Visual music

"Color music" redirects here. For the suite by Michael Torke, see Color Music (Torke). For "color" and "coloration", see Color (medieval music).
Not to be confused with Graphical sound, a recording technique.

Visual music, sometimes called "colour music," refers to the use of musical structures in visual imagery, which can also include silent films or silent Lumia work. It also refers to methods or devices which can translate sounds or music into a related visual presentation. An expanded definition may include the translation of music to painting; this was the original definition of the term, as coined by Roger Fry in 1912 to describe the work of Wassily Kandinsky.[1]

Visual music also refers to systems which convert music or sound directly into visual forms, such as film, video or computer graphics, by means of a mechanical instrument, an artist's interpretation, or a computer. The reverse is applicable also, literally converting images to sound by drawn objects and figures on a film's soundtrack, in a technique known as drawn or graphical sound. Filmmakers working in this latter tradition include Oskar Fischinger (Ornament Sound Experiments), Norman McLaren, Barry Spinello, Steven Woloshen, Max Hattler, Richard Reeves and other contemporary artists. Visual music overlaps to some degree with the history of abstract film, though not all Visual music is abstract.

There are a variety of definitions of visual music, particularly as the field continues to expand. In some recent writing, usually in the fine art world, visual music is often confused with or defined as synaesthesia, though historically this has never been a definition of visual music. Visual music has also been defined as a form of intermedia.


Since ancient times artists have longed to create with moving lights a music for the eye comparable to the effects of sound for the ear.
Dr. William Moritz, the best-known historian of visual music writing in English, his speciality being the work of Oskar Fischinger.[2]

Sometimes also called "color music," the history of this tradition includes many experiments with color organs. Artist or inventors "built instruments, usually called 'color organs,' that would display modulated colored light in some kind of fluid fashion comparable to music.[3] For example, the Farblichtspiele ('coloured-light-plays') of former Bauhaus student Ludwig Hirschfeld Mack. Several different definitions of color music exist; one is that color music is generally formless projections of colored light. Some scholars and writers have used the term color music interchangeably with visual music.

The construction of instruments to perform visual music live, as with sonic music, has been a continuous concern of this art. Color organs, while related, form an earlier tradition extending as early as the eighteenth century with the Jesuit Louis Bertrand Castel building an ocular harpsichord in the 1730s (visited by Georg Philipp Telemann, who composed for it). Other prominent color organ artist-inventors include: Alexander Wallace Rimington, Bainbridge Bishop, Thomas Wilfred, Charles Dockum and Mary Hallock-Greenewalt.

Visual music on film

Visual music and abstract film or video often coincide. Some of the earliest known films of these two genres were hand-painted works produced by the Futurists Bruno Corra and Arnaldo Ginna between 1911 and 1912 (as they report in the Futurist Manifesto of Cinema), which are now lost. Mary Hallock-Greenewalt produced several reels of hand-painted films (although not traditional motion pictures) that are held by the Historical Society of Philadelphia. Like the Futurist films, and many other visual music films, her 'films' were meant to be a visualization of musical form.

Notable visual music filmmakers include: Walter Ruttmann, Hans Richter, Viking Eggeling, Oskar Fischinger, Len Lye, Jordan Belson, Norman McLaren, Mary Ellen Bute (who made a series of films she called Seeing Sound films), Harry Smith, Hy Hirsh, John and James Whitney, and many others up to present day.

In 2005, a US exhibition called "Visual Music" at the Los Angeles Museum of Contemporary Art and The Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden in Washington DC included documentation of color organs and featured many visual music films and videos as well as paintings and some color organs.

Visionary artist, Larry Cuba, founded the iota Fund in 1994, which was later called iotaCenter. They currently own the films of such important artists at Sara Petty, Adam Beckett, some of the films of Jules Engel, Sky David, Robert Darroll and many more. They hosted the renowned Kinetica festivals (1999-2003) touring the world introducing new audiences to the wonders of visual music.

The Center for Visual Music in Los Angeles has the world's largest collection of visual music resources. CVM has the papers, films and animation artwork of Oskar Fischinger; the original research collection of visual music historian Dr. William Moritz; the films of Jordan Belson; and an extensive collection of restored films by Mary Ellen Bute, John and James Whitney, Jules Engel, Charles Dockum and others. CVM consulted for and provided films, stills and research for the above-mentioned Visual Music exhibition; CVM now provides visual music films, programs, events and talks to museums, archives, festivals and cultural centres worldwide, in addition to curating and developing its own museum exhibitions (recently, Oskar Fischinger: Experiments in Cinematic Abstraction, in Amsterdam).

Computer graphics

Oscilloscope showing a single pitch, a sine wave

The cathode ray tube made possible the oscilloscope, an early electronic device that can produce images that are easily associated with sounds from microphones. The modern Laser lighting display displays wave patterns produced by similar circuitry. The imagery used to represent audio in digital audio workstations is largely based on familiar oscilloscope patterns.

The Animusic company (originally called 'Visual Music') has repeatedly demonstrated the use of computers to convert music principally pop-rock based and composed as MIDI events to animations. Graphic artist-designed virtual instruments which either play themselves or are played by virtual objects are all, along with the sounds, controlled by MIDI instructions.[4]

In the image-to-sound sphere, MetaSynth[5] includes a feature which converts images to sounds. The tool uses drawn or imported bitmap images, which can be manipulated with graphic tools, to generate new sounds or process existing audio. A reverse function allows the creation of images from sounds.[6]

Some media player software generates animated imagery or music visualization based on a piece of recorded music:

See also

The Art of Science of ...

The Industry of ...

Similar Types of Art


  1. The man who heard his paintbox hiss - Telegraph
  2. Moritz, William (1986). "Towards an Aesthetics of Visual Music". ASIFA Canada Bulletin,. Retrieved 15 June 2010.
  3. Moritz, W, (1997), The Dream of Color Music, And Machines That Made it Possible in Animation World Magazine
  4. Alberts, Randy (March 22, 2006). "Inside Animusic's Astonishing Computer Music Videos". O'Reilly Media, Inc. Retrieved 15 June 2010.
  5. U&I Software, Inc.
  6. Sasso, Len (Oct 1, 2005). "U&I SOFTWARE MetaSynth 4 (Mac)". Electronic Musician. Retrieved 15 June 2010.
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