Colour and Sound

Visual Music
by Maura McDonnell (2002) - email:

Recent Writings on Visual Music by Maura McDonnell

Golan Levin AVES

Early Colour organs

"The early history of this art was driven by an interest in color. In the eighteenth century, a Jesuit priest, Louis- Bertrand Castel, invented the first color organ. Others, including D.D. Jameson, Bainbridge Bishop, and A. Wallace Rimington, created color organs through the next century [2].
These instruments, typically controlled by playing a pianostyle keyboard, bathed a screen in everchanging colored light....

Louis Bertrand Castel - CLAVECIN OCULAIRE

The French Jesuit monk Louis Bertrand Castel, the well-known mathematician and physicist, was a firm advocate of there being direct solid relationships between the seven colors and the seven units of the scale, as per Newton's Optics. Around 1742, Castel proposed the construction of a clavecin oculaire, a light-organ, as a new musical instrument which would simultaneously produce both sound and the "correct" associated color for each note.
B (dark) violet Bb agate A violet Ab crimson G red F# orange
F golden yellow
E yellow Eb olive green D green C# pale green C blue


"The Jesuit, Father Louis Bertrand Castel, built an Ocular Harpsichord around 1730, which consisted of a 6-foot square frame above a normal harpsichord; the frame contained 60 small windows each with a different colored-glass pane and a small curtain attached by pullies to one specific key, so that each time that key would be struck, that curtain would lift briefly to show a flash of corresponding color. Enlightenment society was dazzled and fascinated by this invention, and flocked to his Paris studio for demonstrations. The German composer Telemann traveled to France to see it, composed some pieces to be played on the Ocular Harpsichord, and wrote a German-language book about it. But a second, improved model in 1754 used some 500 candles with reflecting mirrors to provide enough light for a larger audience, and must have been hot, smelly and awkward, with considerable chance of noise and malfunction between the pullies, curtains and candles....
Castel predicted that every home in Paris would one day have an Ocular Harpsichord for recreation, and dreamed of a factory making some 800,000 of them. But the clumsy technology did not really outlive the inventor himself, and no physical relic of it survives. " LINK


In 1893, Bainbridge Bishop published regarding his scheme of correspondences for colored notes, which he deemed as being correct according to nature as displayed by rainbows:

B violet-red Bb violet A violet-blue G# blue G green-blue
F# green
F yellow-green E green-gold / yellow
D# yellow-orange
D orange C# orange-red C red

By this time, Bishop had already constructed at least three color organs, capable of playing both sound and corresponding light together or separately. Perhaps surprisingly, the three color organs were each destroyed in separate fires. [Link]

"I made a number of experimental instruments, re-modeling and changing them to most fully carry out the idea, and obtain the best effect. The most satisfactory one I made [see frontispiece] had a large ground glass about five feet in diameter, framed like a picture, and set in the upper part of the instrument. On this the colors were shown. The instrument had little windows glazed with different-colored glass, each window with a shutter, and so arranged that by pressing the keys of the organ the shutter was thrown back, letting in a colored light. This light, diffused and reflected on a white screen behind the ground glass and partly on the glass, produced a color that was softly shaded into the neutral tint of the glass. Chords were shown properly, the lower bass spreading over the whole as a ground or foil for the other colors or chords of color, and all furnishing beautiful and harmonious effects in combination with the music."


NOTE: Source Article for above quote by Bainbridge Bishop [Article is titled: A SOUVENIR OF THE COLOR ORGAN, WITH SOME SUGGESTIONS IN REGARD TO THE SOUL OF THE RAINBOW AND THE HARMONY OF LIGHT written by Bainbride Bishop in 1893 is available to download in pdf format at Fred Callopy's Rhythmic Light web site



Rimington (born 1850s)



Rimington's article:
A new art colour-music by alexander wallace rimington

"Electricity opened new possibilities for projected light, which were exploited by the British painter A. Wallace Rimington, whose Colour Organ formed the basis of the moving lights that accompanied the 1915 New York premiere of Scriabin's synaesthetic symphony Prometheus: A Poem of Fire, which had indications of precise colors in the score. Scriabin wanted everyone in the audience to wear white clothes so that the projected colors would be reflected on their bodies and thus possess the whole room. " LINK

Links re Rimington

Interesting Link re Chronology of the Technology of Lighting


Summary of Mapping elements of colour to sound
Extensive Historical information related to visual music at

Fred Callopy of rhythmiclight in his website gives an excellent historical account of colour and music in terms of the literature available on artists/composers/researchers who worked in this area. As well as summarising some of the colour to music scales, he also presents other attributes of image and music focused on, some I have included here from the site.

