Human Journey

When You Listen To Bach, What Color Do You See?

Put on a Bach concerto and close your eyes. Now picture a color. What color do you see?

If it’s a fast Bach concerto in a major key, it’s likely you’ll picture a color that’s more saturated and brighter — like a red or a yellow. And if it’s a slower Bach piece, you’ll likely see something darker and bluer in your head.

“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’re listening to,” said Stephen Palmer, a University of California, Berkeley vision scientist, in a statement.

Palmer and a team of researchers at Berkeley asked nearly 100 people to listen to 18 pieces of classical music that varied in key and tempo. The participants —half from San Francisco and half from Guadalajara, Mexico—were then asked to choose five colors that they most associated with each piece, selecting from a 37-color palette.

The results, published May 13 in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, found that people in both countries picked bright, warmer colors when they heard faster, more upbeat music and darker, cooler colors for pieces in minor keys.

Those connections, he says, are largely based on emotional connections our brains make. In other words, if a classical music piece is happy and lively, people are more likely to pick colors that are also happy and lively because they feel happy and lively when listening to the music. This might seem obvious, but now the idea is backed up by Palmer’s research.

“We saw that the brain will use emotion as the basis for a musical-color match,” says Palmer. “The music activates some representation of emotion in whatever part of the brain is coding emotion. The colors also have associations with emotions.”

Palmer’s team has recreated the experiment with more than 34 different genres of music – from hip-hop to the blues to heavy metal – all with the same results. Next up? They’re going to repeat the experiment in Turkey, where scales go beyond minor and major keys, to see if the experiment works there. The plan is to play traditional Turkish music for people in the United States as well as people in Turkey and then see if the results are similar.

The findings may be useful for advertising and creative non-drug-based therapies. They also may help researchers better understand people who have a condition called synesthesia, said Palmer.

“People with synesthesia see colors or taste sounds,” he said. “We’re planning to replicate the experiment with them in the future and ask them to pick the colors they’re experiencing that most closely represents the color on the wheel.”

Six of the pieces used in Palmer’s study are embedded below. You can also see the colors that participants in the study most frequently chose for each piece. Would you have chosen the same ones? Tell us in the comments.

-Melody Kramer

Colors selected for Brandenburg Concerto no. 6 in B flat major, Adagio (Bach, major, slow)
Colors selected for Brandenburg Concerto no. 6 in B flat major, Adagio (Bach, major, slow)
Colors selected for Orchestral Suite no. 2 in B minor
Colors selected for Orchestral Suite no. 2 in B minor, Badinerie (Bach, minor, fast)
Colors selected for Brandenburg Concerto no. 3 in G major (Bach, major, medium)
Colors selected for Brandenburg Concerto no. 3 in G major (Bach, major, medium)
Colors selected for Orchestral Suite no. 2 in B minor, Rondeau (Bach, minor, medium)
Colors selected for Brandenburg Concerto no. 2 in F major
Colors selected for Brandenburg Concerto no. 2 in F major, Andante (Bach, minor, slow)
Brandenburg Concerto no. 2 in F major
Colors selected for Brandenburg Concerto no. 2 in F major, Allegro assai (Bach, major, fast)
Melody Kramer writes and edits pieces for both National Geographic's magazine and website. She tweets @mkramer.
  • Graeme Paterson

    Very interesting. Would be equally interesting to do this again, using only works written in different major keys. Some keys e.g. A major often appear to ‘brighten’ the perception of music.

  • Jamie Tillett

    Superb, I am going to Istanbul in July and I did not realise that Turkish music goes above the major and below the minor. Plus it’s great to hear about synesthesia. My first time using Digg and it lead me to this great article.

  • name

    When I close my eyes, I see black. I don’t see any colors when I listen to music other than the colors in my environment. Like 99% of the population, I am not synaesthetic.

    This is extremely vague and shaky research. Choosing 5 colors to represent a piece of music is so broad as to be meaningless.

  • Tim Vitek

    I have been researching this topic for quite some time. I firmly believe these findings are wrong. They only tested 100 people from a close proximity. While emotion in music is universal, emotion with color is not. Our emotional association with color is based on our societal upbringing. They need to conduct tests on a wide range of cultures before any of this could be considered valid.

