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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.]

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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.”

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

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

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