LIST OF MAPPINGS of colour to music (compiled at rhythmiclight website)
Fred Callopy reviews the literature re colour and music and has presented these according to these categories LINK


Pitch to Hue
The most persistent association of color and music has been the effort to correlate discrete hues with specific tones.
Of all of the possible correspondences between the elements of color (hue, saturation and value) and those of sound (pitch, amplitude, and tone color), the most often proposed mapping is of pitch to hue. Many such mappings have been proposed and some were built into light instruments.
Link to good summary and overview of colourscales link

ScreenShot from Rhythmic Light Website. Link

Dark to Deep
"And dark and light colors do actually have effects which are comparable to low and high musical tones. Dark colors are sonorous, powerful, mightly like deep tones. But light colors, like those of the Impressionists, act, when they alone make up a whole work, with the magic of high voices: floating, light, youthful, carefree, and probably cool too." Karl Gerstner, The Forms of Color 1986, 173

Music timbre tone(overtones) to colour tone
synopsis taken from site: link
Each instrument or voice has its own characteristic tembre. The artist Kandinsky considered how these might relate to colors.
Yellow ... an ever louder trumpet blast or a fanfare elevated to a high pitch.
Orange ... a church bell of medium pitch ringing the angelus, or like a rich contralto voice, or a viola playing largo
Red ... fanfares with contributions from the tuba--a persistent, intrusive, powerful tone...Vermilion sounds like the tuba and parallels can be drawn with powerful drumbeats
Purple ... high, clear, singing tones of the violin. ...successive tones of little bells (including horse bells) are called 'raspberry-colored sounds' in Russian
Violet ...cor anglais or shawm, and in its depths the deep tones of the woodwind instruments (for example, bassoon)
Blue ... a flute, dark blue the cello, and going deeper, the wonderful sonority of the contrabass; in its deep solemn form, the sound of blue is comparable to the bass organ
Green ... quiet, drawn-out, meditative tones of the violin

Tempo and Shape
The faster the music, the sharper and more angular the visual image. Link

Rimsky-Korsakov and Scriabin
According to the article on ''Color and Music'' in the wonderfully musty 1938 edition of the Oxford Companion to Music, the two composers had very specific color-music scales in mind. LINK

"So Castel's instrument, despite its imperfect realization, became a de facto ancestor to the many colour organs that began to appear in 19th century - culminating in Scriabin's tastiera per luce, designed for his 1911 premiere of "Prometheus: a poem of fire", but dispensed with due to technical difficulties with primitive electrical equipment. This work is the only major orchestral piece to include a scored part for colour, but it is rarely performed. Scriabin's colour-music code employed an approximately spectral array of colours, but aligned them to a cycle of fifths rather than the simple note progression of a scale." LINK



"A similar demand for white-clad audience was posited by the Italian Futurist artists Arnaldo Ginna and Bruno Corra, who experimented with "color organ" projection in 1909 and painted some nine abstract films directly on film-stock in 1911". LINK

"MUSIC." Luigi Russolo, 1911

"Russolo's painting might suggest a belief in correspondences of colour to music. The clearest clue is provided in a manifesto on "The Painting of Sounds, Noises and Smells", by his comrade Carlo Carrà: - "...rrrrrrreds that shouuuuuuut, greeeeeeeeeeeens that screeeeeeam, yellows, as violent as can be." Other Futurists, the brothers Ginna and Corra, committed themselves to a spectral colour-music code inspired by their Theosophical beliefs. Bruno Corra's "Abstract Cinema-Chromatic Music" provides an intriguing account of the techniques the brothers used, employing the code first on a colour piano then translating the effects to film in 1910-12. " LINK


Futurist Articles:

Abstract Cinema and Chromatic Music by Bruno Corra

The Painting of Sounds, Noises and Smells by Carrà, Carlo. 1913

The Futurist Cinema by f.t. marinetti, bruno corra, emilio settimelli, arnaldo ginna, giacomo balla and remo chiti 15th November 1916


Leopold Survage

Around 1911 "the Finnish/Danish/Russian Leopold Survage (then resident in Paris, and friends with Picasso and Modigliani) prepared hundreds of sequential paintings for an abstract film Rythme Coloré, which he hoped to film in one of the new multicolor processes that were being developed, but the onset of World War I prevented that; he sold a number of the paintings, so that they were widely dispersed and have still not been filmed." LINK

Leopold Survage

Colored Rhythm is in no way an illustration or an interpretation of a musical work. It is an art in itself, even if it is based on the same psychological facts as music.

Leopold Survace "Cerebral art-art which has gone beyond the reflex-gesture of a sensation or external perception"

for a pdf version of: The Glistening Bridge by Leopold Survage and the Spatial Problem in Painting by Samuel Putnam NEW YORK COVICI-FRIEDE PUBLISHERS 1929

...By 1930, Thomas Wilfred had coined the word lumia to describe the emerging art, and organized the structure of lumia around three factors. "Form, color and motion are the three basic factors in lumia-as in all visual experience-and form and motion are the two most important" [4]. It was with Wilfred's Clavilux that controls came to be organized into three groups.

