How color works

how to see soundIf ColorMusic is going to work, then it has to be done right. You can’t just use any random colors. They’ve got to be the right ones … but, of course, which ones? We already know that music is all about patterns. And color is too. So let’s look at color patterns first. After all, color is easy to follow—and everyone knows how colors work.

For example, check out the color wheel below. This basic pattern is probably familiar. It has 12 colors, with each color moving to the next. Red passes to red-orange … which passes to orange … which passes to orange-yellow … and so on.

To make each color stand out, the primary and secondary colors are shaped like squares, while the other colors (called “tertiaries”) are shaped like circles. And these shapes show how the color wheel is built. You remember how it works—there are three primary colors (red, yellow, and blue):

And these are mixed to make secondary colors (orange, green, and purple):

Then, to fill in the gaps, these colors are combined to make tertiary colors. For example, red and orange make red-orange … orange and yellow make orange-yellow … yellow and green make yellow-green … and so on:

There really isn’t much to it. Every color follows this same, simple pattern. And nothing is a surprise.

But … just for fun … let’s look a little closer. When you first learned colors, you heard about “complementary” colors. Any two colors are complements if they’re directly across from each other in the color wheel. So red and green are complements … orange and blue are complements … yellow and purple are complements … red-orange and green-blue are complements … etc.



Every color has its own complement. And each pair of complements has a special connection because they are complete opposites. (They also make each other stand out.) For example, red is the total opposite of green. So they’re across from each other in the color wheel. Orange is the opposite of blue, so they’re also directly across from each other. Yellow is the opposite of purple, and so on.

So what would happen if we mixed things up a little? Just for fun, let’s make each pair of complements switch places. In other words, let’s move every color into its opposite position. (To do this, we just rotate the squares 180 degrees.) The result looks a little weird, but it’s easy to follow.

In the picture above, the color wheel has been twisted around. So now, red is where green was … and green is where red was. Orange is where blue was … and blue is where orange was. And, like you probably guessed, yellow and purple have switched places … and so on.

At this point, you may be wondering, “Okay, I get it. But what’s the point? Are we going to sit here all day and just play with color? Or are we going to make some music?” Well … now we can. Because we’ve just cracked the code to music. As it turns out, this is the color pattern. The one that people have been trying to find for a very long time. For musicians, this is the “holy grail” of patterns. And once you see how it works, you’ll be playing music faster and better than you ever thought was possible.


Yeah, but which colors?

how to see soundSo, it seems like color might help us see music patterns. But before we check it out, we should answer a couple of questions. I mean, we don’t want to waste our time if this isn’t going to work. The first question is, “Why haven’t we seen this before?” If color is really that obvious, then ColorMusic should be more common … right? And the second question is, “Even if we did use color, what colors should we use?” Music has a lot of notes—and there are a ton of colors—so it can’t be that simple.

These are both good questions, so let’s start with the first. “Why haven’t we seen color music before?” Well, in a way, you probably have. If you walk into any toy store, you’ll find stuff like this:

Toy companies are always coming up with bright, colorful instruments for kids. They’re all about rainbows, and sunshine, and birdies, and lollipops. But I think we can agree this is not what we mean. We are serious musicians. We want to see sound. And, really, we just want to make music … not eat ice cream and play patty-cakes. So toys like these might be nice for the kids, but we need something real.

Of course, other serious musicians have tried to combine color and music. And some pretty smart people (like Aristotle and Newton). But no matter how hard these guys tried, they always failed. Why?

Well, that brings us to our second question: “Even if we did use color, what colors should we use?” The reason color isn’t common in music is because no one had figured out how to do it. After all, you can’t just throw a bucket of paint on sound and expect to see something. Color and music both follow the same exact patterns. (Newton and Aristotle were right.) Only the link between these patterns has a little twist. And for some strange reason, nobody noticed it … until now.


Seeing sound

how to see soundSo how can we see sound? What do music patterns look like? At first, you might think, “Music notation, of course! It shows what notes look like. And it lets you see how patterns rise and fall as you move through a song.”

In a way, that’s right—but also wrong. If you’ve ever seen a page of sheet music, you probably noticed that it’s just a lot of black dots on a page of lines. It kind of shows you what music patterns “look” like. But to say that notation lets you see sound is like saying this stick figure looks like an actual person … it doesn’t.

In fact, standard music notation does a pretty bad job of showing patterns. It gives you the outline of a song, But how are you supposed to know which note is which? And what exactly are we supposed to be seeing? Because every note looks the same, notation looks more like a bunch of ants than any meaningful pattern.

No, when I say music is made of patterns, I mean real patterns. The kind that are so easy to see they jump off the page. I mean patterns that clearly tell you something. Patterns that are as easy to see as they are to hear.

