Colour and sound

A fantastic episode of Horizon on how we perceive colour has peaked my interest because of the parallels with sound, and the connotations for multi-sensorial design.

It has been discovered that our perception of colour is tied in with our ecological evolution - that we have learnt to group certain colours together because of how they appear in nature - muted shades of blue, brown and yellows get grouped together because they appear together by the sea. Certain greens and yellows are always seen together in the countryside and so are pleasing to us when combined. These groupings are more or less universal and predictable.

This is also true with grouping colour with sound - we would immediately pair the colour blue with the sound of the sea, and green with a countryside soundscape, birds chirping and wind through trees. To swap the two would be incongruent and feel wrong. Through our ecological evolution we will always associate certain colours with certain sounds due to the environments in which they are found. Our sonic vocabulary is intrinsically linked with our memory and experience, and therefore with our understanding of colour and language.

With these naturally occurring colours our perception of them will always be similar - the yellow of a banana to me will be pretty much the same as with you. But - colours that don’t have this ecological link - lighting in a room, or a wall colour - can be perceived wildly differently from person to person, depending on their mood and emotion. Our state of mind fundamentally affects our colour perception.

If we consider then that sound and music have the strongest effect on our emotions - it is true to say that sound can dramatically change our perception of colour more than any other stimulus.

Another fascinating ecological association was found in a lighting designer’s use of blue lighting in a restaurant. Usually reds or oranges are used as they are supposed to increase appetite, but also because they are generally seen as warm (whereas blue is cold). The blue light has an effect on how we see that does in fact feel warm, making everything more ‘beautiful’ and calm. But the unexpected effect was that the customers, at around 10 o’clock, began to become more lively, drinking more and becoming more chatty. This appears to be because of the colour too - we are evolutionarily hard wired to respond to our body clocks, which in turn reacts to changes in colour. The shade of evening blue causes us to become lively and sociable.

This is interesting - what sounds can there be that can make people feel warm and relaxed and sociable, other than the standard pulse of nondescript dance music? Is there a natural soundscape of dusk that can effect our body clock and have a livening effect on us? the opposite of a cockerel crowing - if there is a colour association, there should be a sonic one. It is worth investigating.

There’s only a week left to watch the program - it’s recommended viewing so get in there quick - http://bbc.in/nfg2iV