The latest type of Clavilux consists of units that broadly correspond to manuals on a pipe organ. Each unit has its bank of sliding keys divided into three groups; form keys, color keys, and motion keys. A neutral white beam of light of great strength is intercepted by an arrangement of lenses and built into form through the form keys. The form, or forms, are made to move rhythmically by means of the motion keys, and either one color or several in any combination are finally introduced from the color keys. The whole instrument is played from a notation book so that any composition can be duplicated exactly, with a margin for personal interpretations by the playing artist " (Source: Fred Collopy, “Color, form, and motion: Dimensions of a musical art of light,” Leonardo, Vol. 33, No. 5, 2000, 355-360. - pdf version of his article available at his site at:

Thomas Wilfred : Clavilux


Abstract Film and Color Music image from Clavilux, Wilfred seated in front of Clavilux Jr, Clavilx Junior Composition Glass Disks

Thomas Wilfred, “Light and the artist,” Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism, (V) June 1947, 247-255.
Available as pdf at (SEE:

"He stressed polymorphous, fluid streams of color slowly metamorphosing. He established an Art Institute of Light in New York, and toured giving Lumia concerts in the United States and Europe (at the famous Art Déco exhibition in Paris). He also built "lumia boxes," self-contained units that looked rather like television sets, which could play for days or months without repeating the same imagery. " LINK


A Brief History of Synesthesia in the Arts by Sean A Day
Goes through the historical mappings of colour and to music - from china to persia, from pythagoras to newton, interesting site

The Dream of Color Music, And Machines That Made it Possible by William Moritz

Research Paper: Synesthesia & Design : A symbiosis by Stewart Ziff [Broken Link]
Quote "2.4.1 Synthetic or Artificial Synesthesia Synthetic or Artificial Synesthesia is induced by joining the real information of one sense (sight, sound, touch, taste, or smell) and mapping it onto another sense through the use of a cross-modal device. Eg: Seeing with your ears when using a device that maps images into sounds, or hearing with your eyes, by mapping sound to images. "

Soundings Suzanne Delehanty From SOUNDINGS, Neuberger Museum, SUNY Purchase, 1981

A history of Light and Lighting
Extensive history even mentions the sun....goes back a long way, interesting

Light Shows

Stage Lighting, Abstract Filmmakers, Music and Image


Painting Color Music

Plate 2: COLOUR COMPOSITION DERIVED FROM THREE BARS OF MUSIC IN THE KEY OF GREEN (aka COLOUR SCALE ON A MUSICAL THEME FROM BEETHOVEN), Roy De Maistre, 1935. Private Collection. (from "Roy De Maistre: The English Years, 1930 to 1968", Heather Johnson.)


Paul Friedlander

Visual Music - Light Sculptors

web site:

In this illustration, you see a spinning string vibrating in harmony, this description sounds like a musical instrument, but it is a light sculpture. The vibrating form is a superposition of the second and fourth harmonic: a 'visual chord'.
Still From Paul Friendlander Light Sculptor


Defines three types of Visual Music at his website:



Download ZIP ART for free from his site - It is his first experiment at creating a visual instrument with a computer.


Fred Callopy of rhythmiclight recommends using the HSV colour model when attempting to map colour to music.

Fred Callopy of rhythmiclight recommends using the HSV colour model when attempting to map colour to music. In his website he gives an excellent account of colour and music in terms of history and in terms of designing software that maps colour to music. His imager software is utilised by himself to create colours and forms that respond to music.

LINK TO THREE video clips of FRED CALLOPYs work:
Blue Glass, weDDDing, Film for Music . Also available on a CD

The language we use to denote colors is associated prirnarily with their hues. rainbow because there were seven natural tones in the musical scale. A hue can be referenced by its angle around a color wheel. Numerous color wheels have been defined. They all share the objective of making the relationships among hues more accessible. Because hue is a continuous space, naming and distinguishing among hues is somewhat arbitrary. Goethe and Schopenhauer spoke of six distinct hues, Ostwald of eight, Munsell of ten [8]. deep notes.

Saturation describes how pure a particular hue is. It is also referred to as the intensity, strength, or chroma of a color. Reducing the saturation of a particular hue, while maintaining its value, has the effect of adding white pigment, producing what artists call tints.

Value is the quality that differentiates a light color from a dark one. It is also referred to as lightness. A particular color moves toward black by a reduction in its value. Low-valued colors are less visible than ones with higher values. Decreasing value while leaving saturation alone has the effect of adding black pigment, producing what are referred to as different shades. Finally, what artists refer to as tones can be created by decreasing both saturation and value. One of the reasons that the HSV color model is so useful is that there is a substantial literature that uses these concepts: hue, tint, shade, and tone-to describe art history and technique.

Contemporary Electronic Kits for Color Organs and Light Shows
Worth checking out for christmas parties!!!


#9935 - Color Organ ‘Power Blaster’ Musical Light Show Kit $25.90
110AC-operated; 4-channel color organ; high-impedance line input; additional sensitivity pot.





Psychedelic light show special effects

Contemporary Colour and Sound Work

Realtime area

The Audiovisual Environment Suite (AVES) is a set of five interactive systems which allow people to create and perform abstract animation and synthetic sound in real time.

Download various web video clips at:





Parallel in the 1920s to people working with color organs, Walther Ruttmann and Oskar Fischinger were pioneering visual music films in Germany, using tinted animation to live musical accompaniment.

