If you love listening to music, you probably can feel the mood of each song you hear. And if you have any familiarity with color theory, you know that colors are similarly connected to different emotions.
Logically, that means that you can create connections between music and colors. This might sound like an unusual concept, but it can help you gain a deeper understanding and appreciation of your favorite music genres.
Music and Color: (Almost) a Universal Language
Both color and music communicate emotions that transcend language. Music is especially universal — if you play a track in a major key and a track in a minor key to someone from just about any culture, they’ll tell you that the major-key song sounds happier than the minor-key song.
Colors tend to have similar cross-cultural meanings, but there are some exceptions. For instance, in most cultures, yellow is a sunny, optimistic shade. But in some Latin American countries, it’s a color of mourning. In the United States, white is the shade most associated with weddings, but in China, red is the most common bridal color.
When you think of musical genres being associated with colors, you might believe that only people with synesthesia make these connections. There are a few different types of synesthesia, but the one we’re referencing here is chromesthesia, where someone sees color when they hear music.
However, even if you don’t have chromesthesia, you can connect colors to music. For those with chromesthesia, seeing colors while hearing music is involuntary. For those without, it might be necessary to consciously make that connection.
Different Musical Genres and Their Color Associations
Ask two different people what color they associate with rock music (or another genre), and you’ll probably get two different answers. Individual associations can vary somewhat, but researchers across cultures have been able to identify general trends.
One of the most thorough studies on the association of music and color is Associating Colours with Musical Genres, published in Journal of New Music Research in 2009. This study included people from Finland, China, India, America, Canada, Ireland, Germany, Denmark, and Mexico.
The study asked participants to choose colors that they associated with particular musical genres. To make sure that participants were assigning colors to each genre as a whole (and not to individual songs), researchers didn’t provide example songs — they just asked participants to consider each entire genre.
This research yielded interesting results that offer us some insight into the intersection of music and color psychology. Below, we’ll take a look at exactly how these associations were formed.
Tune into almost any radio station, and you’ll hear pop music. Music snobs might thumb their noses at it, but at least it’s catchy!
Most pop songs are upbeat and written in major keys. Fittingly, the participants in the Associating Colours with Musical Genres study overwhelmingly associated pop music with pink.
A UC Berkeley study found that listeners tended to associate upbeat, major-key songs with light, vivid colors, so the pink connection makes sense. You might also imagine pop music as yellow, orange, or another cheerful shade.
Some people lump rock music and pop music together, but rock tends to be more intense — distorted guitars, powerful drum solos, and guttural bass are par for the course. The participants in the study most strongly associated rock music with red, although black was a close second.
If you already know about red’s meaning in the field of color psychology, you can see why. Red is associated with passion and anger across cultures, and these emotions frequently surface in rock music.
Why the association with black as well? Some rock bands and songs are heavy enough to sound like metal. It doesn’t hurt that many bands wear all black when they take to the stage!
Jazz and Blues
There are plenty of subgenres in the world of jazz. But somehow, blue manages to encapsulate them all. It’s smooth, pensive, and serene, just like the genre itself. That might be why the participants in the Associating Colours with Musical Genres study largely associated jazz with blue.
Jazz is a genre that embraces so-called “blue notes,” or flattened thirds and flattened sevenths. Even if you don’t know anything about music, you’ll be able to pick out a blue note in a blues scale — it will sound slightly “bent,” or even “worried.”
As you may already know, blues is a genre built around blue notes. Blues and jazz have plenty of similarities, so it’s no wonder that study participants associated both with the color blue.
It’s hard to nail down an exact color that fits with indie and alternative music. Both “indie” and “alternative” are expansive labels. In many cases, music described as “indie” or “alternative” is a variant of rock. That’s likely why study participants overwhelmingly associated it with black.
Of course, depending on the type of indie or alternative music you’re listening to, the color association might change. If you’re listening to dreamy, ambient guitar music, you might imagine a calming light blue or the shade of the sky right before dawn.
Classical music’s emotional complexity has captivated audiences for centuries, so it’s somewhat surprising to see that study participants linked it to the color white. White is technically the presence of all visible colors, so that association may be more fitting than it initially seems.
White is also the color of clouds, and it may make some people imagine the pearly gates of heaven. Some classical tracks sound almost ethereal, so perhaps that’s what study participants were thinking of!
Keep in mind that often, what color we associate with a given song comes down to the song’s key. If you listen to a classical piece in a minor key, you might picture smoky gray or deep purple. But if you hear an up-tempo piece in a major key, you might associate it more closely with orange or peach.
