Color Organs

by Jörg Jewanski

1 The Emergence of Color Organs in the Eighteenth Century

2 The Improvement of Color Organs as a Result of Technical Innovations in the Nineteenth Century

3 From Color Organs to Light Kinetics in the Early Twentieth Century

4 Different Functions of Color Organs in the Early Twentieth Century

5 The Equal Status of Color and Form — From the Color Organ to Abstract Film

6 Colored-Light Displays as Autonomous Light Art

7 Light Kinetics


A color organ is a device, usually controlled from a keyboard, with which music can be visualized or a pure display of colors presented as an autonomous art form. The inventors of such instruments often enthusiastically devoted large parts of their lives to their idea, constantly made technical improvements, expended large amounts of time and money, but in most cases invested their energy more in technical advancements than in aesthetic issues. Many of these inventors were convinced they were the first to have conceived and built such an instrument. They were often pianists, artists from other fields, but there were also chemists, physicists, mathematicians, and mystics. The first concept for a color organ can be traced back to 1724. In the nineteenth century, the idea of pure color-light art increasingly became the focus. With the advent of film, color-light art in abstract film removed itself both from its realization by means of a piano keyboard as well as from its theoretically reinforced dependence on music. Thus autonomous light kinetics emerged as a combination of form, motion, and light.


1 The Emergence of Color Organs in the Eighteenth Century

In his Opticks (1704), Isaac Newton expounded on the relationship between amplitudes in the color spectrum and notes within a scale, thus presenting the first physical demonstration of a color-tone analogy. The logical implementation of that theory into practice was a device capable of the musical visualizations of colors and/or tones. The first one to follow this idea was the French mathematician Louis-Bertrand Castel (1688–1757), who developed a color organ he called Clavecin oculaire, according to him inspired by the composer Jean-Philippe Rameau.[1] All further color organs in the 18th century resulted out of the reception of Castel’s ideas in France, Germany, and England.

In 1739, Castel’s Clavecin became known in Germany through a brochure issued by the composer Georg Philipp Telemann, who had visited Castel in Paris and viewed a preliminary version of his instrument.[2] The naturalist Johann Gottlob Krüger thereupon occupied himself with his own Farbenclavecymbel, and in 1743 published the first ever sketch of a color organ.

An anonymous (Ocular Harpsichord), Edme-Gilles Guyot (Musique oculaire), Johann Samuel Halle (Farbenleyer), as well as Karl von Eckartshausen also designed similar devices modeled on Castel’s Clavecin. By the late eighteenth century, the notion of an emotional impact of the colors had become increasingly important.

Halle’s thoughts in the descriptions of his instrument seem to echo Moses Mendelssohn’s Über die Empfindungen (1755), while the mystic Eckartshausen discussed the color organ in a music-therapeutic context.

2 The Improvement of Color Organs as a Result of Technical Innovations in the Nineteenth Century

The color organs of the nineteenth century are characterized less by aesthetic than by technological progress: candles were replaced by brighter lamps. As early as 1789, Erasmus Darwin suggested using Argand lamps (advanced oil lamps) as an improvement on Guyot’s Musique oculaire.[3] Bulbs with carbon filaments appeared after 1840. Electrical contactsreplaced the mechanical coupling of the keys with lamps — in 1893, William Schooling spoke of an “electrical color-organ.” For those instruments that linked individual notes with individual colors, the color-tone analogy was in most cases the same as in Krüger’s 1743 color harpsichord.

In addition, models were developed to demonstrate color harmonies, such as, for instance, D. D. Jameson’s apparatus for colorific exhibition and W. F. Philippy’s Farben-Instrument, but also instruments that alternatively enabled the simultaneous perception of sounds and colors like Bainbridge Bishop’s Color Organ. A new development was the gradual dissociation from concrete models of analogy toward the increasingly prevalent idea of free color play (mobile color) as an art form, which was pursued by Alexander Wallace Rimington (Color-Organ) and simultaneously by William Schooling as well as H. Beau and Bertrand-Taillet (piano-like device for switching on and off electric light fixtures). Fréderic Kastner’s Pyrophone occupies a special place — it was also not based on a concrete analogy, but on the physical phenomenon of singing flames.

