Color, Music, and Emotion: Bach to the Blues

Kelly L. Whiteford, Karen B. Schloss, Nathaniel E. Helwig, Stephen E. Palmer

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

19 Scopus citations


When people make cross-modal matches from classical music to colors, they choose colors whose emotional associations fit the emotional associations of the music, supporting the emotional mediation hypothesis. We further explored this result with a large, diverse sample of 34 musical excerpts from different genres, including Blues, Salsa, Heavy metal, and many others, a broad sample of 10 emotion-related rating scales, and a large range of 15 rated music–perceptual features. We found systematic music-to-color associations between perceptual features of the music and perceptual dimensions of the colors chosen as going best/worst with the music (e.g., loud, punchy, distorted music was generally associated with darker, redder, more saturated colors). However, these associations were also consistent with emotional mediation (e.g., agitated-sounding music was associated with agitated-looking colors). Indeed, partialling out the variance due to emotional content eliminated all significant cross-modal correlations between lower level perceptual features. Parallel factor analysis (Parafac, a type of factor analysis that encompasses individual differences) revealed two latent affective factors—arousal and valence—which mediated lower level correspondences in music-to-color associations. Participants thus appear to match music to colors primarily in terms of common, mediating emotional associations.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Issue number6
StatePublished - Nov 1 2018

Bibliographical note

Funding Information:
The authors thank Daniel J. Levitin for his input in selecting and evaluating the representativeness of some of the 34 musical excerpts and Matthew C. Scauzillo for his assistance in finding YouTube links for Table S2.

Funding Information:
The author(s) disclosed receipt of the following financial support for the research, authorship, and/or publication of this article: This research was supported by NSF Grant BCS−1059088 from the NSF to S.E.P.

Publisher Copyright:
© The Author(s) 2018.


  • aesthetics
  • color
  • cross-modal associations
  • emotion
  • music cognition


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