  • Travis Austin

    I think that many would take from the quality of the recording itself, (noise floor, frequency range), and the timbre, sound quality, of the instruments themselves… brassy and bright horns, bright harpsichord, to rich and dark low strings. Those things evoke colors for me anyway, sometimes independent of the key.

  • sittideat

    Thank you very much.

  • Glen

    Misleading title.

    I was really excited to see a colour. Then I realised oh… you mean in my imagination.

    BLACK! As black as the heart of whoever wrote the title ;_; god I miss LSD and my younger days….

  • Mark

    for me it absolutely depends on the key. Bach or no I have always associated keys with colors. G major is almost always blue for me. D and E flat red to reddish orange.

  • name

    Wow! NG follows “science” and ends up behind real life a few years.

    Open Source folks did put this visualization in Clementine media players year ago, dudes!

  • Leila Swan

    Awsome! My friends and I got the same shades of color! Would be really interesting playing music not familiar with ones culture and see if the outcome is the same, also with different music genres.

  • RLK

    I really enjoyed this and had never heard of synesthesia.

  • Myself I

    Not sure if I’d choose exactly the same pallet of colours but definitely birghter shades for these pieces that were more ‘energetic’. It is what it does to your senses , bright colours and faster music strike you more than dim colours and gloomy music…as simple as that..

  • Nigga

    harmonic minor hating nigga up in da house!!!!!!!!!

  • Vida Mostaghim

    I never so much see the colors but rather feel them, could this be due to acculturation or my social conditioning I am not so sure. I feel happy sounds would be more bright colors and sad are the dull hues or blues. It would be interesting to find out the difference. for each piece of music I just listened to I made sure i had not seen the colors below and found the choices that i had made matched what was below the piece of music. Again it is difficult to distinguish between bias and actuality but a very interesting article nonetheless, thank you

  • beth behme

    During the many years that I experienced deep depression, I made myself a series of color cards to help myself more clearly and objectively illustrate where my mood was and where it was heading, on a daily basis. When I could see that the colors were progressing in a downward direction over some days’ time, I would promise myself to take whatever action I needed to, to help myself before it got too severe. When it started to get down close to the deep blues I would seek help or take the personal time and action I needed to recoup before I would slide down into the dark reds. Sometimes it was easier to be objectively aware of my state of mind when I used this method. I see music in colors, also. And I am very deliberate with my music selections on any given day, depending on how I feel. I am also careful about the colors I use in my house and personal spaces.

  • Jane


    The participants were given a pallet of 37 colors, actually. Not 5.

    I can agree with one of your points – when I close my eyes and listen to music, I never see colors, either. I have to try hard and search my brain to try and find a color I think would associate with the music.

    However, you do not have to have synesthesia to imagine or see colors while listening to music, @name.

  • Cynthia Grech

    Interesting studies/observations. I believe the connection between colours and music possibly lies in their frequencies. The question then arises as to how this influences the brain activity.

  • Byron Winchell

    I haven’t looked up the slow and low organ music that I term “brown” but I did frequently say this.

  • Cee Wilson

    Very interesting!
    1. I listened to these pieces and I found that the predominent instruments in the piece also added to the color. Violins are gold like honey and trumpets are red.
    2. I never learned music theory nor music history. I have often wondered if the distinctive music of different cultures are identifiable by their key. I would definitely like to learn more about this, if anyone can post links.
    3. I would be very interested to learn if people from different cultures across the globe have the same reactions – especially to music from other cultures to which they may not have been exposed to previously.
    Thanks for the article.

  • N Raphael

    What if I don’t visualise any colours when listening to music?

  • Brittney

    I am music teacher conducting a school wide research experiment using these six pieces and color association. I am testing 500 students aged K-4. I wonder if association of emotions with color is nature or nurtured? At what age do these associations begin? Will a 5 year olds responses be the same as a 50 year olds? Can I even get them to sit and keep their eyes closed long enough to have this be a valid experiment? 😉

  • Peggy

    The “feeling” that music evokes for me is perception of shape and changing of shapes. Not color.

  • Jane Peters

    They’ll use the information to try to sell us stuff. Isn’t that nice?

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