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Sound and Vision: Music Visualization Lets You See Your Sounds

Sound and Vision: Music Visualization Lets You See Your Sounds

Every year the Pantone Color Institute names a color of the year—a single swatch to accompany the global movements and trends that define us. 2020’s color of the year? Pantone Classic Blue 19-4052. To mark the intersection of Classic Blue and our current moment,,

LANDR, PANTONE and Audio UX came together to answer a simple question: What does Pantone Classic Blue 19-4052 sound like? The answer: The Classic Blue sample pack—a conceptual audio embodiment of Pantone Classic Blue 19-4052 that explores the multi-sensorial experience of sound and color as one.

The sound of Classic Blue is here.

But the relationship between sound and vision goes much deeper than just this collaboration. Have you ever wished you could see the music you’re working on in your DAW?

Not just the waveforms or piano roll, but the notes and sounds themselves? So have countless other musicians since the beginning of recorded music.

The strong links between our senses of sight and hearing have inspired musicians for centuries.

Creators pursuing this concept have developed fascinating methods of music visualization to make that dream a reality.

What is music visualization?

Music visualization is the process of interpreting sound with images. It maps the qualities of a recording or composition with graphics by interpreting digital or electronic signals. The method used to translate aspects of music into visual qualities determines the way the visualization looks and responds.

There are thousands of different music visualizers. Each has a different different interpretation of what sound looks like.

Thinking about how they work can tell us a lot about the way we interpret music.

Visualize it

Music visualization is a modern development, but its roots stretch back centuries. Artists and scientists have been fascinated by the connection between the senses throughout history.

Artists and scientists have been fascinated by the connection between the senses throughout history.

Goethe and Isaac Newton both proposed theories for how sound and light share common frequencies. Carl Jung wrote about “color hearing” in Symbols of Transformation.

But sound and color are an especially important source of inspiration for musicians. It’s easy to see why.

The timbral qualities of sound are strongly associated with color and texture. The word timbre itself is often translated as “tone color.”

But in some cases it goes even further. Individual notes have strong connections to color for some musicians.

20th century composer Alexander Scriabin created a “color organ” based on his experience of sound and color.

He developed his own notation system for it to ensure the correct hue was displayed with the right notes in his pieces.

Preview of youtube video

Visual elements have always helped draw audiences into the flow of live music.

Liquid light shows emerged in the 60s to provide visuals for “happenings” in the psychedelic music scene.

Artists manipulated liquids of different colors and densities on modified overhead projectors. The results were organic, evolving landscapes of color and light.

Preview of youtube video

Electronic music visualizers

Creative engineers realized in the mid 70s that electronic signals could be used to generate complex visuals.

For the first time, signal properties like frequency and dynamics could be mapped onto colors or shapes.

For the first time, signal properties like frequency and dynamics could be mapped onto colors or shapes.

Changes in signal level could control intensity the same way a compressor’s threshold sets the amount of gain reduction.

A sound’s frequency balance could be used to control the palette of colors in a visualization.

This research produced some of the earliest commercially available music visualizers like the bizarre Atari Video Music.

With a debut price of roughly $700 in modern money, the Atari Video Music was a completely new type of product.

Preview of youtube video

It was a commercial failure that never approached the popularity of Atari’s video game systems. But it was a trailblazing device that paved the way for the future.

The Video Music’s crude visualizations were hypnotizing enough to inspire the next generation of music visualizers.

Early Digital Visuals

Music visualization exploded in the digital era. Analyzing digital signals was much easier and more flexible that the early analog methods.

The first digital music visualizers have a memorable retro-digital quality.

The first digital music visualizers have a memorable retro-digital quality.

Preview of youtube video

These early visualizers set the stage for the iconic visualization programs you might remember from the first music player apps.

Many of these hypnotic visuals were powered by a program called MilkDrop. Milkdrop was one of the first freeware visualizers to go mainstream.

Preview of youtube video

The success of these programs cemented the popular fascination with music visualizers.

Modern visualizers

Since then music visualization has evolved considerably. Its core concepts have seeped into unexpected places too.

If you think about it, most methods of musical communication are a type of visualization.

Notation, tablature and the MIDI piano roll are all ways of “seeing” music.

Taken to the extreme, even rhythm games like Guitar Hero could be considered music visualizations.

When it comes to representing music visually, we know there’s more at play than the measurable qualities of a signal.

Our perception and cognition systems are just as responsible for creating our visual associations as the sound itself.

What better tool to use to than the system we developed to communicate music in the first place?—notation.

Some satisfying visualizations combine evocative visuals with score information to draw us deeper even into the music.

Preview of youtube video

Visual music

The way our senses blend together when we experience music will never be fully explained. That mystery is part of what draws people to new ways of visualizing music.

Approaching sound like this is one way to expand your sense of what’s possible with music. Use this primer on music visualization to see what’s possible when you combine sound and vision.

Michael Hahn

Michael Hahn is an engineer and producer at Autoland and member of the swirling indie rock trio Slight.

@Michael Hahn

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