Color in Music and Color in Words. Have We Got the Christmas Blues?

What can possibly the concepts of colour in music and colour in words have in common? (It’s a sort of reply to our latest post)

[I know, it's Christmas time, how boring a few scattered thoughts on such stuff today. Merry Christmas in any case to all of you!]

Tone Colour in Music

Colour in music may refer to timbre, which is what allows us to distinguish a clarinet from an oboe, a sax from a trumpet and so on.

Usually even just a single instrument (the horn, the trumpet or the piano for example) can change its sound according to how it is played and to who is playing it, so we somewhat have different colours within the same timbre.

A piano played by different artists can produce very different results. I find the piano amazing since it can greatly vary its timbre especially considering that piano tones are directly produced by a mechanism and the only thing a performer can do is just a variation in velocity, ie in the speed and strength in which a key is pressed.

“When Ferruccio Busoni played [the piano] – Heinrich Neuhaus wrote (Neuhaus was Sviatoslav Richter‘s and Emil Gilels‘ teacher) – you heard the brass of trumpets, the trill of violins and the soft chords of harps.”

Classical Guitar. Expressive but Neglected

The classical guitar is even richer in colours than the piano [but unfortunately very few great musicians wrote music for this delightful instrument.]

Not only for the very sensitive human fingers (especially with no nails!) touching the strings directly without any mechanical intervention, but also for the right hand (the plucking one) that can move above, over, or below the sound hole thus greatly modifying the sound. Additionally the same string on a guitar sounds differently when plucked by the index, medium or ring-finger fingertips (again, with no nails). Last and not least, the same note can (pitch) be played on different strings, which varies the colour even more.

[As a break listen to Filomena Moretti from Sardinia (Italy) playing a prelude and fugue by Bach on the guitar. I wonder what her playing would be like without nails. Notice how the sound changes as she moves her hand from and to the guitar sound hole.]


In some languages the connection between the concepts of colour and of timbre is more evident: Klangfarbe is musical timbre in German (Farbe = colour), and in English we have timbre but also tone colour, an exact equivalent of Klangfarbe.

Do We See ‘la Vie en Rose’?

Paul Costopoulos: “Someone feeling sad has the “blues”; we are “green” with envy or we are “green behind the ears” when we are new to something. One may be “red” with confusion and we see “la vie en rose”. Tying colors and feelings is nothing new and music is feelings.”

MoR: “Colours and feelings. Interesting. I never heard “green behind the ears”, but numerous are the English phrases I don’t know.”

Sledpress: “Color is vibration — the wavelengths of light — so sound full of vibrations and harmonics, created as one vibration overlaps another, could be called sound full of color. I remember reading a saying of Goethe about the world being composed of the “deeds and sufferings of light.”

MoR: “Goethe’s theory of colours is a splendid nightmare. And I wonder how these waves being so different can interact. Unknown territory.”

Sledpress: “I have a special fondness for splendid nightmares, like phlogiston (…) I do think there has to be some intrinsic connection between the measurable effects of certain types of vibrations on the human system and the subjective experience of those colors, sounds and so on.”

MoR: “Various are the effects of sound and colour vibrations on people and I ignore the progress of psychology and neuropsychology of colour and music in order to escape subjectiveness. I know there’s a lot of music and colour therapy based on some research being made.”

[Have another break by listening to these amazing Japanese little girls. They are in my view almost perfect artists already at their age!]

Colour in Writing

Mario: “And colour in writing? Forgetful you are.”

MoR: “Right. To me colour in writing is given by the vivacity of images. Examples of very colourful writers are to me Homer, Tolstoy, Gramsci, Garcia Marquez or Garcia Lorca. Also in the real sense that I see colours when I read them. Here, as with music (although I left it unexpressed above,) we have what is called synaesthesia.”

Mario: “Synaesthesia?”

MoR: “It’s when the sensory perceptions of taste, vision, hearing, etc.. mix. We receive them from our sensory organs, but they are processed, and sometimes mixed, by our brain.”

Mario: “So sounds can evoke colours, or the vision of an apple its taste, and so on.”

MoR: “Exactly. In literature the synaesthetic effect of colour could be triggered by the vivacity of images. The authors mentioned are full of glowing images. So if I say that a writer’s text is colourful I refer to his / her vigour, vitality, expressiveness as for the images he / she evokes. In music it is clear that tone colours – but also expressiveness of melodies etc. – can favour synaesthesia.”


Mario: “How do you know those girls are Japanese and not Chinese?”

MoR: “Because a Chinese friend of mine has told me.” :-)

Back to Work! Cloppete, Cloppete, Cloppete …

Fatigue on a wall near Capitol Hill, in Washington, DC. Click for credits

When I started this blog I partly drew on some ideas from a diary I had kept for no specific purpose. I had been writing leisurely on it while listening to lovely music and had cherished every moment I was able to get back to it, editing sentences and musing on my pages.