Many of Music Led Films are highly abstract pieces analagous to abstract painting. However others aren't, and make use of the medium and techniques of film and cinema to create film material. The advent and development of computer animation and computer manipulation has made many of the techniques explored by earlier avant-garde experimental filmmakers very accessible and effortless to use. (like music concrete to soundforge)

Ideas Explored

Anaologies between music and visual art - to film

Music Analogies such as Orchestration of Visual elements in terms of Time, Contrast, Similarity (Hans Richter in Rhythms films)
Composing motion as composers compose sound (Len Lye)
Animation as music
Alternative means of Expression with cinematic techniques / Digital Techniques
Cinematic experiments creating sound without using external sources began in the 20s with the recognition that patterns read optically can produce sound.



Oskar Fischinger
Len Lye
Leopold Survage
Viking Eggeling
Hans Richter
Man Ray
Walter Ruttman
James and John Whitney
Fernand Leger
Marcel Duchamp

Stan Brakhage
Harry Smith
Mary Ellen Bute
A. Wallace Rimington
Oskar Fischinger

Visual Music
Links for source material for this page
Festivals of Experimental Art


Visual Music
Abstract Film/cinema
absolute film
Experimental Film
avant garde film
Cinematographic and Musical Abstractism
Collapsing Image into Music
Cameraless animation


Oskar Fischinger

See Oskar Fishinger's writings online at - see Articles section


"Fischinger´s attitude towards music could be held as somewhat ambiguous but according to Moritz he did not regard his films as musical visualizations. He held the abstract imagery to contain qualities parallel to the ones found in music, and the actual soundtrack used as means to attract the attention of the audience to recognize this (Moritz 1974:50). The audience, then as now, were more inclined to accept music as "abstract" artform than they were towards painting, where the question; "what does this represent?" is bound to appear. Fischinger saw himself as an abstract expressionist but in contrast to fellow artists such as Jackson Pollock, he constantly searched for visual harmony in his art." [Broken Link]


"The flood of feeling created through music intensified the feeling and effectiveness of this graphic cinematic expression, and helped to make understandable the absolute film. Under the guidance of music, which was already highly developed there came the speedy discovery of new laws - the application of acoustical laws to optical expression was possible."

"As in the dance, new motions and rhythms sprang out of the music - and the rhythms became more and more important. ---Oskar Fischinger
Etudes, Optical Poem (1938) to music of Second Hungarian Rhapsody by F. List, Motion Painting No. 1 " (1947) to music of Third Brandenburg Concerto by I.S. Bach"

Until his death in 1969, Fischinger influenced a large number of filmmakers such as, Harry Smith, Jordan Belson, Norman McLaren, and the brothers John and James Whitney, as an individual artist and experimental animator. The composer John Cage were among the artists not working with film who was directly influenced by Fischinger and his ideas on art. LINK

Resources on Oskar Fishinger - Center for Visual Music

At the Center for Visual Music, there are articles, see Library and a Gallery with a a number of Fischinger animation drawings).


Images Above

Circular images above are painted slides by Matthias Holl used by László in his 1920s Farblichtmusik performances (thanks to C. Keefer at the The Center for Visual Music for this information)


"In the late 1940s, he also invented a color organ instrument that allowed one to play lights to any music very simply. His Lumigraph hides the lighting elements in a large frame, from which only a thin slit emits light. In a darkened room (with a black background) you can not see anything except when something moves into the thin "sheet" of light, so, by moving a finger-tip around in a circle in this light field, you can trace a colored circle (colored filters can be selected and changed by the performer). Any object can be used: a gloved hand, a drum-stick, a pot-lid (for a solid circle), a child's block (for a square), etc. Oskar performed certain compositions (such as Sibelius' "Valse Triste") publicly, at the Coronet Theater in Los Angeles, and at the San Francisco Museum of Art in 1953, in connection with a one-man show of his abstract oil paintings

Fischinger's Lumigraph was licensed for use in the 1960's sci-fi film, Time Travelers.



Oskar's original Lumigraph does survive, in the Deutsches Filmmuseum in Frankfurt, where it is played with some regularity, and it has been loaned to the Louvre in Paris and the Gemeente Museum in the Hague for performances by Oskar's widow Elfriede. Oskar's son Conrad also constructed two other Lumigraphs, one large one that was used on an Andy Williams television special, and a smaller one to use in Los Angeles performances. The Lumigraph also appeared in a 1964 science-fiction movie The Time Travelers, in which it is a "love machine" that allows people to vent their sexual urges in a harmless sensuality. LINK

Oskar Fishinger DVD

The first Fischinger DVD will be released May 2006, go to for further details

You can buy Oskar Fishinger's films in vhs and soon to be released DVD format at the Center for Visual Music

You can buy Oskar Fishinger's films in vhs and soon to be released DVD format at the Center for Visual Music


Len lye


Direct Films
(1935 - 1980) approx "One of my art teachers put me onto trying to find my own art theory. After many morning idea hit me that seemed like a complete revelation. It was to compose motion, just as musicians compose sound."

"There has never been a great film unless it was created in the spirit of the experimental filmmaker."

Len Lye was a major figure in experimental filmmaking as well as a leading kinetic sculptor and an innovative theorist, painter and writer. He pioneered 'direct film,' film made without a camera, by painting and scratching images directly onto celluloid, by reworking found footage, by casting shadows of objects onto unexposed film, and by experimenting with a number of early color techniques.

"All of a sudden it hit me - If there was such a thing as composing music, there could be such a thing as composing motion. After all, there are melodic figures, why can't there be figures of motion?"