And what’s cool is that music patterns are already right there. In fact, they’re staring us right in the face. Only until now, musicians have been wearing a blindfold. Or better said, we’ve been colorblind.

To see what I mean, check out the image below. In the black-and-white picture on the left, you can see 12 balls. Each one looks just like the others, so nothing is special. But when you look at the same picture on the right, everything seems to pop. With color, we suddenly see how the balls are arranged in a clear, organized pattern. In fact, the pattern is so obvious, it’s almost embarrassing.


“So,” you say, “we have the answer! We should use color to see music patterns. Then we’ll know what sound looks like—and we can easily play music.” But before we get ahead of ourselves, we have to stop and think.


Invisible patterns

how to see soundI like patterns. There’s something mysterious about them—but also something natural and basic. Maybe that’s because we’re surrounded by patterns every day, all the time. Some of them we can see—like railroad tracks, trees lining the street, or the windows in a building.

And other patterns we can hear—like the tick of a clock, the ring of a telephone, or the beat of a drum.

One big reason music is so interesting is that it’s all a bunch of patterns. Regular, repeating rhythms drive a song forward, while musical notes form melodies, scales, and chords. If you’ve ever tapped your foot to the beat of a song or hummed along with a melody, then you know what I mean. Music is patterns.

In fact, musical patterns are so strong that it’s almost like you can see them. As the notes in a song move up and down, they clearly form a pattern. The only question is, “What does the pattern really look like?” Would the notes look like waves of light fading in and out—or would they look more like stars and planets spinning through space?

Or would they look totally different? People have tried to guess, of course. But they usually came back with the same, old answer. “Sound is invisible. So no matter what you do, or how hard you try, you will never see it.” In other words, it’s impossible, so we’re just out of luck.

Because we can’t see sound, playing music can be pretty weird. And, frankly, downright frustrating. With lots of practice, musicians must simply learn to move their hands around to play different notes on their instruments. One move will make one sound, while another move makes another sound … and another move makes another sound, and so on.

But learning music in this way takes a lot of time. And, honestly, way too much patience. In many ways, it’s like trying to play chess blindfolded. You can play the game by making different moves. But without ever seeing what you’re doing, it’s pretty hard to win.

So, then … is that all there is to it? Are we all just out of luck—or is there really a way to see sound? I mean, what about all those patterns? Musical patterns are definitely as real as the layout of a chessboard or any pattern in nature. So what if we could take off the blindfold … what would we see? The truth is, all of those patterns are just sitting there, waiting for us to uncover them. We just need to find out how. And, as it turns out, the answer is simple.


Music is a blend of art and science

What do you like more … art or science? That is, are you more of a right-brained artist, or are you a left-brained scientist?

The truth is, there is no difference

In his book, “Leonardo: The First Scientist,” Michael White argues that there really isn’t any difference between artists and scientists. And that they shouldn’t be in two separate camps at all. White shows that Leonardo da Vinci—who was the very definition of a “Renaissance Man”—was an innovator in both the arts and sciences.

He wrote that “at the leading edge of science, the division between mathematics, art, and imagination becomes blurred.” And that’s a perfect description.

Color and music are also the same

In fact, this same concept applies equally well to music. Art (color) and science (music) are exactly the same. After all, they’re just different ways of looking at the very same patterns. Like two languages that tell the exact same story.

Of course, at first glance, these patterns may seem different. But you have to look a little closer … because the link between them just has a little twist.

Escher understood nature’s secret

A perfect way to think of these twisted—but very simple—patterns is to look at the art of M.C. Escher. Like this masterpiece depicting birds and fish,

Sky and Water 1 woodcut by MC Escher

Born in 1898, Escher was no fool. Just like da Vinci, he also understood nature’s secret. That is, Escher intuitively recognized the harmony between art and science. And he used that knowledge to the fullest—pushing the envelope in his works that are equal part graphics and math.

(As a side note, it boggles my mind that most of M. C. Escher’s work—including this one—was created as a woodcut. In other words, this isn’t some computer graphic, or even a painting … he actually carved this image into a piece of wood!)

So what does this all mean to you?

Of course, you may be thinking, “This picture looks awesome, but what does it have to do with music?” Well, it so happens that musical patterns really do look a lot like this image of birds and fish. Only you have to look at these patterns in just the right way.

No … musical notes aren’t animals that can swim or fly. But music patterns do suddenly spring to life when you can actually see them. And that’s what ColorMusic does—it lets you see things that you thought were impossible.

In fact, the mathematical works of da Vinci and the mind-bending symmetry of Escher are what led to the connection of ColorMusic … which proves that life really is a blend of both art and science.


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