Color chords & discords

The first requisite of color, as the first requisite of music, is that it be harmonious and not, by it misapplication, repel the spectator before he has had time to see the profounder qualities that may be underneath.

Stanton Macdonald-Wright, A treatise on color, 1924, 2.

Finally, the musical chord, I contend, is the one thing easiest to translate from tone to color. A chord is a combination of pitches or notes, a ‘fusion,’ experienced through the ear as a whole, yet analyzable into elements. It is a complex, perceptual, and esthetic unit; a compound experience, a mixture or blend of separate tone elements in unison. A color chord is a compound of separate color tones, having a certain definable relationship—not mixed on the palette by a painter so as to obliterate the contributory pigments in the manufacture of a new single color, but so placed upon his canvas in its elements that, while they may be separately discriminated, they may also be blended by the eye and experienced as a unit whole, a complex unit capable of registering a simple effect.

Music critic William Harper Davis, The Musical Courier, June 1933
quoted in I. J. Belmont, The modern dilemma in art, 1944, 230-31.

If we look steadily at some brightly colored object for a few seconds and then look away at an illuminated surface, preferable white, we see a patch of a different color, which floats before our eyes and moves as we turn them. The explanation is that the receivers on the retina are not equally fatigued. If have been looking at red, the red receiver is more fatigued than the other so that when white light is thrown into the eye, the two other receivers are more fully stimulated and a bluish green appears.

Helmholtz, Recent progress of the theory of vision, 1869
quoted in Kepes,
Language of vision, 1944, 35.

By carefully examining the scale it will be seen that a direct contrast of color comes in as a discord,—for example, a true green and red, or an orange and blue; but if we change the green for a bluish or yellowish green, the effect is much more harmonious. The effect will also be harmonious if we take a violet-red or an orange-red to contrast with green. The same harmonious effect will be produced by varying the orange and blue in a like manner. If we wish to make the color howl, or imitate Chinese musical harmony, we can use crude colors directly contrasting.

Bainbridge Bishop, A souvenir of the color organ, 1893, 8-9.

An idea conceived by Wilhelm Ostwald is less sensational but more soundly based. He does not start with the scale but with the intervals. To each of them he assigns a shade made up of two color tones. the minor second is made up of the color tones 1 + 23; two closely juxtaposed yellows, one rather reddish and the other rather greenish (in Ostwald’s 24-part color circuit 24 to yellowfins, 6 to red, 12 to blue, 18 to green, 1 to yellowfins with 1/6 part red, and so forth). As we approach the interval of a third, the pairs of colors become increasingly contrasted, culminating in the fourth in the complementary colors red and green. The contrasts then become weaker and coalesce in the pure blue 12. This is again the complementary color of our yellow 24, the original tone of the octave

Karl Gerstner, the Forms of Color, 1986, 170.

Each hue induces simultaneously or in succession its respective complementary part, returning to its origin, that, is the white light. Roughly speaking, a red surface will induce a blue green, a certain blue violet will create a complementary yellow, orange brings out turquoise blue. Complementary color harmony—the most universally accepted law of plastic balance—has its foundation here.

George Kepes, Language of vision, 1944, 35.

If a harsh clash is desired use red-orange and blue-green. For a clash less harsh use orange and blue. All sets of complementaries follow in the order of their harshness: yellow-orange and blue-violet; yellow-green and red-violet; green and red; and softest of all opposites, yellow and violet.

Stanton Macdonald-Wright, A treatise on color, 1924, 23.