the treatises of Mainetti (1555), Mocenigo (1581), and Guidi (1626), among others. In a broader philosophical sense, several Italian music theorists including Gioseffo Zarlino and Nicola Vicentino related the reaction of the ear to complex sound to the reaction of the eye to color. Despite the obvious importance of this connection between color and musical perception to theorists in the past, it is unclear how each individual theorist arrived at his own codified system of particular connections between the intervals and their assigned colors. Could these have simply been attempts to organize more intuitive methods of navigating pitch space into rational, numbers-based systems? What can we learn about musical expression and the perception of modality in Renaissance music by understanding the role of color in the surrounding cultural context?

The traverso consort was chosen for this new composition project for its unique combination of pitch flexibility with the ability of the instruments to enact specific intervals. They were chosen additionally in order to seek out as-yet-unrealized sound possibilities resulting from the use of historical solmization techniques and other idiomatic approaches to making sound on these simple-system flutes. The pieces themselves will explore strategies to deepen the perception of sound through physical, intuitive tuning practices directed through the use of fluctuating beatings. These physical approaches to intonation will be complemented by the occasional, gentle visitation of proportional pitch relationships.

The overarching goal of this project is to develop a concert program which combines these new compositions for traverso consort with the highly-creative enharmonic and chromatic madrigals of Nicola Vicentino. My idea is to facilitate an imaginary dialog between two conceptually-related but strategically divergent, colorful intonation practices. I hope that this will inspire others to adopt ideas from less conventional, historical music sources in order to deepen their own contemporary musical practices.


  • Projektdauer

    01.09.2021 – 01.10.2022

  • Finanzierung

    Schola Cantorum Basiliensis / FHNW

    Hochschule für Musik Basel /FHNW

  • Projektpartner / Kooperationen


    HSM/FHNW: Caspar Johannes Walter

    SCB/FHNW: Anne Smith, Martin Kirnbauer

  • Links