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Brain Links Common Emotions to Colors

Brain Links Common Emotions to Colors Emerging research discovers an association between how music makes us feel and colors.

That is, our brains are wired to make music-color connections depending on how the melodies charge our emotional state.

For instance, Mozart’s jaunty “Flute Concerto No. 1 in G major” is most often associated with bright yellow and orange, whereas his dour “Requiem in D minor” is more likely to be linked to dark, bluish gray.

University of California – Berkeley researchers also discovered that people in both the United States and Mexico linked the same pieces of classical orchestral music with the same colors.

This suggests that humans share a common emotional palette — when it comes to music and color — that appears to be intuitive and can cross cultural barriers.

“The results were remarkably strong and consistent across individuals and cultures and clearly pointed to the powerful role that emotions play in how the human brain maps from hearing music to seeing colors,” said vision scientist Stephen Palmer, Ph.D.

Palmer is the lead author of a paper published in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

Using a 37-color palette, the UC Berkeley study found that people tend to pair faster-paced music in a major key with lighter, more vivid, yellow colors, whereas slower-paced music in a minor key is more likely to be teamed up with darker, grayer, bluer colors.

“Surprisingly, 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 are listening to,” said Palmer.

Researchers say the findings may have implications for creative therapies, advertising and even music player gadgetry.

For example, they could be used to create more emotionally engaging electronic music visualizers — computer software that generates animated imagery synchronized to the music being played.

Currently, the colors and patterns appear to be randomly generated and do not take emotion into account, researchers said.

Investigators also believe the findings may provide insight into synesthesia, a neurological condition in which the stimulation of one perceptual pathway, such as hearing music, leads to automatic, involuntary experiences in a different perceptual pathway, such as seeing colors.

An example of sound-to-color synesthesia was portrayed in the 2009 movie The Soloist when cellist Nathaniel Ayers experiences a mesmerizing interplay of swirling colors while listening to the Los Angeles symphony.

For the music-color study, nearly 100 men and women participated with half of the participants residing in the San Francisco Bay Area and the other half in Guadalajara, Mexico.

In three experiments, they listened to 18 classical music pieces by composers Johann Sebastian Bach, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart and Johannes Brahms that varied in tempo (slow, medium, fast) and in major versus minor keys.

In the first experiment, participants were asked to pick five of the 37 colors that best matched the music to which they were listening. The palette consisted of vivid, light, medium, and dark shades of red, orange, yellow, green, yellow-green, green, blue-green, blue, and purple.

Researchers found that participants consistently picked bright, vivid, warm colors to go with upbeat music and dark, dull, cool colors to match the more tearful or somber pieces. Separately, they rated each piece of music on a scale of happy to sad, strong to weak, lively to dreary and angry to calm.

Two subsequent experiments studying music-to-face and face-to-color associations supported the researchers’ hypothesis that “common emotions are responsible for music-to-color associations,” said Karen Schloss, Ph.D., co-author of the paper.

For example, the same pattern occurred when participants chose the facial expressions that “went best” with the music selections, Schloss said.

Upbeat music in major keys was consistently paired with happy-looking faces while subdued music in minor keys was paired with sad-looking faces. Similarly, happy faces were paired with yellow and other bright colors and angry faces with dark red hues.

A future research study will assess participants in Turkey where traditional music uses a wider range of scales than just major and minor.

“We know that in Mexico and the U.S. the responses are very similar,” Palmer said. “But we don’t yet know about China or Turkey.”

Source: University of California – Berkeley

Abstract of music and color photo by shutterstock.

Brain Links Common Emotions to Colors

Rick Nauert PhD

Rick Nauert, PhDDr. Rick Nauert has over 25 years experience in clinical, administrative and academic healthcare. He is currently an associate professor for Rocky Mountain University of Health Professionals doctoral program in health promotion and wellness. Dr. Nauert began his career as a clinical physical therapist and served as a regional manager for a publicly traded multidisciplinary rehabilitation agency for 12 years. He has masters degrees in health-fitness management and healthcare administration and a doctoral degree from The University of Texas at Austin focused on health care informatics, health administration, health education and health policy. His research efforts included the area of telehealth with a specialty in disease management.

APA Reference
Nauert PhD, R. (2018). Brain Links Common Emotions to Colors. Psych Central. Retrieved on September 30, 2020, from
Scientifically Reviewed
Last updated: 8 Aug 2018 (Originally: 17 May 2013)
Last reviewed: By a member of our scientific advisory board on 8 Aug 2018
Published on Psych All rights reserved.