3 From Color Organs to Light Kinetics in the Early Twentieth Century

The number of color organs sharply rose in the first third of the twentieth century for several reasons:

1. Electricity offered new technological possibilities — both for connecting the keys of the organ to the lamps and for the use of the lamps themselves. Towards the end of the nineteenth century, it was no longer as technically complicated to build a color organ as it had been in the eighteenth century; Krüger (1743) still had to integrate a stovepipe into his instrument in order to lead off the smoke produced by the candles.

2. In the last third of the nineteenth century, there was a heightened concentration on synesthesia in sensory physiology, which encouraged the development of color organs in two respects:

a) On the one hand, synesthesia was seen as further proof of the inherent union of colors and tones within the human mind, which supported existing physical-mathematical analogies.

b) On the other hand, synesthesia was symptomatic for overcoming the differentiation of the sciences, it united the humanities and natural science, and stood for a new synthesis of the mind.[4] Between 1927 and 1936, the psychologist Georg Anschütz organized four color-sound congresses in Hamburg, during which color organs and abstract films were presented.[5]

3. Both the revival of the Pythagorean idea of the harmony of the spheres at the turn of the century as well as the blossoming of theosophical views — in particular those held by Helena Blavatsky — were popular among the developers of color organs. The hidden secrets of nature were to be explored with the help of numeric proportions that served as cosmic norms. Blavatsky incorporated the known color-note scale C = red to B = violet, which was first used by Krüger in 1743, into her principal work, The Secret Doctrine (1888).

4. Alexander László, a contemporary witness who himself constructed a color-light organ, saw a further reason: Whereas the intruding catastrophe of the world war prevented any productive artistic work especially in Europe, it cannot be denied that the changed political situation was like a fresh breeze blowing through the country; new hopes were awakened, greater freedom of creative artistic work insured the bold advance of the avant-garde.[6]

With Rimington’s and Schooling’s ideas, a process began that led from the color organs of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, which relied on music, to autonomous light kinetics in the twentieth century. Toward the end of the nineteenth century, the term color organ often named a control desk for the presentation of color-light art. Beau and Bertrand-Taillet (1898), for instance, no longer referred to the device as a color organ, but as a piano-like device for switching on and off electric light fixtures.

4 Different Functions of Color Organs in the Early Twentieth Century

In the twentieth century, color organs were further refined in three ways:

1. Color organs were produced that continued to set a color against a tone in order to simultaneously hear and see music or to create a visual counterpart to the music. The following are only five of the numerous devices produced in the first two decades: James M. Loring (Musical Chromoscope, 1900) and Charles F. Wilcox (1916) left the concrete color-tone correlation open. The most important criterion in their analogy seemed to be a pleasant effect, a purely visual stimulus that had no deeper aesthetic value — comparable to today’s chains of lights at a fair — and served to entertain. What Wilcox introduced was the use of film projection, whereas Loring’s Musical Chromoscope stood for simply constructed instruments that the inventor hoped would be widely distributed.

2. Alexander Burnett Hector (Apparatus for Producing Color Music, 1912) perfected the fixed color-tone correlation through complex calculations, while at the same time Ernst Barthel (in ca. 1910) realized that such an instrument had no aesthetic value.

3. The example of engineer Preston S. Miller (1915) shows that theory and practice of the color organ are not always realized in personal union. The instrument he designed was nothing more than a machine for producing colors that he developed not to demonstrate his own model, but to render Alexander Scriabin’s luce voices in Promethée — Le Poème du feu, op. 60 (1910).

5 The Equal Status of Color and Form — From the Color Organ to Abstract Film

In 1906 in Philadelphia, the pianist Mary Hallock-Greenewalt began studying the combination of music and color, receiving at least twelve patents between 1920 and 1934 for her lightcolor instrument called Sarabet, which she used to visualize classical music with colors.[7] More than her predecessors, she moved away from static color-tone analogies and instead used alternating and merging colors, creating her own form of colored-light art.

A major problem of all color organs introduced until now, was that they lacked the possibility to design forms artistically. The punctual light sources in these devices could be turned on and off and their size and intensity could be changed; however, it was not possible to produce forms that varied over time.

This awareness led to the development of new color organs beside those that worked with precise color-tone correlations, devices capable of a complex interconnection of music, color, and form — that is, they did not only relate notes to colors, but rather music to images.

