Composing with Color

Over the course of their time at PSA, the Red Room children have been deeply interested in music and sound. In both the Music and Art studios, the group has been working to discover ways in which to explore music and sound through the visual arts, a lot of discussion and research has gone into how this might happen.

During this research, their Music Specialist discovered an article that connects the visible electromagnetic spectrum (or color) with its corresponding sound wavelength. With a little bit of math, these wavelengths could then be easily translated into musical notes. Through this, the Music and Art Specialists were able to color code a tongue drum.

Presented with the color coded drum and some gems, the children initially created compositions based on the colors that most appealed to them. They made long stretches of color or ones of repeating patterns. They labeled their gem shapes as “striped caterpillars,” “roads,” and “rivers”. One of their main goals seemed to be using as many gems that the drawn line could hold. Most of the children chose to create solely on the line in a linear fashion, and a few children created “lines of music” or designs which caused the player of the tongue drum to “read” the notation and play the sounds in a different way.

One student created an interesting pattern using two colors with the gems grouped in a very particular way. When asked how she might play her composition, she recognized immediately that in order to follow and read it, she would need to be using two mallets simultaneously, and timing when she used each one.

Later, when the group revisited the provocation, they remembered their first experiences with composing for the tongue drum, and seemed to go into the experience with inquisitive spirits and the connections already made between the visual and the auditory. They understand this process and connection and through it, they began to explore the boundaries of form and sound.

“What would this sound like?

After arranging her gems into a circular shape, one student said “I’m going to make a rainbow of colors to play.” Before even lifting a mallet to play the first rainbow that was made for him, the student examined  it closely and said “I can hear that!”

One student added another element to their work and process by pulling in a concept we were exploring earlier in the year- that of pitch modulation and amplitude. Using the center line as the point of reference, he continued placing gems slightly above or below the line. This determined if the color was to be played softly or with more force. This idea proved to be very interesting to the remaining groups of children, who incorporated it into their own designs.

Student:  Why are those red ones pointy?
Student: They go up, down, up, down.
Student: Why do they go up, down, up, down?
Student: Because up is loud and down is quiet.

Another student’s placement of the gems created quite the challenge for his partner and inspired some challenging work in return. He created a composition that was very dynamic and caused his partner to think hard about how he could play two notes that were both very loud and very soft at the same time. As a result, they created two masses of color that were both dynamic and occupied the same vertical area and were not easily “read” in a linear way. They explored how this composition might sound with the drum and by using the mallets on the table. Both agreed that this composition showed “how to drum” rather than created a song.

While working on their compostions, one student noticed a painting in the room. She said, “Look at that painting! That has a lot of colors like my work with these. Is that a teacher painting ‘cause it has lots of music in it.”

Following that question, the group began to explore what a “painted composition” might look like. Their wonderings about the sound of the large painting on the wall showed that these children are thinking about these abstract ideas in complex ways that are well beyond what the teachers had anticipated. The children created both individual compositions and a larger painting. In their larger work and their partner pieces, they have moved from exploring one expression of an art form at a time, to flowing between. Their visual art informing their musical art, and the sounds they create determining the colors they use.

After working on some details on their partner pieces, the children would play what they sees on the drum. One student ends her playing by swirling the mallet quickly around the drum. Another student, who was listening and watching the painting closely, saw the performer play something different than what she saw in the painting. She said, “I’m going to add that part on!” She then added long lines to her work saying, “This is that swirly part.”

When creating their larger painting, the children chose which note colors they wanted to work with. Some of these color decisions were made by listening to particular color sounds first and the group determining which sounds they liked best together. Other groups chose their favorite colors but placed them in parts of the painting (and next to other colors) that they liked the sound of together. Another element of this work that seems important to the children, is how to portray the amplitude with color. As before, some students suggested that this could be shown by using lines that go up and down. The difference this time being- the musical notation would be added as a layer to the top of the sound. The children talked a lot about the directionality of their painting.

“How will people know how to play this? We might need to put arrows on it to give them the directions.”

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