Color–Tone Analogies

2 Transferring the consonance of tone intervals to color blends

The first reduction of the all-encompassing analogies of prehistoric times took place in the ancient world, when the numerous components involved were reduced to tone intervals, color pairings, taste qualities, and the planets, among which harmonious relations were established on the basis of seven-point scales.

Until the eighteenth century, seeing and hearing, as the human being’s predominant senses for the perception of the environment, and occasionally also smelling and tasting, were structured by creating analogies based on the concept of numerical equality.

These transfers were linked to the idea of a comprehensive theory of harmony, in which the world order and esthetics are based on numbers and numerical ratios and can also be expressed by these.[1]

In this respect, the findings by the Pythagoreans that traced musical harmony back to relationships between whole numbers represented an important innovation.

The number seven played a fundamental role in music theory as it was then developing, given that it encompassed the entire musical scale. Accordingly, Aristotle also changed the color scale from white – black – red – ochre yellow to white – yellow – red – purple – green – blue – black, that is, with the colors arranged according to brightness and thus in correspondence with their perception. He also transposed the consonances of tone intervals (octave, fifth, fourth) to blends of colors.

During the seventeenth century, the clearly defined principles of consonance were applied to pairs of colors, which led to a kind of harmonic theory for painting. In this process, the analogy between tone intervals and color pairs was considered in isolation from the other senses. Thus, in 1650, Marin Cureau de la Chambre, following in Aristotle’s footsteps, first transferred the musical consonances of octave, fifth, and fourth to colors, and then continued to differentiate this system until he was able to determine degrees of consonance and even dissonance for all possible pairs of colors.

The concept of the harmony of the spheres is based on the same idea, according to which the movement of the planets generates sounds that together result in celestial harmonics, which we cannot, however, hear. Cf. Hans Schavernoch, Die Harmonie der Sphären. Die Geschichte der Idee des Welteinklangs und der Seeleneinstimmung (Freiburg: Alber, 1981).