Music-color associations are mediated by emotion

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Experimental evidence demonstrates robust cross-modal matches between music and colors that are mediated by emotional associations. US and Mexican participants chose colors that were most/least consistent with 18 selections of classical orchestral music by Bach, Mozart, and Brahms. In both cultures, faster music in the major mode produced color choices that were more saturated, lighter, and yellower whereas slower, minor music produced the opposite pattern (choices that were desaturated, darker, and bluer). There were strong correlations (0.89 < r < 0.99) between the emotional associations of the music and those of the colors chosen to go with the music, supporting an emotional mediation hypothesis in both cultures. Additional experiments showed similarly robust cross-modal matches from emotionally expressive faces to colors and from music to emotionally expressive faces. These results provide further support that music-to-color associations are mediated by common emotional associations.




Researchers have attempted to identify systematic links between music and color. Perhaps the most direct connection comes from the fascinating phenomenon of music-color synesthesia (1-4). A small minority of individuals, including some distinguished artists (e.g., Kandinsky and Klee) and musicians (e.g., Scriabin and Rimsky-Korsokov) report diverse cross-modal experiences of color while hearing musical sounds (1). Scientific studies initially failed to establish general correspondences because synesthetic sound-to-color mappings appeared idiosyncratic.

PDF – PNAS-2013-Palmer-8836-41



The idea that music-color associations are mediated by emotion suggests that the subjective experience of perceiving colors in response to music is influenced by emotional responses. This concept is part of the broader field of synesthesia, which refers to the phenomenon where stimulation of one sensory or cognitive pathway leads to automatic, involuntary experiences in a second pathway.

Here’s how this concept might work:

1. **Synesthetic Experience**: In synesthesia, individuals experience cross-modal perceptions where stimuli in one sensory modality (such as hearing music) trigger perceptions in another modality (such as seeing colors). Music-color synesthesia specifically involves perceiving colors in response to musical stimuli.

2. **Emotional Mediation**: Research suggests that emotional responses play a significant role in shaping music-color associations in synesthetic experiences. For example, the emotional content of a piece of music may evoke specific feelings or moods, which in turn influence the colors perceived by the synesthete.

3. **Associative Learning**: Over time, individuals may develop consistent associations between specific musical elements (such as pitch, tempo, or timbre) and particular colors. These associations can be influenced by personal experiences, cultural factors, and emotional responses to music.

4. **Cross-Modal Processing**: The brain regions involved in processing emotions, such as the amygdala and prefrontal cortex, may interact with areas responsible for sensory processing to generate synesthetic experiences. Emotional arousal triggered by music can enhance cross-modal connections and influence the perception of colors.

5. **Subjectivity and Variation**: It’s important to note that music-color associations can vary widely among synesthetes and are highly subjective. Different individuals may perceive different colors in response to the same piece of music, and the associations may change over time or in different emotional states.

Overall, the concept that music-color associations are mediated by emotion highlights the complex interplay between sensory perception, emotional processing, and cognitive associations in synesthetic experiences. Further research into the neural mechanisms underlying synesthesia can provide insights into how the brain integrates information from multiple sensory modalities and how emotions contribute to the richness of our perceptual experiences.

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