One of the pioneers in the field was pianist and composer Alexander László, who attempted to fuse two previously separate art forms, namely art in sounds — music — with art in colors — painting — into a higher unit, a new art.[8]

For his color-light music — for instance, the compositions for “colored light and piano” presented for the first time in 1925 — he used a special keyboard (Sonchromatoscope), which was hooked up to several slide projectors and also could produce forms. In addition, he no longer combined individual notes with certain colors, but created relationships between mixtures of colors and sounds.

Despite the state-of-the-art technology of the time, even in the 1920s it was still hardly possible to present moving colored forms with a color organ. Smooth visual transitions also remained difficult to produce. A reaction to these limited means was the abstract film, which explored aspects of form and motion in terms of temporal relationships and variations.

Film titles such as Lichtspiel Opus 1 by Walter Ruttmann demonstrate how closely these early abstract films were oriented toward music. He met the problem of having to work with black-and-white film stock by coloring in every single frame by hand.

The crucial difference between film and light display lies in the fact that a film captures light art on celluloid to become an immutable work of art, while color organs create it each time anew within the scope of a performance.

6 Colored-Light Displays as Autonomous Light Art

At the same time, a light art developed that in its goal toward independence ultimately led to a complete dissociation with music. Dozens of devices for the generation of often kaleidoscope-like color presentations were patented well into the 1920s that could still be referred to as color organs.[9] The most prominent representative of this trend was the American Thomas Wilfred, who, beginning in 1919, developed various models of his colored-light instrument, the Clavilux, with which he produced and projected spherical formations of colors. Color-tone analogies, however, no longer played a role. Rather, Wilfred saw his silent light art, which he referred to himself as Lumia, as a new art form. This view is related to the demand for a kinetic art — light kinetics — which began emerging around 1920, an art that obeyed its own laws and the performance of which no longer borrowed from music, not even in a technical respect by using a keyboard.

As historical antecedents of light kinetics, however, color organs represent only one of three reference points. Besides photography and film, new forms of light design were important in the theater. On the one hand, this concerned electrical light effects, in particular in productions by Adolphe Appia, who made the lighting a central creative tool in performances, and on the other hand, it concerned the ideas of individual artists such as, for example, the serpentine dances by Loïe Fuller, during which alternating colored light was projected onto her lavish costumes.[10]

Early attempts at light kinetics were in part oriented towards composition techniques and forms taken from music. In 1924, for example, Ludwig Hirschfeld-Mack performed his Reflektorische Lichtspiele at the Bauhaus in collaboration with Kurt Schwerdtfeger. He had become familiar with musical analogies through his mentor Adolf Hölzel and Paul Klee’s teachings. However, when translating musical into visual principles, he did not start out from color, but from form. In 1923 he produced a Lichtfuge (light fugue), accompanied, in his own words, by music in simple rhythms … . Lamps and masks and all the other accessories are controlled according to the musical movement, so that the temporal structure becomes very clear, and all optical movements, expansions, contractions, intersections, progressions, climaxes, and decaying sounds are underscored and enhanced.[11]

Several years later, László Moholy-Nagy demonstrated the possibility of light kinetics without reference to music. His Light-Space Modulator (1930) not only served to illustrate kinetic processes, it was in fact conceived as a light prop in order to produce different and constantly alternating projections of light and shadow.

7 Light Kinetics

The lines of development presented above continued after World War II. In the 1950s, Frank Malina, Nino Calos, Abraham Palatnik, Nicolas Schöffer, and others began producing works that in Europe and the United States established a field of autonomous light kinetics completely dissociated from music and which prevails to this day.[12]

In the tradition of Alexander László, color organs continued — and continue — to be developed that no longer link each key to a color, but above all depict moving colored forms. These include, for example, the instruments created by Natalia Sidler and Jack Ox.[13]

The light shows presented at rock concerts in the 1950s and 1960s, which continue as part of often spectacular stage shows, were influenced by early colored-light projections. This tradition also lives on in the VJ acts and audiovisual live performances spawned by the club culture, which even though they are mostly digital productions, take up certain aesthetic features of bygone epochs.[14]

all footnotes

[1] On earlier color-note analogies, cf. Jörg Jewanski, Ist C = Rot? Eine Kultur- und Wissenschaftsgeschichte zum Problem der wechselseitigen Beziehung zwischen Ton und Farbe. Von Aristoteles bis Goethe, diss. Berlin 1996, Sinzig 1999, summarized in Jörg Jewanski, “Von der Farbe-Ton-Beziehung zur Farblichtmusik,” in Jörg Jewanski, Natalia Sidler, ed., Farbe — Licht — Musik. Synästhesie und Farblichtmusik (Bern: Peter Lang, 2006).