Those mysterious yellow characters on a black background! And the music! What a delightful experience, my imagination flying without any obligation and only for the sake of it!

After starting the Man of Roma blog, most of this diary ideas having been used up after a few months, I began writing and thinking directly for my web log. I though gradually realised that the two experiences – my totally purposeless diary and this blog, a man-of-the-street research on all that is Roman – were very different.

My blogging activity in fact implied compulsion and purpose, readers had started to appear with their feedback, I felt I had to be up to their expectations (real or imaginary,) up to my expectations, and so on.

On the contrary my diary had been the realm of playful freedom.

I wish I could get back to that state of mind, but I don’t know if I can.

It could be I am at my best in totally purposeless activities – something my family is in the mood to remind me, now and then (and probably the reason I couldn’t make a steady profession out of my writing or musical inclinations.)

Marcus Tullius Cicero

Let me play with giants a bit. Cicero [see image above,] even in his letters to his family, wrote in order to acquire fame. Montaigne instead wrote just for the hell of it. An interesting comparison – fame, or any other purpose, such as money; and mere pleasure, art for art’s sake – which can correspond to two categories of writers, bloggers etc. Although one cannot say Montaigne had absolutely no purpose.

Magister would certainly exclaim: “Playful freedom? Yours is the typical attitude of the spineless bohemian. Discipline is all, and any creative activity is a careful, painful, purposeful construction.”


I remember once Maryann (together with the Commentator, recently) pushed me in this way:

“Back to work Man of Roma!
Cloppete cloppete cloppete …”

[One of the funniest comments I've ever received]

In Absolute Asymmetry I Want to Find Symmetry

The Chandos portrait, believed to depict William Shakespeare. Public Domain

Wittgenstein wrote in his diary in 1950:

“I cannot understand Shakespeare because in absolute asymmetry I want to find symmetry. It seems to me that his plays are huge sketches, not finished paintings, roughed out by one who, so to say, can afford to do anything. I can understand those who admire his art and call it the most sublime, but I don’t like it. I can then understand those who are left speechless in front of his plays, although it looks to me we misunderstand Shakespeare when we admire him in the same way for example Beethoven is admired.”

[Wittgenstein, Vermischte Bemerkungen, 1977 Suhrkamp Verlag Frankfurt am Main. Translation by ManofRoma]

Shakespeare and the Continent

While Austrian philosopher Wittgenstein ( 1889 – 1951 ) laments a lack of symmetry in Shakespeare’s art, it is well known how French Voltaire ( 1694 – 1778 ) commented on Hamlet and his author (the French original text first, then a translation by Man of Roma):

“Je suis bien loin assurément de justifier en tout la tragédie d’ Hamlet: c’est une pièce grossière et barbare, qui ne serait pas supportée par la plus vile populace de la France et de l’Italie. [...] On croirait que cet ouvrage est le fruit de l’imagination d’un sauvage ivre. Mais parmi ces irrégularités grossières, qui rendent encore aujourd’hui le théâtre anglais si absurde et barbare, on trouve dans Hamlet, par une bizarrerie encore plus grande, des traites sublimes, dignes des plus grands génies. Il semble que la nature se soit plue à rassembler dans la tête de Shakespeare ce qu’on peut imaginer de plus fort et de plus grand, avec ce que la grossièreté sans esprit peut avoir de plus bas et de plus détestable.” (qtd. from Voltaire, Francois-Marie Arouet. Oeuvres Complètes de Voltaire. Vol. IV. Paris, Garnier Freres, 1877-85. 501-502.)

“I am certainly very far from justifying in all Hamlet’s tragedy: it is an unrefined and barbarous play, that would not be tolerated by the meanest populace of France and Italy. We would believe that this work is the fruit of the imagination of a drunken savage. But among all these unrefined irregularities, which to this day make the English theater so absurd and barbarous, we find in Hamlet, by a yet greater oddity, sublime elements worthy of the greatest geniuses. It seems like nature had delight in collecting within Shakespeare’s head all that we can imagine of what is greatest and most powerful, together with what rudeness deprived of wit can contain of what is lowest and most repulsive”.

Hitler and a boy who might be Wittgenstein. Linz RoyalSchool in 1903. Public Domain

I will just add a note, the relationship between ‘the structure of a work of art’ and ‘the structure of the world’ seeming too complex a topic here. First of all I personally adore both Shakespeare and a lot of English poetry (it’s been a drug for me for really many years) although in my view – the view of a passionate dilettante – impeccably polished and musical English verses came out only from Alexander Pope on. What I mean is that this infallible taste for perfectly refined verses, which Latin writers (Italian, French etc.) seem to have almost innate but which originates from hard work as well, was attained by English and British poets only at a later time; or so it seems to me, problem probably being the pronunciation of some words changing over time which makes a few or numerous verses – even of John Milton, for example – poor in rhythm. This observation should be checked.

Italian version

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