Our Emotions Match Colors to Music, Says Berkeley Study

Email a Friend

Next time a classical radio host introduces a piece of music, listen carefully to see if they cite the work's color along with its title, composer and opus number.

According to a study by the University of California, Berkeley, we are hardwired to associate anything from Ravel to Radiohead with a particular hue from the color spectrum. For instance, Mozart’s perky Flute Concerto No. 1 in G major is most often associated with bright yellow and orange, whereas his dour Requiem in D minor is more likely to be linked to dark, bluish gray. 

Vision scientist Stephen Palmer and his team recruited 100 men and women for the experiment, which had the subjects listen to 18 selections of orchestral music by Bach, Mozart and Brahms. Half of the participants were from the San Francisco area and half were from Mexico. The musical selections were organized by tempo (fast/medium/slow) and mode (major/minor), as UC Berkeley reported:

“In the first experiment, participants were asked to pick five of 37 colors that best matched the music to which they were listening. The palette consisted of vivid, light, medium, and dark shades of red, orange, yellow, green, yellow-green, green, blue-green, blue, and purple.

Participants consistently picked bright, vivid, warm colors to go with upbeat music and dark, dull, cool colors to match the more tearful or somber pieces. Separately, they rated each piece of music on a scale of happy to sad, strong to weak, lively to dreary and angry to calm.”

People in both the United States and Mexico linked the same pieces of classical orchestral music with the same colors. “This suggests that humans share a common emotional palette,” the researchers said in a statement.

Results of the study were published this week in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. It might provide insight into synesthesia, a rare sensory phenomenon in which musical sounds are perceived as specific colors and objects (György Ligeti, Olivier Messiaen and Hélène Grimaud are among those who have experienced this).

The Berkeley research appears to be consistent with a 1987 study, which sampled a much larger sample -- more than 1200 participants ages 3 to 78 -- and concluded that color associations with music are not an acquired trait but hardwired into our brains.

Palmer and his research team plan to study participants in Turkey where traditional music employs a wider range of scales than just major and minor.

Listen to this performance of the Mozart Flute Concerto and tell us what color you "hear" in the comments box below.