Example: Two Movie clips available at (excerpt 2 partcularily interesting):


Hans Richter


Hand painted films

  • Orchestration Approach
  • Positive negative relationships
  • Time

"We realized that the “orchestration” of time was the esthetic basis of this new art form."

Richter's position in the art world was unique. As one of the earliest exponents of Dada, he was also one of the first to recognize the new possibilities cinematography offered the artist. He participated in the first avant-garde film movement alongside Léger, Duchamp, Man Ray, Picabia, Cocteau and Dali, and later in New York his teachings would influence many of the "New American Cinema" filmmakers.
He worked initially with abstract and object animation sequences interspersed with nonrealistic live-action photography.
His collaboration with Viking Eggeling produced several important ideas. One was their use of "themes" or "instruments", transformations of one form into another. A second was the idea of continuity, the orchestration of a given instrument through different stages. Finally as these relationships multiplied, they realized that there was a sensation that the remembering eye received by carrying its attention from one detail, phase or sequence to another. Moved into film from experiments with scroll paintings

Films such as Rhythmus 21 (Rhythm 21) 1921

In 1921 Richter created his first film, Rhythmus 21. He used the rectangle (the shape of the screen) as his basic form and orchestrated with time. "It became possible to relate (in contrast-analogy) the various movements on this 'movie-canvas' to each other" (Richter2, p79). The contrasts were the opposites presented in the film: black against white, left against right, top against bottom. Portraying similarities while displaying these contrasts would result in analogies.


Shown in camera and rhythm class. web clip available at revoir website






FILMS available ar re-voir website:


Scroll Paintings

eg Preludium (Prelude) 1919

Richter and Swedish painter Viking Eggeling experimented with several artistic techniques and different media for expression. such as the Chinese language. "They did not study the language to learn Chinese, but to understand the relationships between the lines and curves of the symbols. Eggeling's focus was more on the lines themselves, whereas Richter was concerned with the interplay between the lines.

This is when Richter begins to bring together his ideas positive-negative relationships and reshape them into rhythmic expression. "...a vertical line was accentuated by a horizontal, a strong line connected with a weak one, a single line gained importance from many lines etc."


…this kind of film gives memory nothing to hang on. At the mercy of "feeling", reduced to going with the rhythm according to the successive rise and fall of the breath and the heartbeat, we are given a sense of what feeling and perceiving really is: a process - MOVEMENT." -Hans Richter 1924

Hans Richter Magazine of Art February, 1952
pdf version available from the Rhythmic Light website

Example: Two Movie clips available at:

Contemporary handpainted films

Two Additions to the Tradition Two younger filmmakers have also devoted themselves to making abstract films directly on the filmstrip: Richard Reeves in Canada and Bärbel Neubauer in Austria and Germany.

Bärbel Neubauer

Roots: An Experiment in Images and Music by Bärbel Neubauer. Roots is a metamorphoses of color and form which is painted, drawn and stamped directly on blank film and corresponds to rhythm and music. Download quicktime at

Quicktime can be download at

Richard Reeves'

Linear Dreams

Linear Dreams, at seven minutes, has an epic sweep. It begins with a pulsating sound like a heartbeat and images of a throbbing red circle with nervous, scratched lines touching it from the sides,....

Putting these films in a context, bleep from site:

Len Lye and Norman McLaren made such an impression with their abstract films painted and scratched directly onto film that when some other cameraless film begins to screen at a festival one often hears several disgruntled voices saying, "McLaren and Lye already did this"--as if nothing new could be done with the technique. Drawing or scratching directly onto film strips is just a technical means, and nobody would think of saying, "Painting on cels? That's already been done, so I won't watch this new film..." Several people like, the Italian brothers Arnaldo Ginna and Bruno Corra, the German Hans Stoltenberg and the Belgian Henri Storck, painted abstractions on film before Lye and McLaren, but these films do not survive for us to see or judge. Films like Lye's Colour Box and Free Radicals or McLaren and Evelyn Lambart's Begone Dull Care are superb masterpieces that one can see over and over, and remember fondly. Plus, the tradition of direct abstract film continues: the great Basque painter Jose Antonio Sistiaga made a feature-length direct abstract film, Ere Erera Baleibu Icik Subua Aruaren, released in 1970, while Lye and McLaren were still alive. Believe it or not, all 75 minutes of it are fascinating, with a cumulative satisfaction. Sistiaga's 1989 7-minute Impressions In The High Atmosphere is a breathtaking masterpiece. A central circle, stable except for its fluctuating enamel-like textures, is surrounded by restless, swirling currents. His 1991 14-minute Nocturne is again a deeply moving, and very beautiful, film.