[2] Georg Philipp Telemann, Beschreibung der Augenorgel, oder des Augenclavicimbels, so der berühmte Mathematicus und Jesuit zu Paris, Herr Pater Castel, erfunden und ins Werck gerichtet hat; aus dem Französischen Briefe übersetzet von Telemann, Hamburg 1739, cf. Jewanski, Ist C = Rot?, 1999, 303–307, 326–328, 454–457.

[3] Erasmus Darwin, The Loves of the Plants, (London 1789, reprint Oxford: Woodstock Books, 1991), 128, cf. Jewanski, Ist C = Rot?, 1999, 509–510.

[4] Jörg Jewanski, “Die neue Synthese des Geistes. Zur Synästhesie-Euphorie der Jahre 1925–1933,” inHans Adler, Ulrike Zeuch, ed., Synästhesie: Interferenz — Transfer — Synthese (Würzburg: Königshausen & Neumann, 2002).

[5] Jörg Jewanski, “Art and Synesthesia during the Color-Tone Congresses in Hamburg 1927–1936,” in Ediciones Jizo y Fundacíon Internacional Artecittà, ed., I Congreso Internacional de Arte y Sinestesia, Cuevas del Almanzora 2005, Granada 2005 (CD-ROM); revised for Jörg Jewanski, “Kunst und Synästhesie während der Farbe-Ton-Kongresse in Hamburg 1927–1936,” in Jahrbuch der Deutschen Gesellschaft für Musikpsychologie 18, 2006, 191–206.

[6] Alexander László, „Die Farblichtmusik und ihre Forschungsgebiete. Ein Vortrag für Universitäten, Colleges und musikalische Hochschulen“ (December 1939), in Jörg Jewanski, Natalia Sidler, ed., Farbe — Licht — Musik. Synästhesie und Farblichtmusik, 2006, 294–295.

[7] Michael Betancourt, ed., Mary Hallock-Greenewalt. The Complete Patents (Rockville: Wildside Press, 2005).

[8] Anonymous, Einführung in die Farblichtmusik Alexander László’s, Leipzig 1926, 2.

[9] Richard Hellmuth Goldschmidt, Postulat der Farbwandelspiele, Heidelberg 1928, 70–73.

[10] Frank Popper, Die Kinetische Kunst (Cologne: DuMont Schauberg, 1975), 61–88; with added illustrations for “Die Lichtkinetik / Light Kinetics,” in Lichtkunst aus Kunstlicht. Licht als Medium der Kunst im 20. und 21. Jahrhundert, ed. Peter Weibel, Gregor Jansen, exh. cat. Zentrum für Kunst und Medientechnologie Karlsruhe (Ostfildern: Hatje Cantz, 2006).

[11] Cited in Peter Stasny, “Die Farbenlichtspiele,” in Ludwig Hirschfeld-Mack. Bauhäusler und Visionär, ed. Peter Stasny, Andreas Hapkemeyer, exh. cat. Museum für Moderne Kunst Bozen, Jüdisches Museum der Stadt Wien, Jüdisches Museum der Stadt Frankfurt am Main (Ostfildern: Hatje Cantz, 2000), 95.

[12] Popper, Die Kinetische Kunst, 1975, 61–88.

[13] Jörg Jewanski, Natalia Sidler, ed., Farbe — Licht — Musik. Synästhesie und Farblichtmusik, 2006, also see

[14] Susanne Scheel, VJing. Musikvisualisierung im 20. Jahrhundert (Saarbrücken: VDM Verlag 2009).

List of books in this text

Art and Synesthesia during the Color-Tone Congresses in Hamburg 1927-1936
2005, Author: Jewanski, Jörg

Beschreibung der Augenorgel, oder des Augenclavicimbels, so der berühmte Mathematicus und Jesuit zu Paris, Herr Pater Castel, erfunden und ins Werck gerichtet hat; aus dem Französischen Briefe übersetzet von Telemann
1739, Author: Telemann, Georg Philipp

Die Farbenlichtspiele
2000, Author: Stasny, Peter Publisher: Hatje Cantz

Die Farblichtmusik und ihre Forschungsgebiete: Ein Vortrag für Universitäten, Colleges und musikalische Hochschulen (Dezember 1939)
2006, Author: László, Alexander Publisher: Lang

