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The Colour of Sound: Emotional Response to Music Tonality

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Event Series Event Series: The Quintessence of Music

November 20, 2021 @ 6:00 pm 8:00 pm CET

with Donna Coleman
pianist and performance researcher

Saturday November 20
9:00am PST  | 12:00pm EST  | 5:00pm GMT  |  6:00pm CET

On top of all this I present a fine case of coloured hearing. Perhaps “hearing” is not quite accurate, since the colour sensation seems to be produced by the very act of my orally forming a given letter while I imagine its outline. The long a of the English alphabet . . . has for me the tint of weathered wood, but a French a evokes polished ebony. This black group also includes a hard g (vulcanised rubber) and r (a sooty rag being ripped). Oatmeal n, noodle-limp l, and the ivory-backed hand mirror of o take care of the whites. . . . Passing on to the blue group, there is steely x, thundercloud z, and huckleberry k. Since a subtle interaction exists between sound and shape, I see q as browner than k, while s is not the light blue of c, but a curious mixture of azure and mother-of-pearl.

 Vladimir Nabokov, Speak, Memory: An Autobiography Revisited

Light and sound are waves. Light waves behave differently from sound waves, but they have wave-ness in common. Colour is a result of the refraction (bending, movement) of light. Sound is the result of air being moved. Light and sound also have in common the fact that they are perceived by an entity. It is not inconceivable that a colour perception could evoke or be evoked by a sonic perception, a phenomenon known as synaesthesia.

This two-hour webinar explores the emotional response to sound as potentially distinct and discrete experiences depending upon the key of the musical composition being played, along with the possibility that the listener may hear colour.

In the years 1722 and again in 1744, Johann Sebastian Bach wrote twenty-four preludes and fugues, each in a different key, for the two volumes known as Das Wohltemperierte Klavier (The Well-Tempered Keyboard). The “tempered” scale, which had gradually evolved out of the Medieval church modes, consists of twelve pitches, each of which can be cast as “major” or “minor,” for a total of twenty-four “keys.”

Selected preludes from this collection of forty-eight will be performed, and participants will be invited to make note of any and all perceptions that arise. Discussion of these responses along with general reflections upon various colour theories and the nature of perception will follow. The music of other composers who assign colour to key, in particular, Olivier Messiaen and Alexander Skryabin (Scriabin), and composers who sought to create music with “no key” (Anton Webern, Ruth Crawford) will also be presented for listeners’ responses.

On Saturday November 20, Donna will open our monthly Community Call with a presentation and followed by discussion and Q&A.


Join our Zoom meeting via the following link: https://us02web.zoom.us/j/82279864300

If you would like to participate, have any questions or need any help just contact Eleanor Peat: eleanor@paricenter.com

Recommended Reading:

Visualising Visions: The Significance of Messiaen’s Colours by Håkon Austbø

Scriabin’s Color Symbolism in Music by Ursula Rehn Wolfman

Dr Donna Coleman is a multi-award-winning concert pianist, recording artist, author, performance researcher and philosopher, and master teacher whose career spans a half-century, of which more than half has been based in Australia. She is also an accomplished weaver and photographer and an amateur but passionate astronomer and archaeologist with a keen interest in the culture of the Indigenous peoples of Australia and the United States. As Head of Keyboard and of Postgraduate Studies at the Victorian College of the Arts in Melbourne, she convened weekly thought-provoking seminars that explored relationships between music and other disciplines. Donna is writing a book entitled Dancing with the Piano, a collection of essays distilled from these sessions and from her many years of phenomenological engagement with her ultimate dance partner, the piano.

photo credit: Peter Paul Geoffrion


November 20, 2021
6:00 pm – 8:00 pm CET