Abstract Filmmakers - Music Led

"Shortly after the end of the nineteenth century, a strong avante garde movement was moving throughout the world of art. Expressionism, constructivism, surrealism, cubism, and dadaism were all parts of this newly structured abstract art. Traditional theories of representational art were thrown out the window. New ways of working with space, shape, form and even time began to make their way into the artistic scene. Near the forefront of this movement was a painter by the name of Hans Richter." [LINK BROKEN]

Twentieth-century painters and photographers in Germany and France, confronted with the increasing dynamism of everyday life, investigated the technical and aesthetic fundamentals of film. They hoped with this new medium to achieve 'a dance-like motion of the entire image' (W. Ruttmann). With new single frame exposure and montage techniques of single frames, the filmmakers of 'absolute' and surrealistic film succeeded in setting in motion even static images and stationary objects. Because of the numerous European experimental filmmakers who fled National Socialism, the avant-garde cinema of the Twenties reached the U.S.A during World War II. Young filmmakers eagerly adopted the avant-garde and further developed it in their own sound and colour films. Still today, artists with varying aspirations are interested in dancing images because it enables them to compose visual music, exhaust the borders of perception or extend dance to new dimensions. [LINK BROKEN]

Visual Music
While theories for the visual equivalent of music have existed since antiquity, the mechanics necessary for the expression of the art of color and movement developed only recently into the current wide range of media and techniques. Yet along with this modern variety of methodology, there somehow came a polarization of the art form based on its varying technology. In the world of film it has been known as many things, including "Abstract Animation" or "Absolute Film." In video it has been referred to as "Video Synthesis" or "Image Processing." And centuries before either medium, artists invented their own one-of-a-kind hardware to project moving imagery in live performance. Some of the later "visual music" inventors gave the art their own name, such as "Lumia," "Mobil Color," or "Color Music."

Man Ray

"Inventions of light forms and movements" is the way Man Ray described the films he made in the 1920s.

Surrealist Filmmaker

Visual Poetry

"Of the small handful of films which the great surrealist artist Man Ray made in the 1920s, Emak-Bakia is arguably the one which adheres most closely to the principles of Dadaist surrealism. It is also perhaps the most baffling of Man Ray’s films, involving some of his most extraordinary abstract visual imagery, with far less recognisable images than his other films, such as L’Étoile de mer and Les Mystères du château de Dé. The film is in fact closer in style to Man Ray’s 1923 experimental short film, Le Retour à la raison, and uses some of the techniques which the artist invented for that film. The title “Emak-Bakia” was taken from an old Basque expression, which translates as "Don't bother me." Link

True to Dadaist tradition, Man Ray questioned the application of prevailing logic in the sequence of images in his films. The represented should only stand for itself. Images should not be bound together by means of a general content, but only through montage. In this way, in "Emak Bakia”, light and its reflections along with the movement of bodies and objects become pure visual poetry.
videotanz/english/d_stories/tg_e30.htm[Broken Link]

Emak-Bakia 1926 Art / Fantasy

Link to Real Media Streaming Video Clip
Man Ray: Emak Bakia (20:18)
Man Ray: L' Etoile de mer (17:59)
Man Ray: Poison (3:30)


Marcel Duchamp


Rotorelief Discs


to animations of Duchamps Rotoreliefs (applets)

Assemblage of Duchamp Objects Exhibition - Movie Clips. These QuickTime movies contain animations originally produced as part of a proposal for "Hidden in Plain Sight," an interactive space representing the most complete collection ever assembled of objects signed by French-American artist Marcel Duchamp. As the four-part tour below reveals, the installation is a hybrid space designed for the study, exhibition and storage of Duchamp's works, in a hands-on environment. [Link Broken]

Anaemic Cinema 1926


Resources on Duchamp at:

Walter Ruttmann

Absolute film to representational imagery

The creator of the early abstract films Opus I, II, III and IV, began this, probably his best know film, in 1926. Ruttmann directed the film and collaborated with Carl Mayer (a screen writer who had co-written the script for Das Cabinet des Dr. Caligari), Karl Freund (the director of Fox-Europe Production), and Lore Leudesdorff who had already assisted Ruttmann with Opus III andIV. Rather than write a conventional script Ruttmann devised a card system that allowed for flexibility and reshuffling of ideas for scenes and the overall structure of the film. In addition to written notes for an idea, a card included specifications about the length of the scene, the desired atmosphere, and a visual sketch, a mini-storyboard so to speak. The music that accompanies the film was written by Edmund Meisel who also directed the orchestra at the film’s public opening at the Tauentzien-Palast in Berlin. Ruttmann and Meisel worked closely together aiming at a harmonious whole consisting of images and music, and Meisel described the music as a “conglomerate of the various sounds of a metropolis”.

Since creating his purely abstract Opus films Ruttmann had made a number of advertisement films for Julius Pinschewer, had worked on Paul Wegener’s film Lebende Buddhas, had created the dream sequence for Fritz Lang’s Die Nibelungen, and had made the beginning sequence, some of the background imagery, and other scenes for Lotte Reininger’s silhouette film Die Abenteuer des Prinzen Achmed. His advertisement films combined abstract with representational imagery and color with black and white sequences, and his contributions to the feature films meant, of course, that his largely abstract images were subsumed within a larger, representational whole. These were precisely the two uses of purely abstract filmic images that the critics of the absolute film approved of. By the time he began Berlin, Symphony of a Great City, Ruttmann had come to the conclusion that he needed representational imagery to accomplish his vision in film.