Die Lichtkinetik / Light Kinetics
2006, Author: Popper, Frank Publisher: Hatje Cantz

Die kinetische Kunst: Licht und Bewegung, Umweltkunst und Aktion
1975, Author: Popper, Frank Publisher: DuMont Schauberg

Die neue Synthese des Geistes: Zur Synästhesie-Euphorie der Jahre 1925-1933
2002, Author: Jewanski, Jörg Publisher: Königshausen & Neumann

Einführung in die Farblichtmusik Alexander László’s.
1926, Author: {o. V. Publisher: Breitkopf

Farbe - Licht - Musik: Synästhesie und Farblichtmusik
2006, Publisher: Lang

Ist C = Rot?: Eine Kultur- und Wissenschaftsgeschichte zum Problem der wechselseitigen Beziehung zwischen Ton und Farbe ; von Aristoteles bis Goethe
1999, Author: Jewanski, Jörg Publisher: Studio

Kunst und Synästhesie während der Farbe-Ton-Kongresse in Hamburg 1927-1936
2006, Author: Jewanski, Jörg Publisher: Hogrefe

Mary Hallock-Greenewalt: The Complete Patents

Postulat der Farbwandelspiele.
1928, Author: Goldschmidt, Richard Hellmuth Publisher: C. Winter

The loves of the plants: (1789)
1991, Author: Darwin, Erasmus Publisher: Woodstock

VJing: Musikvisualisierung im 20. Jahrhundert
2009, Author: Scheel, Susanne Publisher: VDM

Von der Farbe-Ton-Beziehung zur Farblichtmusik
2006, Author: Jewanski, Jörg Publisher: Lang

see aswell

  • Georg Anschütz
  • Adolphe Appia
  • Ernst Barthel
  • H. Beau
  • Bertrand-Taillet
  • Bainbridge Bishop
  • Helena Blavatsky
  • Alexander Burnett Hector
  • Nino Calos
  • Louis-Bertrand Castel
  • Erasmus Darwin
  • Karl von Eckartshausen
  • Loïe Fuller
  • Mary Elizabeth Hallock Greenewalt
  • Edme-Gilles Guyot
  • Johann Samuel Halle
  • Ludwig Hirschfeld-Mack
  • Adolf Hölzel
  • D. D. Jameson
  • Frédéric Kastner
  • Paul Klee
  • Johann Gottlob Krüger
  • Alexander László
  • James M. Loring
  • Frank Malina
  • Moses Mendelssohn
  • Preston S. Millar
  • László Moholy-Nagy
  • Isaac Newton
  • Jack Ox
  • Abraham Palatnik
  • W. F. Philippy
  • Jean-Philippe Rameau
  • Alexander Wallace Rimington
  • Walter Ruttmann
  • Nicolas Schöffer
  • William Schooling
  • Kurt Schwerdtfeger
  • Natalia Sidler
  • Aleksandr N. Skrjabin
  • Georg Philipp Telemann
  • Charles F. Wilcox
  • Thomas Wilfred
  • Works
  • Apparatus for colorific exhibition
  • Apparatus for Producing Color Music
  • Clavilux
  • Color Organ
  • Color-Light Music
  • Colour(s) Piano
  • Farben-Instrument
  • Farbenleyer
  • Klavierartige Vorrichtung zur Ein- und Ausschaltung elektrischer Beleuchtungskörper
  • Lichtfuge
  • Lichtspiel opus 1
  • Light-Room-Modulator
  • Lumia
  • Musical Chromoscope
  • Musique oculaire
  • Ocular Harpsichord
  • Prometheus: The Poem of Fire
  • Pyrophon
  • Reflektorischen Lichtspiele
  • Sarabet
  • The Secret Doctrine
  • Über die Empfindungen

  • Timelines
    1700 until today

    All Keywords
  • Performativität (Chap. 5, 6)
  • Polysensualität (Chap. 1, 2, 7)
  • Proportionstheorie (Chap. 3)
  • Pythagoreismus / Universelle Harmonie (Chap. 3)
  • Simultaneität (Chap. 4)
  • Verzeitlichung (Chap. 6)
  • Wechselspiel der Künste / Paragone (Chap. 5)
  • club culture (Chap. 7)
  • substitution (Chap. 3)
  • synchronicity (Chap. 4)