Music to Colors


Luca Tanzini

Multimedia Laboratory, University of Siena
via dei termini 6
53100 Siena, Italy
+39 333 4782 263




The final outcome of early 20th Century thought was to make pure cinema as visual music and express oneself through a rhythm that stood for nothing but itself. But as Antonin Artaud wrote in 1927, “The idea of a pure cinema is wrong, as it is wrong in any art form to enforce a principle upon it.” Music to Colors takes it a step further. It is concentrated on life energy, the consciousness of living, not objective art. Rhythm is only important as it involves a natural process of creation and destruction of life energy. Music to Color is only one “instrument” that allows us to realize the creation and destruction cycle.  


Eye, images, Ear, sounds.


Plato believed that the world was made according to musical principles and harmony and rhythm ruled man’s inner self. 

Aristotle wrote: “Given that some re-create the world through figures and colors, and others through sound, in the arts as well, all of us re-create by means of rhythm, dialogue, and harmony, and these or those separately or mingled.”

Since its origins, Occidental Europe has been teeming with theories that link aural sensation to visual sensation, music to painting. Music theorists were the first to approach the idea. They tried to create a “fusion” of music and color by creating an instrument that could produce different colors for different musical notes.

The first attempt at “painted music” was in 1725 and 1735, when the Jesuit Louis-Bertrand Castel introduced the clavecin oculaire (ocular clavichord). The instrument was meant to paint sounds with corresponding colors in such a way, claimed Castel, that a deaf person could enjoy and judge the beauty of a musical piece through the colors it created, and a blind person could judge colors through the sound. The instrument functioned like a traditional clavichord, excepting that each note was associated, in accordance with Castel’s own exhaustive studies, with a particular color that would be displayed upon the playing of each note.





On the 16th of January 1877 Bainbridge Bishop patented a coloring organ that simultaneously played music and projected colored lights through illuminated windows. 

In 1895 the Englishman Wallace Rimington conceived of a small music box that contained many apertures with colored glass and an electric wire. The apertures could open and close – projecting colors on a white screen – by playing a soundless keyboard.

The construction of such instruments continued throughout the 19th Century in the attempt to discover the “scientific” link between sound and color, but the period that saw the greatest experimentation was the first three decades of the 20th Century. In that period, everything was tried: organs that produced music or color, or keyboards that created colors without making a sound. Nevertheless, the marriage between music and color could also be made by endowing the picture with a temporal dimension like that of music. This concept saw a flowering of experimentation and theoretical hypotheses in Europe in the 10 years preceding the Great War.

The futurist brothers Ginanni-Corradini, better known as Arnaldo Gina and Bruno Corra, conceived of chromatic music while they were studying Byzantine mosaics in Ravenna. They declared their idea in the manifesto Arte in 1910, claiming that colors create both a harmonious music and a sonorous one. They could, they exclaimed, express feeling and states of being with notes and equally compose harmonies, motifs and symphonies. “You can create a new and more rudimentary form of pictorial art by using a mass of color harmoniously mingled, one on top of the other, in such a way as to please the eye without representing a figure. This would correspond to what in music is called harmony; we can therefore call it chromatic harmony. Like music (a series of notes over time), color can give shape to a temporal art that is an assortment of chromatic tones successively hitting the eye, a movement of color, a chromatic thread.” Corra sought to put the idea of music to color into practice; he built a piano with 28 keys that correspond to 8 differently colored electric lamps. By pushing one key, a color would be projected over a background. By pushing many keys, the colors would form a harmonious light.

One of the few to see things clearly was the french director Henri Fescourt. “Visual music,” he said, “is a possibility and manner for the cinema of tomorrow. To what should it apply?”


The avant-garde sought to form, and develop to its fullest, experimentation in a wrong way.

Music to Color takes it a step further. It is concentrated on life energy, the consciousness of living, not objective art. Rhythm is only important as it involves a natural process of creation and destruction of life energy. Music to Colors is only one “instrument” that allows us to realize the creation and destruction cycle.

It involves a system of mixed technologies (analogical – digital) that allow us to realize and adapt the ideas of the first experimenters in a live music performance.

The first part of the system is an interface Pitch to Midi converter that transforms an audio analogue sign that can come from any sound source into Midi digital messages.

The Pitch to Midi interface converter is connected to a simple Midi interface that receives and transmits signals to and from a computer’s serial or USB port.

It should be made clear that the Midi protocol does not transmit sound, but information relative to the process. This information is played by one or more instruments hooked up to the system and transmitted to a computer.

The Midi messages are digital signals made up of numerical sequences in binary form that then travel in serial form. The amount of information the Midi program can carry depends on the instruments being used and the manner in which they are being used. Music to Colors creates a literal communication line between the musician’s sound and the computer’s image.

There is nothing hyper high tech or avant-garde about the system because it has been created with computers and instruments by now in disuse, with a completely different approach from the technology of VJs that has been in fashion for some years now.

In fact, with Music to Colors, you can use any kind of video material. This means that the usual feedback will not be the result of automatic computerized processes. Instead, the “automatism” factor will prime the visual rhythm of the images recorded during the acts (photographs, video takes).

The flow and rhythm of the visual will avoid narration and instead look to dismantle the “record of the experience” and thus constructing a natural platform of Music to Colors.



I would like to tank to the Situationists International.


1. Corra, B. Musica Cromatica, in Il pastore, il gregge e la zampogna,  1912.

2. Deslaw, E. Cinema and Robots, in Close Up, n.3, 1927.

3. Artaud, A. Le cinéma et l’Abstraction, in Le Monde illustré, 1929.

4. Debord, G. Contre le Cinéma. Institute of Comparative Vandalism, 1964.

5. Tanzini, L. RandomCinema. NEXT conference. Karlstad SE, 2000.