Clips of Berlin, Symphony of a Great City (1927) available at: Link

In 1921 the first of Walter Ruttmannīs series of Opus-films were completed. Ruttmann was one of the artists of the German avant-garde who broke new ground with his experiments, and influenced new artists to explore the potential of cinema.

Films Opus 1,11,111,1V

Still from opus 1


Walter Ruttmann first produced his painted films Opus II and III entirely based on the momentum of flowing abstract forms which he painted on a glass plate. He placed this plate under the camera on an animation stand, so that he could expose individual frames at the appropriate moment. The impression of movement in the final film is created by the frequency of exposures he made of these flowing changing forms.
[Broken Link]

Berlin, Symphony of a Great City (1927)

John and James Whitney

The use of the computer in experimental film making has a rich history which reached a peak in the late 1960s, but stemmed from the early approaches and experimental 16mm work by key figures John and James Whitney in the late 1940s.

The Whitney brothers were exploring 16mm experimental film, gaining a reputation for their Film Exercises made between 1941-44. The Whitney's had a formidable background in traditional film making techniques winning first prize at the first Experimental Film Festival in Belgium in 1949.

John Whitney (1917-1995) later became director of animated films at UPA producing, in association with Saul Bass, the stylized and hypnotic opening title sequence for Hitchcock's Vertigo. By the early 1960s, with his own company Motion Graphics Inc., he was exploring his passion for the realisation of experimental films using hand built technologies.

John designed and built an "analogue computer" - a machine to realise effects and ideas that had up to that point no technical means of expression. At the time they said they were "trying to make something and there wasn't a machine available for making it".

It allowed infinitely complex rotational camera movement, filters and multiple variations for shutter operations, including slit-scanning; the technique Douglas Trumbull later developed and refined for Stanley Kubrick's experimental sequences in 2001, but which had actually been used by the Whitney family a number of years earlier.

Apart from collaborations with his brother, James Whitney (1921-1982) made two key films during this period - Yantra (1950-55) and Lapis (1963-66) which explore the mandalic possibilities of film. The first Yantra, was made painstakingly by hand using animation techniques and the second Lapis utilised the advantages offered by the analogue computer being able to generate more complex imagery much faster. [Broken Link]

Digital Harmony

John Whitney's classic book, "Digital Harmony" (1980), described/illustrated what went into the creation of "Arabesque." "Digital Harmony" also set forth John Whitney's theories on fusing music and imagery. For him music was visual, imagery musical, and digital computers offered the possibility of algorithmically melding the two. With the "Moondrum" (1991) series of computer graphics films he composed a musical soundtrack on a midi keyboard simultaneous to generating abstract imagery. [Broken Link]

The 80's would see an expansion of Whitney's exploration of digital harmony. By now he was composing his own music, searching for, as he writes, "a special relationship between musical and visual design." (Whitney, 1991).

Whitney was defining a new kind of composer: One with the ability to conceive ideas both musically and visually.

"Whether quick or slow, action, as well as harmony, determines much of the shape of my own audio-visual work today. Action itself has an impact on emotions. Fluid, orderly action generates or resolves tensions much in the manner that orderly sequences of resonant tonal harmony have an impact on emotion and feeling..." (Whitney, 1991).

The late 1980's would see numerous John Whitney works, combinations of original music and visuals. From Spirals in 1988, to Moondrum, a Native-American influenced series of works completed in the span of 1989-1995, Whitney was now using a special composing program developed in association with programmer Jerry Reed called the RDTD, that enabled the artist to create "musical design intertwined with color design tone-for-tone, played against action-for-action" (Whitney, 1996). LINK

Digital Harmony Quicktime

Arabesque Quicktime

Music is the supreme example of movement become pattern. Music is time given sublime shape. If for no other reason than its universality and its status in the collective mind, music invites imitation. A visual art should give the same superior shape to the temporal order that we expect of music.

"The compositions at best are intended to point a way toward future developments in the arts. Above all, I want to demonstrate that electronic music and electronic color-in-action combine to make an inseparable whole that is much greater than its parts." John Whitney, Sr. died September 22, 1995 in Los Angeles, California, ending a remarkable career that linked music to experimental film and later to computer imaging. John Hales Whitney was born April 8, 1917 in Pasadena, California; he attended Pomona College, Claremont University before spending a year in Paris from 1937 to 1938. While in Paris, he studied Schoenberg's Twelve Tone techniques with Rene Liebowitz and worked on the animation of abstract designs. KEYWORDS Motion Pattern Time


Music with Imagery

Book: Digital Harmony (1980)

Digital Harmony Still.

Click image for link to quicktime clip

Links or original url

Norman McLaren

McLaren was born in Scotland in 1914 and while studying art he had become increasingly interested in the potential of filmmaking.

McLaren began painting directly on stock in the 30s and in 1949 he made the wonderful Begone Dull Care to jazz music by Oscar Peterson's trio. According to Giannalberto Bendazzi the film won excited acclaim from Picasso who praised it in the following way; "Finally, something new!" (Bendazzi 1994:116)

McLaren´s films shows a multitude of different styles and techniques from minimalistic abstract work to short narrative films like the pixillated Oscar winner Neighbours (1952) and the beautiful interpretation of dance in Pas de Deux (1959).

