Sound and Color
Of all the fundamental
parts of music, color is the most subjective.
Generally, when the color of music is being described, the reference is to
the orchestration (or instrumentation) of the piece. This meaning is more
specifically termed tone color. Because a note played on the clarinet
sounds very different from the same note played on the violin each has its
own tone color. Composers of orchestral music work with these different
tone colors, combining them in many different ways to create vibrant
In some music, particularly from the late
period and the
contemporary period, tone color is a primary feature and can be as
prominent as the melodic and harmonic material itself.
It was during this period that the orchestra was expanded
to include as wide a palette of colors as possible.
When Arnold Schoenberg wrote his massive
he had to have
special manuscript paper printed to accommodate the enormous number
of instruments he wanted to use. This extravagance can be heard in the
music. Listen to this brief example in which the colors are so rich and
intense that they almost sound luminous.
(MPEG-2, Filesize: 121K)
However, composers don't have to use gargantuan
orchestras to create
colorful music. Many works for small ensemble are exquisitely colored. In
this excerpt from Maurice Ravel's Introduction and Allegro, the beautiful,
delicate, shimmering colors are produced by just seven instruments: flute,
clarinet, harp and string quartet (2 violins, viola and cello).
Introduction and Allegro
(MPEG-2, Filesize: 118K)
The color of a work can also come from
the music itself, not just from the
instruments used. For example, the piano is significantly more limited in
tone color than an orchestra, and yet a great number of piano pieces are
considered to be brilliantly colorful.
Ironically, and unlike all the other fundamentals,
this kind of color is not
necessarily inherent in the music. All the other fundamentals of
music--melody, harmony, rhythm, texture and form--are an inseparable
part of the music; even a mediocre performance cannot negate these
essential aspects. Tone color is also an inseparable part of the music.
But color, in the broader sense (coming
from the music itself), is in many
ways dependent upon the sensitivities of the performer. For example, if a
pianist is insensitive to the colors of the music she is playing, the
performance will almost certainly be colorless. Luckily, most musicians
that you will hear on recordings or in the concert hall are quite sensitive to
the colors inherent in the music they are playing or singing.
One interesting way to hear this kind of
color is to listen to pieces that
exist in several versions. There are many works that were originally
written for piano, then transcribed for orchestra (either by the composer
or by another musician). There are also orchestral works that have been
arranged for piano, or a small group of instruments.
The Russian composer Modest Mussorgsky
wrote a set of piano pieces
entitled "Pictures at an Exhibition". These are extremely colorful pieces,
and they are very demanding for the performer. Many composers have
felt that Mussorgsky's music could be enhanced in a setting for orchestra.
The most famous of the many orchestral versions is by the French
composer Maurice Ravel. Here are two examples from "Pictures at an
Exhibition," the first is the original piano version, the second is Ravel's
Before listening to the orchestral version,
try to hear the colors inherent in
the original piano piece. Listen to the character of the music, and the
colors that Mussorgsky creates with the piano. Then listen to the
orchestral version and see if Ravel's sense of color matches your own.
Picures at an Exhibition
(MPEG-2, Filesize: 120K)
Mussorgsky: Picures at an Exhibition
(MPEG-2, Filesize: 120K)
When examining the role color plays in
a piece of music, try to separate
tone color from "inherent" color. Consider the type of work you are
listening to. Enjoying the tone colors of a well-written orchestral piece
should be no more difficult than enjoying the colors of a fine painting.
What is more difficult, perhaps, is hearing the "inherent" colors of a piano
work, an art song or string quartet. Try to imagine how the music would
sound if played by different instruments or an orchestra (as we did with
the excerpt from "Pictures at an Exhibition" above).
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