4 min read

Every Song Has a Color

Every Song Has a Color

Every song has a color – and an emotion – attached to it.

Researchers have explored the world of music-to-color associations for years.

We know that emotion plays a pivotal role in how we perceive and react to various external stimuli, encompassing both colors and songs.

Sound to Color Association

In one study, 30 individuals listened to four distinct music clips. Their task was simple: select the colors that harmonized best with the music from a palette comprising 37 different hues.

Consider this exercise (highlighted in the linked article) for a moment. Which two or three colors from the grid would you choose to complement each of these musical selections?

The participants' first-choice colors for the four musical excerpts were as follows:

Selection A, drawn from Bach's Brandenburg Concerto Number 2, inclined most individuals towards bright, vivid colors, dominated by yellows.

Selection B, another segment of the same Bach concerto, evoked choices characterized by darker, grayer, and bluer tones.

Selection C, an excerpt from a 1990s rock song, prompted participants to opt for reds, blacks, and other dark shades.

Selection D, a slow and tranquil "easy listening" piano piece, inspired preferences for muted, grayish colors within various shades of blue.

The correlation between music and color

Why do music and colors form such distinct associations?

One hypothesis posits that music and color share emotional attributes.

Music, undoubtedly, conveys emotions.

For instance, among the four clips you just heard, Selection A exudes happiness and strength, while Selection B exudes sadness and fragility. C appears angry and intense, while D emanates a sense of melancholic serenity. (We'll delve into the reasons behind this later.)

If colors harbor similar emotional connotations, then people should be able to connect colors and songs that share emotional qualities.

This alignment might occur subconsciously, but the results validate this concept.

Individuals rated each musical selection and each color across five emotional dimensions: from happiness to sadness, from anger to calmness, from liveliness to dreariness, from activeness to passiveness, and from strength to weakness.

Upon comparing the results, there was a near perfect alignment: the music that sounded happiest elicited the selection of the happiest-looking colors (bright, vivid, and yellowish shades), while the saddest-sounding music prompted choices of the saddest-looking colors (dark, grayish, and bluish hues). Simultaneously, the angriest-sounding music coincided with the selection of the angriest-looking colors (dark, vivid, and reddish tones).

For most individuals, music-to-color associations are influenced by emotion.

Music Album Cover Design

Designers of album covers, like those for Enya's "Shepherd Moons" and Metallica's "Master of Puppets," may have subconsciously chosen colors in line with the emotional qualities of the respective artists' music.


Individuals who perceive colors while listening to music Intriguingly, a small minority of people – approximately one in 3,000 – experience even stronger connections between music and colors. They are known as chromesthetes, and they spontaneously visualize colors while listening to music.

For instance, in the 2009 film "The Soloist," a character who is a chromesthete is depicted experiencing a complex and internally generated "light show" while listening to Beethoven's Third Symphony.

Chromesthesia represents a subset of a broader phenomenon called synesthesia, where certain individuals experience sensory information not only in the appropriate sensory modality but also in seemingly unrelated sensory dimensions.

The most common form of synesthesia is letter-to-color synesthesia, where individuals perceive colors when viewing black letters and digits. Numerous other variants of synesthesia exist, including chromesthesia, impacting various sensory domains.

Several theories have been proposed regarding the origins of synesthesia. Some suggest it arises from direct connections between distinct sensory regions in the brain, while others propose it may be linked to brain areas responsible for emotional responses.

Which theory holds true?

To address this question, researchers replicated the music-color association experiment, involving 11 chromesthetes and 11 individuals without synesthetic experiences.

The latter group selected colors that they believed harmonized best with the music, as described earlier.

In contrast, the chromesthetes chose colors that best resembled the colors they visually experienced while listening to the music.

Notably, chromesthetes exhibited emotional effects on par with those of non-synesthetes on certain dimensions (happy/sad, active/passive, and strong/weak), albeit to a lesser extent on others (calm/agitated and angry/not-angry).

The fact that chromesthetes display emotional effects at all suggests that music-to-color synesthesia may partially rely on neural connections that encompass emotion-related circuits in the brain.

The observed differences in emotional responses between chromesthetes and non-chromesthetes also imply that chromesthetic experiences may involve direct, non-emotional connections between the auditory and visual cortex.

The concept of musical anthropomorphism

The fact that music-to-color associations are profoundly influenced by emotion raises intriguing questions.

For instance, why does fast, loud, high-pitched music often convey anger, whereas slow, quiet, low-pitched music typically conveys tranquility?

Although the precise answers remain elusive, a captivating possibility arises – one we term "musical anthropomorphism."

This notion suggests that sounds are emotionally interpreted as mirroring human behavior.

Consider, for instance, the observation that faster, louder, high-pitched music might be perceived as angry.

This parallels how individuals tend to quicken their movements, elevate their voices in pitch and volume, and display heightened activity when experiencing anger.

Conversely, slow, quiet, low-pitched music might evoke a sense of calmness, reflecting the way individuals tend to slow down their movements, lower their voices, and exhibit passive behavior when feeling serene.

However, the reason why music in a major key is associated with happiness, while music in a minor key remains a melancholic enigma.

What Songs and Colors Mean for Artists

These findings not only offer valuable insights for artists and graphic designers crafting light shows for concerts or album covers but also illuminate the brain's remarkable efficiency in forming abstract connections.

As our brains search for commonalities between disparate perceptual events, such as music and color, they uncover emotions as a central element. Emotions play a pivotal role not only in how we interpret incoming stimuli but also in our responses to them.

Given the multitude of links connecting perceptions, emotions, and actions, it's only natural for emotions to surface prominently – often unconsciously – in the selection of colors that best complement a song.

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