Last week’s Casual Fridays study elicited quite a few confused reactions. Listeners heard short music clips and then were asked to indicate which color they associated with each piece from a list of 13 colors.
So were we able to come up with consistent results? Yes. For some of the clips, our 377 listeners were more likely to associate particular colors with that clip. Consider this clip:
Here are the survey responses:
Significantly more listeners picked “yellow” than any other color, and half of all listeners picked yellow or pink. Practically no one chose beige, brown, or any dark color. And listeners weren’t simply assigning the same colors to all the clips: this was the only clip for which yellow was the most popular response, and significantly more listeners associated pink with this clip than any of the other clips.
The excerpts in the study came from two sources: the piano selections have been used in several studies led by Isabelle Peretz, and the drum selections are used in Greta’s lab. Both sets of excerpts have been rated for emotional content. The selection you heard above, for example, was rated significantly more “happy” than any of several other emotions, including sad, angry, and fearful. We chose the drum clips because they matched the emotions in the piano selections. Greta’s lab has found that listeners also rate this drum piece as “happy”:
This raises the question: Is the emotional content of a piece of music responsible for the colors we associate with it? After all, many people do associate emotions with particular colors. Let’s take a look at the results for the two “happy” excerpts:
There’s much less variation in the responses for the drum excerpt — it almost seems as if the respondents chose randomly. In fact they did still choose dark blue significantly more frequently than any other color. But as you can see, the responses were quite different than for the happy piano excerpt: Almost no piano listeners picked dark blue, brown, or dark purple — the three most popular choices for the drum excerpt.
But perhaps other emotions were more similar between the two instruments. Here are the results for fearful music:
Things aren’t looking much better: while brown is the most popular choice for the drum piece, red and dark orange top the list for piano. How about sad excerpts?
Nope. It seems that listeners have almost completely different associations for the drum pieces. In fact, there is one important difference between the drum clips and the piano clips, summarized nicely with this small graph:
Drum clips were much more likely to be associated with beige or brown, while piano clips were associated more frequently with all the other colors.
We might be tempted to say that emotion has little to do with the colors we associate with a music clip, and the tonal qualities of the particular instrument are more important, but there is a potential problem with the data. Because the clips were rated for emotion in two different labs, the emotions portrayed in each clip might not match up exactly. Take a look at this graph:
The top two colors for the happy drum clip match exactly with the sad piano clip (although the response for dark purple on the drums isn’t significantly different from brown). These clips sound very different to me, as you can see here:
But maybe they evoke similar levels of certain aspects of emotion, and this is why the pattern of their results looks similar.
In any case, we can certainly say from these results that there is a strong relationship between music and color — and that both the particular instruments chosen and the emotion conveyed by the music are also related to the particular colors we associate with music.