Do you see music the same way as your neighbor? Apparently so.  U.C. Berkeley psychologists say people in both the United States and Mexico linked the same pieces of classical orchestral music with the same colors, suggesting that humans share a common emotional palette – when it comes to music and color – that appears to be intuitive and can cross cultural barriers. They suggest that
our brains are wired to make music-color connections depending on how the melodies make us feel 

Using a 37-color palette, they found that people tend to pair faster-paced music in a major key with lighter, more vivid, yellow colors, whereas slower-paced music in a minor key is more likely to be teamed up with darker, grayer, bluer colors. So Mozart's jaunty Flute Concerto No. 1 in G major tends to be associated with bright yellow and orange, whereas his dour Requiem in D minor is more likely to be linked to dark, bluish gray. 

For people who were raised with Western Notation anyway. The nearly 100 people surveyed  for the music-color study resided in the San Francisco Bay Area or in Guadalajara, Mexico.  They have all been trained by culture, movies and television, to react to music a certain way. People not steeped in Western Notation, such as an Indian used to Svar Lippi, would not think of funerals when they listen to minor chords on a pipe organ, so would they still imagine dark colors?

Music does evoke emotions, of course. That is why parents of the mid- and late-1950s were concerned about rock-and-roll and, prior to that, hard jazz. In 1953's "The Wild One", hard jazz is associated with the binge-drinking, dangerous biker gang.  It's "Reefer Madness" exaggeration, except for music, but it worked in setting the rebellious tone of the characters. The music and lighting and violent gesturing made actors seem dangerous. No one associates jazz with violence today, but many do with rap music, even though the chord progressions are all derivative of other forms. The imagery creates the musical mood, not the other way around.

In three experiments, subjects listened to 18 classical music pieces by composers Johann Sebastian Bach, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart and Johannes Brahms that varied in tempo (slow, medium, fast) and in major versus minor keys. 

In the first experiment, participants were asked to pick five of the 37 colors that best matched the music to which they were listening. The palette consisted of vivid, light, medium, and dark shades of red, orange, yellow, green, yellow-green, green, blue-green, blue, and purple. Participants consistently picked bright, vivid, warm colors to go with upbeat music and dark, dull, cool colors to match the more tearful or somber pieces. Separately, they rated each piece of music on a scale of happy to sad, strong to weak, lively to dreary and angry to calm.

Two subsequent experiments studying music-to-face and face-to-color associations supported the researchers' hypothesis that "common emotions are responsible for music-to-color associations," said Karen Schloss, a post-doctoral fellow at U.C. Berkeley and co-author of the paper. 

For example, the same pattern occurred when participants chose the facial expressions that "went best" with the music selections, Schloss said. Upbeat music in major keys was consistently paired with happy-looking faces while subdued music in minor keys was paired with sad-looking faces. Similarly, happy faces were paired with yellow and other bright colors and angry faces with dark red hues.


They want to try and tackle other cultures next.  In Turkey, traditional music employs a wider range of scales than just major and minor. "We know that in Mexico and the U.S. the responses are very similar," he said. "But we don't yet know about China or Turkey." 

"The results were remarkably strong and consistent across individuals and cultures and clearly pointed to the powerful role that emotions play in how the human brain maps from hearing music to seeing colors," said Stephen Palmer, professor psychology at U.C. Berkeley and lead author of the paper in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. "Surprisingly, we can predict with 95 percent accuracy how happy or sad the colors people pick will be based on how happy or sad the music is that they are listening to," said Palmer, who will present these and related findings at the International Association of Colour conference at the University of Newcastle in the U.K. on July 8th. At the conference, a color light show will accompany a performance by the Northern Sinfonia orchestra to demonstrate "the patterns aroused by music and color converging on the neural circuits that register emotion," he said.


 Neuroscience or not, the findings might have benefit in music therapy and certainly applied psychology - advertising - pays close attention.  They may also provide insight into synesthesia, where the stimulation of one perceptual pathway, such as hearing music, leads to automatic, involuntary experiences in a different perceptual pathway, such as seeing colors.