Relationships among the visual and aural arts, especially between color and sound, have been postulated by artists and composers for a variety of purposes. For many, a comparative theory between the two art forms functions as a guide to understanding an art form in which they are inexpert. With a comparative theory, the musician can use his expertise in music to understand a piece of visual art by comparing it to music and vice versa for the artist.

Comparative theories can be used to produce art. Some artists and musicians attempt to objectively translate a work of visual art into music or vice versa. Ann Adams diligently studied every detail of Ravel’s Bolero and created a visual interpretation of what she heard by methodically representing each aspect of the music in her painting Unraveling Bolero (1994).

Comparative theories are also used to develop non-representational forms of art. Walter Pater said, “All art constantly aspires to the condition of music.” Artists who created “color-music” knew that to be true. They created art that was akin to music, borrowing characteristics such as form, tone color, rhythms, development, and harmonies. Kandinsky was creative and expressive in his Compositions (ca. 1912), in which accurate representation of real objects were superfluous.

The desire for color-centered art led to the development of various “colororgans,” keyboard type instruments used to activate colored lights during “light-only” performances and with performances of coordinated music. Plans for some of these instruments were technologically advanced for their time; some had to wait to be realized. A 1975 laser-light performance of Scriabin’s 1910 Prometheus at the University of Iowa finally came close to realizing what the composer meant by including a color organ (“luce”) in his score. Others were impractical because they relied on unsafe technology such as gas lamps.

What, specifically, do music and art have in common? Is it the framework or the details, the forms or techniques, or is it the creator’s motivation? Various comparative theories exist to answer these questions. The goal of this study is to develop an understanding of how theories compare, with the intent of realizing whether or not, or to what degree, visual art and music are related.

Due to the span of time that these speculations cover—from ancient Greece to today—putting them into historical context will be necessary. Explaining how theories were inspired by ancient Greek ideas (or how they reacted against them), and by the scientific community of the seventeenth century, and/or by the subjective creativity of romanticism, will help to better understand them. After a historical introduction, the defining features of representative theories will be compared. For example, alignment of color and pitch can repeat throughout musical octaves, or they can change with register. This will not only show the degree to which music and art (especially color) have been compared, but also will suggest avenues for future creative speculations.