Colored Sheet Music

Thomas Levine's picture

It seems like one could replace many of the markings in sheet music with color. Dynamics could be indicated by changes in hue or saturation; gradual change would represent a crescendo or decrescendo. Accents could be indicated by a sudden change on one note. Staccato could have a special color. Phrases even could be grouped somehow. You get the point.

Unfortunately, I've never seen any sheet music printed in color except in books for beginners. Does anyone know of any large works of music set in color like this?

Kristina Drake's picture

I'm thinking one reason is it would be way more expensive...


david h's picture

> Does anyone know of any large works of music set in color like this?

maybe Tiffany will help you (i think that her brother is familiar with the subject; there was a post... long time ago)

Paul Cutler's picture

Stockhausen has written some pretty interesting musical scores - I can't remember if he used color or not but I wouldn't doubt it.


Ken Messenger's picture

I'd wonder how feasible a solution that would be considering varying degrees of color blindness. It'd be much harder to distinguish subtle changes in hue for many, even if they could distinguish red from green.

John Hudson's picture

Humans distinguish pattern much better than they distinguish colour, and the higher the contrast the better the pattern recognition. So while using colour to notate musical dynamics presents some interesting possibilities it is not very practical, especially in terms of sight-reading.

A few years ago, I went and found the scores for some string quartets by Sofia Gubaidulina to which I'd been listening. The scores were visually fascinating, but completely baffling to me. There was very little in them that I recognised from a fairly basic knowledge of typical classical musical notation. Lots of squiggles.

ingemisco's picture

Stockhausen indeed used colour in some scores. The (notorious) Helikopter-Streichquartett score is in four colours; you can take a look at the first page. There was another score, one of the scenes of Mittwoch aus Licht (Michaelion I think, but I might be wrong) which used colour for the dynamics, with gradients from one colour to another for crescendo/diminuendo.

Thomas Ades' piano piece 'Darknesse Visible' (based on a song by John Dowland) is also printed in different colours, with the colours distinguishing different transformations of the original material which overlap. (Then there's a nice touch at the end where a fragment of the original appears verbatim, extremely quitely, which is printed in grey.)

Those are the only ones which spring to mind just now, but I'm sure there are others. I was lately engraving a rather complex new piece (I'm a typographer of music rather than text, but so many of the same principles apply) for string quartet, each player of the quartet is supposed to switch rapidly between two highly contrasting 'musics', as though there were two quartets going on at once. In the end we settled on a sort of double-tier of staves (so there would be up to eight staves at once), but one of ideas the publisher was originally considering was to print that section in two different colours. (Actually, from my point of view, that would possibly have been simpler to set...)

Paul Cutler's picture

That is very interesting ingemisco. Why do you call it engraving? Is that the term for musical typesetting?

Do you use Finale?

I wrote a series of pieces in Cakewalk using it's rather limited scoring capability. The subconscious is such a weird thing. One of the pieces I "wrote" ended up being a carbon copy of the theme from "Our Man Flint". Identical.

Some kind of "brain muscle" memory.


ingemisco's picture

Well in the olden days it really was engraving (there's at least one publisher which still does almost everything that way); the term has just sort of persisted, at least among some of the `hardcore'. The other problem is that there's not really a better term that is widely understood. `Music typesetting' is clearest I suppose, but for some reason I don't like it. `Music origination' is another one I've encountered. So, anyway, I call myself a music engraver even though it's not literally true, and sounds vaguely pretentious :)

I use SCORE (a nice old-fashioned DOS program) which is what most of the bigger publishers use for serious work, though Finale has its advocates too. (Sibelius, though now ubiquitous and undeniably feature-laden and user-friendly, is nowhere near good enough.)

Ch's picture

this idea has been explored several times in history. scriabin and goethe, in addition to stockhausen, are among the better known names to have attempted to codify music and color. there have been several systems devised, and copious information is available thru google searches on iterations of the topic.

it seems more work has been done on color and visual information linked to audible music as an output process rather than as an input code. it would be interesting to reverse engineer an output model to create a usable input code and/or instrument.

one of the immediate problems with correlating the visible spectrum to musical pitch is that (while both are vibrational and thus reducable to numerics) in colored light there is no true equivalent to the octave. the closest i've considered is value on a color spiral.

i'm extremely honored to be cited on fred collopy's timeline of "rhythmic light" at :

you'll find me in 2003.

but here's the treat : this image was reported to be the oldest known specimen of written music. it fits your description perfectly. its exact code is unknown but thought to represent loudness as size and voice as color. apologies but i can't link to its source. i found it online over a decade ago and haven't been able to find it again. vague memory of posting it before. poke me if i'm repeating myself.

? coptic egyptian < 2000 yrs ?

guifa's picture

This reminds me of Faulkner's original intent to publish The Sound and the Fury in multiple colors, but ultimately discounted for cost reasons.

Your largest consumers of music (I would think) would be bands and orchestras, who purchase large quantities of sheet music at a time. I know my high school has accumulated thousands of pieces of music, which when you consider each ships with about 20 different parts or more spanning one to many pages, the addition of color would get pricey (above all in the academic environment).

Also, I know a lot of musicians who like to highlight and use different colors for different things which can then be done in the color the musician wants. And speaking as someone who played euphonium, trombone, and tuba, once I learnt music, for concert performances I mainly only looked at the notes themselves. Once you've practiced a piece enough you know what dynamics and stylings you need and where, and half the time the notes themselves are only reminders. Of course, most marching bands perform with no music at all (I did see one or two bands during my time in the Million Dollar Band using lyres, but they weren't Div IA schools and without the large music programs at larger universities). Remember, dynamics and other such markings are generally suggestions that may be ignored, extended, or otherwise modified depending on the needs of the group or the views of the conductor.

In other words, I would think it would be more expensive without much benefit, at least for traditional music.

«El futuro es una línea tan fina que apenas nos damos cuenta de pintarla nosotros mismos». (La Luz Oscura, por Javier Guerrero)

jacobh's picture

If I remember correctly, the coloured lines on the Helicopter Quartet score are added to indicate the passing of the different lines of music between the players. I don’t believe that they are necessary for its realisation, apart from helping unpick the most complex bits of a texture.

Another composer who I think used colour in his scores was Harry Partch as a method of fitting his 43-tone scale into conventional Western notation.

Western notation is, undoubtedly, being forced in directions where it is not suited. Some of Brian Ferneyhough’s scores particularly come to mind in terms of pure complexity. There are also some philosophical problems are occasionally aired. For instance, Western notation lends itself to notation pitch and rhythm with a high degree of precision, whilst dynamics and articulation are only roughly suggested. However, I think that notational reform suffers from the same problems as suggested reforms to the alphabet; once people have learnt how to read, it is much easier to struggle through complex scores than to start again. Even relatively helpful innovations, such as Schoenberg’s signs for indicating the dominant and secondary lines have not caught on.

ingemisco, if you have used it, how does SCORE compare to Lilypond? It’s not an application which I have come across before. Playing off Sibelius’ed parts is never a good’s a bit like reading a novel set by the default settings of Microsoft Word.

John Hudson's picture

There is some information about this manuscript page here:

Also mentioned here

Ch's picture

wow THANKS ! thought i'd searched "coptic".

it seems i may have invented the "oldest existing" part.
the lambdoma site gets into cosmic harmony but i recall finding this in a more specifically musical text resource.

smiling emoticon.

andren's picture

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