The Palette of Musical Colors

Johann Wolfgang von Goethe. Farbenkreis zur Symbolisierung des menschlichen Geistes. 1809


As a musician, I used to cringe at the thought that art might have anything to do with math (a subject I dreaded, and still dread for the most part). Music, I felt, was something to be perceived, experienced, and understood emotionally, not calculated and formulated.

After years of devotion to musical practice in one form or the other, I have to say, I was right.

I was also wrong.

My understanding of pitch began to transform when I started to learn what eventually became my principle instrument: the sitar. I threw myself experientially and emotionally headfirst into a musical system in which I found myself responsible, at every turn, for all aspects of the music, including the basic intonation of the scales. I quickly began to notice differences in the tuning of certain pitches; my ears were telling me things that my background in equal tempered systems never had.

Years later, the responsibility and task of determining the intonation of a complete musical system every time I sit down with my instrument, is what has ultimately led me to the perception of mathematical and scientific principles that are in accord with the aesthetic experience of music. Music arose out of the fundamental nature of sound, and the two are inherently interrelated.

A good analogy to musical pitch is the painter’s palette and the color wheel. From a set of basic primary colors, the artist can mix many intermediate shades, all part of a continuous gradation. Just like musical pitch, colors arise from our perception of certain periodic waveforms, and are perceived in relation to one another by the senses. In music, as in visual art, the plane on which we intuit these interrelationships is that of feeling, emotion and beauty.

This blog is devoted to exploring the palette of musical colors.