There are many inspirations for a piece of art. Some painters have attempted to translate a musical experience into a painting. Kandinsky was one such that cited music as a source. Matisse’s “Dance” also comes to mind. Disney did a wonderful job in “Fantasia”, but he had the advantage of motion and a soundtrack. Others have reported having synesthesia, the gift of seeing colors when stimulated by sound. Many artists will paint with music in the background but that is not painting FROM music. Other artists have made a subject of a musician or a group in performance, usually adding elements of expression to imply a musical feeling. However these are jazzed up portraits which fail to capture the music itself.
The auditory experience of music is a very different channel from the visual; as the auditory and visual nervous systems are distinct and activate different parts of the brain. Our consciousness brings them together in a state of awareness that is not fully understood and continues to baffle scientific research. A big difference between the two is that music takes place over time and changes within that time. Art is static in the moment, although one may stand and regard it for a while.
So is it possible to express a musical concept visually? A musical painting would necessarily be abstract, although could contain subtle references to real objects. The intersection between music and visual art is in itself an abstract and transient zone of awareness. One might even say a spiritual zone. Any connection has to bridge the gap between the auditory and visual cortex. Both genres display the abstract qualities of repetition, variety, intensity, rhythm, dialogue, balance, unity.
Thus I propose some ground rules for interpreting one’s favorite piece of music. I will ignore music with lyrics as that complicates the matter by adding words with their own meanings. First choose a dramatic passage, likely a repeating chorus. In this way one can fit the idea on a single canvas. Identify the tempo with an eye for using regular rhythmic rapid or languid strokes. The volume of sound can be likened to the values or intensity of paint. Notice how the pitch rises and falls and how the volume varies. Translate this into higher/lower placement of forms with greater/lesser size and intensity.
One can ascribe certain feelings to music, perhaps fast/slow, soft/hard, angry/loving, calm/intense. They can be expressed through choice of color, tone, brush stroke, and subject. For example, darker, somber colors convey a mysterious, sinister or depressed mood. Brighter colors a more hopeful, happy mood.
The musical scale of pitches can be compared to the visual light spectrum. Both have a wave character and physical properties. Continuing the analogy, a musical chord of three notes could be coded into three colors which blend or complement well. If able to distinguish two or three musical chords, express these as a blend of three colors.
Music is a horizontal experience. From beginning to end it is written and performed from left to right and intuitively we feel it that way. The long scrolls of classical Chinese art remind me of the musical score. Ideally one would choose the longest horizontal canvas. Most western music has an obvious and regular beat and tempo. Art normally does not observe this regular dominating tempo but could do so as rhythm is one of the design elements. I imagine some repetition of stroke, left to right, across a canvas.
Music often includes various instruments and each can be reflected in its own texture. Visual textures can closely suggest the different instrumental sounds. Color can also be associated with an instrument’s timbre.
I hope you will put on a piece of music, meditate on it as you choose colors, textures, lines, shapes and rhythm and doodle or paint to match your hearing. A viewer will not necessarily recognize it as music, but it can be a growing experience, even fun. If the music pleases, so will the painting be successful.