Association of music with colors crosses cultural boundaries

Research shows humans share a common emotional palette regarding music and color

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Image credit: Flickr/GARRYNIGHT


Seasoned musicians know that if they want to "bring the mood down," they'll play a song in a minor key. Some may not be able to articulate why minor chords have the effect that they do, other than there's something about flattening the third note in a major chord that adds a somber tone to the sound.

But it's not for musicians to know why; they just have to play. Those kinds of questions are best left to people such as UC Berkeley vision scientist Stephen Palmer, whose research shows a strong cross-cultural link between music and colors.

Palmer and his team recruited nearly 100 men and women for the experiment, in which participants listened to 18 classical music pieces from well-known composers (Bach, Mozart, Brahms) that both varied in tempo and employed either major or minor keys. Half of the study participants were based in the San Francisco area, while the other half were in Guadalajara, Mexico.

According to UC Berkeley:

In the first experiment, participants were asked to pick five of 37 colors that best matched the music to which they were listening. The palette consisted of vivid, light, medium, and dark shades of red, orange, yellow, green, yellow-green, green, blue-green, blue, and purple.

Participants consistently picked bright, vivid, warm colors to go with upbeat music and dark, dull, cool colors to match the more tearful or somber pieces. Separately, they rated each piece of music on a scale of happy to sad, strong to weak, lively to dreary and angry to calm.

"Surprisingly, we can predict with 95 percent accuracy how happy or sad the colors people pick will be based on how happy or sad the music is that they are listening to," Palmer said in a statement.

Results of the study were published this week in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

Regarding the cross-cultural affinity for music-color association, Palmer said, "The results were remarkably strong and consistent across individuals and cultures and clearly pointed to the powerful role that emotions play in how the human brain maps from hearing music to seeing colors."

Now, in terms of basic musical forms and structures, what people are exposed to in the U.S. and Mexico aren't dramatically different. That's why Palmer's next project is interesting. He and his research team will conduct a similar study in Turkey, where scales in traditional music go beyond major and minor.

"We know that in Mexico and the U.S. the responses are very similar," Palmer said. "But we don't yet know about China or Turkey."

By the way, if you're interested in learning more about how music affects the human brain, I recommend This Is Your Brain On Music by Daniel J. Levitin, a professor of psychology and music at McGill University in Montreal.

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