Making Music With Color

How color organs connect light and sound: An Object Lesson

Masterfile / Corbis

In Steven Spielberg’s 1977 film Close Encounters of the Third Kind, the first conversation between humans and aliens is a duet of music and visuals. The film’s narrative doesn’t offer even a tentative explanation for the technology, but the viewer instantly understands what’s happening: Spielberg’s film uses color music—a system that claims to be a universal language of sound and color.

Mechanical color organs, built to visually represent or accompany sound, first appeared in the 18th century as instruments modeled on both the piano and the pipe organ. Spielberg’s fictional organ, in the legacy of these devices, was built to display the iconic note sequence played by the UFOs throughout Close Encounters: G, A, F, (one octave lower) F, (middle) C. In the film, a bank of lighted panels is located above the organist, structured into a visible spectrum that begins yellow on the left, transitions to blue in the center column, then continues to the right in a variety of reds and red-oranges. But while the music only contains five notes, the light board contains 72 colors arranged into six rows of 12. A traditional piano keyboard controls the light board: Pressing a key on the organ will both play its corresponding note and illuminate a color block, creating an audio-visual link between color and note.

This structure has been a common feature of color organs throughout their history. The earliest known example, proposed by the Jesuit priest Louis-Bertrand Castel in the 18th century, employed colored ribbons—the “ocular harpsichord,” he called it. By the late 19th century, the American inventor Bainbridge Bishop and the British painter A. Wallace Rimington had separately created devices that used carbon-arc lamps to produce bright flashes of color. In the 20th century, numerous reinventions of the device emerged, each nearly identical to its predecessors save for their differing schemes for mapping colors to notes. It’s striking, then, to learn that each of these nearly identical machines was developed independently: Every one of these inventors believed that their instrument was entirely unprecedented.

The invention of color music (and the instruments that perform it) is rooted in the similar way humans experience sound and light, two entirely unrelated phenomena that behave in similar ways—both can penetrate materials, radiate in all directions equally, and diminish with distance following the square-cube law. It’s fitting, then, that the idea behind the “color organ” was born at the dawn of the Enlightenment, as empiricism began to supplant religion as the arbiter of the observed world. In the 16th century, the Jesuit polymath Athanasius Kircher wrote the book Musurgia Universalis (“Universal Music”), which includes a lengthy discussion of sound, color, and the place of each one within a system of harmonia mundi, or “celestial harmony”—a way using musical ratios to organize everything in heaven and earth. In his book, Kircher claims a direct link between color and music:

Just as the light from a fire spreads different colored bodies in different directions around itself, so is sound spread through the air by moving bodies that carry its qualities. [...] When a musical instrument sounds, if someone were to perceive the finest movements of the air, they would see nothing but a painting with an extraordinary variety of colors.

Kircher’s belief that “[sound] must spread out because it has the same source [as light]” doesn’t refer to a physical origin, but a metaphysical one: The book’s classification system is a means of connecting all the elements in the natural world to the Christian God.

When Castel first proposed his “ocular harpsichord” 75 years later, he credited Kircher’s discussion of sound and light as his inspiration. Castel also credited a second source: Isaac Newton’s 1705 treatise Opticks, in which Newton used his color wheel to draw an analogy between musical ratios and the visible spectrum. Although Newton didn’t explicitly connect musical notes to colors—the eight notes A through G at the edge of the circle indicate the transition points between colors, not the color value for specific notes—Castel built upon Newton’s comparison to develop the idea of performing colored light as music. He used Newton’s science, in other words, in an attempt to prove Kircher’s belief in a divine link between light and sound.

Isaac Newton’s color wheel
(Isaac Newton / Wikimedia)

Castel himself has been mostly forgotten, but the idea of a link between music and colors became part of the 19th-century zeitgeist as new inventors found inspiration in his idea. Bishop managed to patent his color organ and installed one in P.T. Barnum’s home, where it eventually caused the fire that burned the house down. (Carbon-arc lighting is very hot and prone to fires.) Rimington’s invention simply faded into obscurity after a less-than-positive demonstration (reviews described it as “underwhelming”). The 20th-century artist Mary Hallock-Greenewalt invented both the mercury switch and the lighting dimmer while creating her own color organ to play her variation on color music, which she called Nourathar (the name combines the Arabic words for light and essence). Her peer Thomas Wilfred expanded on her inventions by adding moving forms to his own brand of visual music, Lumia, eventually selling two of his works to the Museum of Modern Art in New York.

Today, the “visualizer” embedded in most contemporary desktop music players (the one that generates psychedelic visuals to accompany music) is the color organ’s most prosaic descendent. The 1976 Atari Video Music was an early commercial visualizer, connecting a hi-fi system to a television to produce psychedelic visuals from the audio waveform. Other nascent electronic visualizers followed suit, but none gained widespread popularity until the early 2000s, when desktop digital-music players like WinAmp and iTunes added visualizers of their own.

Close Encounters’s notion that humans might use color music to make first contact with technologically advanced aliens is a natural (if somewhat literal) adaptation of Kirsher’s and Castel’s original concept: that the association of colors with notes, drawn from the European musical scale, simply codifies a natural phenomenon, an innate quality of the visible spectrum that is universally understood. The idea has been consistently disproven in the intervening centuries, but nevertheless it persists.  The color organ’s enduring survival is a reminder that our empirically grounded understanding of the world emerged from a foundation of superstition, magical thinking, and theology: Angels are now aliens, divinity becomes physics, and ancient ideas parade as new inventions.