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)

Human Journey

Melody Kramer writes and edits pieces for both National Geographic's magazine and website. She tweets @mkramer.