Country songs often mention open fields and dirt roads. As genres go, country is closely connected to earth and the rural outdoors. If you put on a country album, you might think of various earthy shades like green and brown.
Study participants most closely associated country music with green, although brown was a close second.
What do you think of when you imagine folk music? You might picture wooden acoustic instruments, hand drums, and maybe even a harmonica or two. Along with country, folk is a somewhat “earthy” genre. Like a layered neutral palette, it manages to be familiar and comforting while still being interesting.
The participants in the study from Journal of New Music Research associated similar colors with both country and folk music. Green was the most common association, with brown being the second most common.
This is another very broad musical category. When people think of dance and electronica, they often imagine the up-tempo, bass-heavy type of sound you’d hear in a club. Electronica is an especially wide genre — it encompasses everything from dream pop to techno.
Still, when most of us see “dance/electronica” as a single genre, we think of electronic dance music. That’s probably why study participants closely associated it with neon-like cyan (with pink as a close second).
Gospel music’s roots go back to 17th-century Scotland. It evolved slowly over the years — songs sung by enslaved people, 19th-century religious revivals, and Sunday school hymnals all helped shape gospel music into what it is today.
Most gospel songs focus on faith and salvation. White is a color associated with faith, purity, and divine light, so that’s likely why participants in the Associating Colours with Musical Genres study strongly associated white with gospel music.
Latin music is dynamic and lively. Whether you’re listening to salsa, bachata, tango, or even Latin pop, this is a genre that’s sure to keep you energized! Many modern Latin performers like J Balvin, Daddy Yankee, and Bad Bunny like to wear bright colors, too.
Latin music’s overall brightness has led many people to associate it with vivid, energetic colors. So it’s no surprise that study participants most strongly associated it with red and yellow. The irony here is that in many Latin cultures, yellow is a color of death and mourning!
If you’ve ever looked through modern metal bands’ album art, you know that black is easily the most-used color. Metal as a genre has long been associated with black — performers first wore it as a sign of rebellion against society.
Many metal bands combine dark, heavy lyrics and heavy sound, so black just seems like a natural choice. And with iconic bands like Black Sabbath donning this shade, up-and-coming acts often follow suit.
Notably, the association of metal with black was the strongest one in the study. What colors people associate with different genres might vary some by culture, but the connection between black and metal seems to be pretty universal!
The association between metal and black may be fairly obvious, but not all connections are. A huge variety of musical styles fit under the rap/hip-hop umbrella, so it’s difficult to come up with a single color association.
The participants in the aforementioned study connected rap and hip-hop most strongly to red. However, orange, black, and purple all tied for second place. That makes sense given the stylistic range of the genre — more violent rap songs are well-suited to red. But a classic like Skee-Lo’s “I Wish” might lean more orange!
If you’re a Bob Marley fan, you might associate reggae with red, yellow, and green. These colors are connected to both Ethiopia and Rastafarianism. But for study participants, the island-inspired, carefree genre’s spirit was best captured by orange (green and yellow followed closely behind).
In color psychology, orange is a shade of rejuvenation and optimism. And since reggae songs often focus on love, peace, and joy, it seems like a fitting connection!
Soul, funk, and R&B are distinctive genres, though they do have some similarities. Soul primarily captures the highs and lows of life, funk is syncopated with a strong bassline, and R&B brings together elements of blues, pop, gospel, and jazz.
Associating Colours with Musical Genres combined the three genres into a single category, and study participants connected that category closely with orange. That might sound unusual at first. After all, many of us associate orange with optimism, and these genres aren’t necessarily “happy.”
However, orange is a color that’s very much associated with dynamism and creativity. Soul, funk, and R&B all combine elements of other musical styles with something that’s truly unique, so it’s no wonder they give off an “orange” energy to some.
“World music” is essentially a catch-all term for non-Western music. It includes folk and indigenous music from cultures around the world. As you may have imagined, these types of music don’t all sound the same — “world music” as a label has less to do with what the music sounds like and more to do with where it comes from.
Study participants primarily connected this genre to green. Why? Perhaps it’s because green is connected to new life and freshness, and listeners get to experience the sounds of instruments they’ve never heard before.
What Color Is Your Favorite Song?
When you consciously connect music and color, you experience your favorite songs and artists in a whole new way. Maybe you’ll find that the above color/genre associations line up with your own perceptions. Or maybe you’ll find that your own associations are completely different.
There’s no right or wrong way to connect color and music. Try listening to your favorite album and discovering the color of each song. If you play a musical instrument, try improvising something by looking at a particular color. You might be surprised at what you can create!