The English language operates in at least two sensory realms: the visual (written word) and the sonic (spoken word). Many of the words we use also operate in both of these worlds. With a kind of synesthesia embedded in the language itself, we use words like “color,” “harmony,” and “composition” to talk about visual art as well as music. The meaning of each word that has this dual function pivots a bit with each context, as if the ears were pointing towards the eyes (or vice versa). These cross-modal associations may help us understand one art form in the context of another, but may also cause confusion. Although we use language with these two senses, certain aspects only exist in one context or the other. Regional accents, pacing, and volume are intrinsic to spoken language. Punctuation, fonts, and spelling are idiomatic to written language. Can music have an equivalent to regional accent? Does visual art have punctuation?
My improvisational game piece Raw Shack plays with this dual nature of language and it’s ability to inspire spontaneous musical creation.
An examination of some common visual-musical terms follows:
In a painting, a dash of bright red on a dark background could be an accent, a visual emphasis sticking out from its context. In music, an accent is expressed primarily through loudness, a note or chord that sticks out through volume.
Brightness equated with loudness, in context.
Chroma basically means or refers to color, the aspect of hue in the visible spectrum. In Western music, chromatic tones are the extra notes outside of the diatonic scale, the black notes on the piano, half-steps, the additional tonal “colors.” They are indicated in music notation by “accidentals,” as if the tones were unfortunate mistakes.
Hue equated with pitch.
In the visual realm, we identity color primarily through hue (red, blue, green, etc), but also with the necessary characteristics of saturation and value. In music, color generally refers to “timbre,” the quality of a sound emergent from its spectral characteristics and overtone structure (i.e. what makes the same note played on a flute sound different from a cello).
Color equated with timbre.
Generally treated as synonymous with “contrast” in the visual arts (the counterpoint of dark and light, small and large, soft and hard edged, etc). In music, counterpoint refers to the play of two simultaneous melodies and how they move in relation to each other.
Contrast of two opposing characteristics equated with the relationship of two voices.
In both realms, composition can refer to a single complete work, or the art of combining elements together to create complete works.
Arrangement in visual space equated with arrangement in auditory space.
A flat painting or design operates only in two dimensions, no illusion of shadow or three dimensional form, no texture. In music, a flat tone is one that has been lowered, either by design or mistake.
Lack of depth equated with a lowering of pitch.
The electromagnetic bands of visible light can be divided into frequencies which correspond to areas of color, with lower frequencies associated with red, increasing to higher frequencies at violet. Frequency in the realm of sound corresponds to our determination of pitch: how high or low a tone is.
Color equated with pitch.
A harmonious work of visual art seems to just feel right, with all of its component parts working together. There is also the concept of “color harmonies,” sets of colors that seem aesthetically pleasing. Harmony in music is more particular, referring to the combination of tones which may produce chords or clusters. Some consider harmony to be synonymous with timbre.
Pleasing combination of all components equated with the combination of tonal components.
In visual art, key is often described as high or low to indicate an overall lightness or darkness of composition. In music, key refers to a tonal center of gravity and the relationship of other tones to it. Instruments may also have physical keys used to elicit particular tones.
Overall brightness value equated with tonal relationships.
A pure color is archetypal, the kind you would see in a rainbow, not muddy or pastel. Pure sounds in music are somewhat mythical, but basic waveforms produced by computers and electronics are often considered pure tones.
Archetypal equated to electronically generated.
A kind of repetition or pattern in visual art can be referred to as rhythm. It implies movement which could be associated with dance and music. The rhythm of music has to do with organization in time and how elements repeat temporally, often in relation to a pulse.
Repetition equated with temporal organization.
A work of visual art may imply the way something else feels, or may have an actual tactile component. The texture of music refers to its layers of sonic activity, dense or thin.
Tactility equated to density.
The overall mood or gestalt of a visual work is conveyed by its tone. A sonic tone is a singular event and basic component of music, like a single note played by an instrument.
General equated with specific.
In the visual and physical realm, volume is the amount of space that a substance or object occupies, or that is enclosed within a container. In music, volume refers to loudness, amplitude.
Space equated with intensity.