Now that digital technology allows rapid creation of new interfaces for music and sound, the question of how to represent those elements visually has new life. But whether digital or not, practitioners of music have long been interested in applying further descriptions to music, from the Baroque Doctrine of Affectations to the involuntary association of color in Synesthesia.

Applying colors to the notes of a musical scale is one particularly common idea, but the late master composer/orchestrator Arthur Lange had a different idea: why not give colors to range? Building on ideas from orchestrators Francois Auguste Geveart and Rimsky-Korsakov, he applied colors to registers of tone across each instrument. This way, it’s possible to see, in livid color, how ranges are applied in orchestrations, even down to unisons and harmonic density.

Lange wasn’t just any composer/orchestrator: he was a four-time Academy Award nominee, head of MGM’s Music Department, a Tin Pan Alley mainstay, a bandstand and studio regular from the 1920s, and an orchestrator on everything from 20s dance band numbers to MGM’s “The Maltese Falcon.” Seeing his creative and more-than-a-bit idiosyncratic approach says a lot about the ingenuity of America’s musical Renaissance at the time.

Here’s the twist: aside from suggesting how color might be represented in digital systems, the Spectrotone Chart could even be applied to audio equalization in music production, as EQ and orchestration are closely coupled. (Tin Pan Alley’s orchestrator with a pen could be today’s mastering engineer on Cubase.)

I know some of this only by coincidence: Alexander Publishing, a major music and educational publishing house, has decided to re-release Lange’s self-titled “Spectrotone Chart” with training materials as a US$20 download. As they are selling it, Alexander doesn’t want to give away all its secrets, but here’s the basic system. Range is divided by adjective and color:

White = Brilliant
Yellow = Bright
Green = Pleasant
Blue = Rich
Orange = Golden
Red = Glowing
Brown = Warm
Purple = Mellow
Grey = Dull
Black = Indefinite

These sections are then, as illustrated in these excerpt images, applied to frequency and instrumental range, with various applications for using the resulting color system to understand orchestration and harmony.

What might this have to do with recording and EQ? From the press materials at Alexander Publishing:

The Spectrotone Chart is organized by the 88 keys of the piano with each key numbered, from the bottom A being 1 to the highest C being 88. Because of its application to mixing and EQ, Alexander Publishing added below each piano key its Hz frequency. Similar to many EQ charts, above the piano keyboard are the colorized tone colors within each instrument’s range.

With the Spectrotone Chart, an engineer sees the range of the EQ’ing along with the tone colors being affected. “For arrangers and composers not trained in recording engineering, the Spectrotone Chart helps them understand EQ from an orchestration perspective,” explained Peter Alexander, author of the Professional Orchestration™ series and How Ravel Orchestrated: Mother Goose Suite.

If you’re interested in exploring Lange’s system, $19.95 buys you a digital download with the chart (as an 18″x24″ poster, scalable to Letter, A4, and the like), plus two detailed “training guides” for how to use it.

But I’m also interested in how color might be applied to new musical interfaces and interface design, and how you use color to think about your music generally. After all, as MGM themselves demonstrated, a world in Technicolor is somehow more vivid, if a bit riskier. Just ask Dorothy.

Okay, right brand, wrong time period, wrong technology, but … come on. I had to run this. And maybe it’ll inspire some color dreams. Photo (CC-BY-SA) John Kratz.
  • karlp

    This looks like a tremendous over-simplifcation to me: from the small picture it seems that higher frequencies are simply linked to brighter colors, and lower frequencies to darker colors. As a bit of Synesthaetics myself I "see" colors attached to single tones, chords or even voicings.
    Professional EQing is never a simple process of boosting/attenuating high and low frequencies, but rather the balancing of ENERGY. One always has to balance the loudness energy of, say, voice to snare, or kick to bass, or guitar to keyboards. Within the range of 450Hz to 850Hz alone there are just so many different qualities, that this range would need more descriptive metadata than all the colors in the "Spectrotone(TM) Chart" combined.

  • Yeah, I agree, it's not immediately ready to apply. At the same time, it's an interesting start. And it certainly makes for fascinating history, whether it's usable right away or not.

  • Damon

    What are those little dots with lines? Googles "little dots with lines." Ah, yes, they are called "notes." How quaint and refreshingly primitive.

  • J. Phoenix

    Most interesting! I've been making use of this chart:… from time to time as a reference for frequency ranges, notes, and instrument range comparisons.

    Any method we can use to get our brains around the abstract nature of sound & music is a good start in my book.

  • Aside from something very simplified like low pitch dark color or the power of suggestion, do any two people really have a similar color association, because that's what I think it is. We do have a pitch memory that is developed to different degrees in different people so if one decides or feels like a pitch or timbre is a specific color I'm sure it is memorable on some level in an associative way. But I really don't think it conjures up a consistent color from person to person other than memory and convincing yourself.

  • @Nick: I've seen people claim that there are statistical biases toward certain colors matching certain pitches. The problem is, even if a "popular" system is close to your perception, it's still not very satisfying. That is, you might get every pitch right, and then say, augh, the key F is wrong.

    What I think is safe to say is that humans from a very early developmental age get pretty good at associating and remembering color (assuming they have color vision).

  • Fid the Fosh

    Appropos the later article on the iphone.

    Now this is what I would call a useful app.

    Fisher Price activity centres for adults are fun,and are sometimes capable of producing a credible result,given a skilled and imaginative mind at he helm.

    However I find myself increasing drawn to older paradigms such as this,with intuitive properties that allow for a great deal of flexibility in application.Even if I then transfer them to a contemporary modality defined by contemporary tools.

  • @Fid: it's an app, on paper. 😉

  • Fid the Fosh

    @ Peter this is exactly my point. 🙂

  • @karlp

    I think you're jumping to that conclusion. Keep in mind you are only looking a portion of the chart. The full one has many combinations/permutations for tonal and color balances, which is exactly what you are suggesting in your comment. It makes suggestions and gives options, not definitive bs like "if trumpet = x, then oboe = y."

    It's not a definitive guide to orchestration, nor does it claim to be. It's just an incredibly well thought out cheat sheet. And in conjunction with a good book (Adler, Kennan or otherwise) is ideal for a beginning orchestrator.