McLaren´s investigations of the cinema includes the production of synthetic sound as in the mentioned Neighbours and Two Bagatelles (1952).

Cinematic experiments creating sound without using external sources began in the 20s with the recognition that patterns read optically can produce sound. This very direct notion of "seeing" sound attracted Fischinger in the early 30s as it later did McLaren.
[Broken Link]

Richard Reeves´ (b. 1959) sparkling 1997 film Linear Dreams (also to be seen in the International programme) is an outstanding firework of sound and image which explores this area. The pulsating play with colours is part of an audio-visual totality of abstract patterns and figurative elements, and it is made totally in McLaren´s spirit.
[Broken Link]

Lejf Marcussen

The investigation of visual realities is crucial for the Danish filmmaker Lejf Marcussen (b. 1936). In the early 70s he joined the Danish broadcasting company Danmarks Radio where he began making experimental films. While his films reveals a mixture of different techniques the notion of film as non-verbal artform is strong in all of them.

In Tonespor (1983) he makes a visual interpretation based on music by Carl Nielsen. Each instrumental group or musical "voice" is represented by a coloured line which closely follow the musical movement.

Stan Brackhage

There is a form of film that is trying to evolve that area of thinking which I call 'moving visual thinking'. And it is intrinsically a visual music....

Harry Smith

My films are more or less educational - I've never done much with them as far as illucidating what the subject matter is - but they are like the basic rhythms that are in music.

Mary Ellen Bute Background in Painting. She wanted to "wield light in a flowing time-continuum". Studied stage and lighting in order to build a color organ. Her visuals were made to music and that music was seen in terms of their mathematical formulae. She was influenced by musician Joseph Schillinger. He had developed a theory about musical structure, which reduced all music to a series of mathematical formulae. They had collaborated on a film together that was never made.. However his mathematical approach to music influenced all her animation films.
A. Wallace Rimington We have, therefore, in colour, as in music, both discord and harmony, wide in their scope and mutually dependent. We can in both produce series and sequences of harmonies differing in their degree of pleasantness. We can change them into discords and resolve them again into harmonies, we can, in fact, use colour as we use musical sounds.  
L. Delluke photogenius  
W. Lindsay Music of Movement  
P. Vegener Visual Symphony  
Sergei Eisenstein Music of Light  
J.Dullac Integral Cinematograph  
Visual Music
Definition of some experimental cinema as being "visual music". Where there is a dynamic action and expressiveness of cinema images, an important role of rhythm, plasticity and light. This visual music reflects its closeness to music and dance.
Often abstract and plotless visualisation of music. Many films appear to be a visual potrait of music being enriched with music intonation, content and meaning
D. Vertov Cinema Eye  
N. Voinov 1931 Abstract film to Rachmaninov's "Prelude in Csharp minor"  
V. Eggeling (Sweeden)
Diagonal Symphony (1917)
P. Dukas    
N. McLaren

His films were closer to painting and light-music and he developed a manual technique of scratching coloured images by hand onto the surface of the film strip.
"Begone Dull Care" 1949 to music of O.Peterson and
"Horizontal Line" (1962) to music by P. Zeeger

Some Resources

Scriabin Prometheus
Sviridov Small triptych (1975)  
B.Galeyev Eternal Motion (1969), Space Sonata (1981). Reverse method of visuals then music used
Norman McLaren Dream of Colour Music  

The Dream of Color Music, And Machines That Made it Possible by William Moritz
"The dream of creating a visual music comparable to auditory music found its fulfillment in animated abstract films by artists such as Oskar Fischinger, Len Lye and Norman McLaren; but long before them, many people built instruments, usually called "color organs," that would display modulated colored light in some kind of fluid fashion comparable to music....."

Mary Hallock Greenewalt with her Visual-Music Phonograph (1919.) Photo by Shewell Ellis.

Animation as music by Rune Kreutz

COLLAPSING IMAGE INTO MUSIC: Part 1 Musique Concrete, electronica & Sound Art published: The Wire No.166, 1997, London
[Broken Link]


Music and Image Tools Links
Extensive resource listed at the rhythmic light site, including its own imager software. - Link

Art Science
Prix ars electronica archive [Broken Link]


This site was compiled in 2002 by Maura McDonnell in order to gather together some resources and links on the history of colour and sound and visual music. If you wish to make any suggestions or comments, please do contact me. Email: I will be updating the design of this page in the near future. The site consists mainly of quotes from articles, and historical documents that were available online in 2002. The path through the topic is the authors own path. Thanks to C. Keefer at the Center for Visual Music for checking over the page. The Center for Visual Music has extensive resources in relation to this topic. Thanks also to Fred Callopy of Rhythmic Light for his extensive online resources, in particular historical documents that he has made available online.

Maura McDonnell (2002)
See also more recent notes M. McDonnell has compiled at:
Maura also creates visual music work, this can be seen on her website:

Updated April 2006


RECENT WRITING on Visual Music by Maura McDonnell

Visual Music Essay (2007)
(originally published in the programme catalogue for the Visual Music Marathon Event held in Boston USA, 2007 organised by Dennis H. Miller - the online version is not illustrated, however, the catalogue version is richly illustrated with images )
Visual Music Blog (started 2005)


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