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Photographic and Musical Composition

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by , 03-18-2009 at 10:07 PM (1632 Views)
Do you hear music when you compose a photograph?

For those with the condition of sound-colour synesthesia, the association between the visible and auditory experience can feel quite literal: colours can be experienced as sounds and vice versa. My own favourite synesthete, Russian composer Alexander Scriabin, developed quite a rigorous theory around his own associations of sound with sight, complete with a coloured keyboard to confound his contemporaries.

For the rest of us, the association between sight and sound is not quite so literal. We may loosely associate certain sights with certain sounds. This can of course happen after years of training by exposure to cinema and television... think of sharks and BAH-bah-BAH-bah-BAH-bah...! We may find deliberately impressionistic musical pieces especially evocative, even though the actual impression they fix in our thoughts might vary from one individual to the next (alas, Claire de Lune still sounds nothing like moonlight to me; apologies to Mr. Debussy).

Those of us without full-blown synesthesia may associate certain sights with certain sounds, but the associations generally seem triggered by memories and past experience. In this sense the associations are probably not hard-wired into our thinking but rather learned.

However, at a deeper level than mere 1-to-1 association, at the more abstract level of Stieglitz' Equivalents, there are many common threads that unite photographic and musical composition. At its core, both kinds of composition are a new product- an expression of new thought recorded with the desire of providing new experience to the viewer or listener. The composition may be motivated by something experienced, but it is itself an original act. Composition (unlike duplication) is at the very least an attempt (however futile it may be, particularly to the beginner) to set original thoughts into actions. How do we compose photographs, and how do we compose music? Are there similarities in these acts of originality, and can we learn about one from the other?

I have compiled a minimal list of three compositional 'tools' that I believe may be common to musical and photographic composition; namely:

  • key signature (tonality, colour);
  • time signature (the structure of the rhythm); and,
  • tempo - how quickly the piece is typically performed, on average.

I will assert that these are the three characteristics of a basic musical composition- the three things that a musical composer stipulates before the original ideas can begin to flow and be notated to form the score.

Might these three musical ideas have direct analogies in photography?

Feel free to comment/suggest/dissent and add your own thoughts.


The key signature of a composition implies its tone scale- the select set of all possible tone combinations that it uses. To the photographer or other visual artist, tone and colour are perhaps the elements easiest to translate into musical terms.

This is not to say that specific keys impart specific visual sensations (although some composers e.g. Scriabin believed that they did). The analogy that I propose is rather more abstract than that. Musical compositions that roam freely through many keys are sometimes said to be chromatic or atonal... in other words, colourful while not specifically coloured.

Now, personally, I do not have any clear visual impression of colour in most pre-romantic classical work. For me, colour really begins with Debussy. Bach and Mozart and are almost entirely black and white to my ear (eye?), though I do feel occasional flashes of colour from some of their direct heirs e.g. Mendelssohn and Beethoven. N.b this is not to say that I perceive colour to be missing from the works of Bach and Mozart- there isn't anything I miss in their work at all, and I appreciate it deeply. It is complete... yet it is not coloured, to my ear. I appreciate it in the same way that I appreciate a classic black and white photograph. I tentatively ascribe my 'black and white' impression of Bach and Mozart to their general adherence to consistent key signatures.


An especially colourful and dynamic Scriabin piece (to me, and apparently to Mr. Schweizer):


I am a toe-tapper, a finger rapper... an avid player of pencils and such in the office. Musically un[res]trained though I may be, I nevertheless hear it most of the time, especially when it's quiet enough to hear it best. I assume that this inner, personal soundtrack is not uncommon, because I see a lot of other toe-tappers and finger rappers all of the time and I conclude that at the very least, we all have some sense of rhythm. Rhythm is the fundamental element of music... its single most basic and unifying element. From reggae to ragas to raps and classical symphony, it could be argued that our most basic expectation of a piece of music is that it have rhythm. To put it another way: a piece of music can have nothing more than rhythm and little else, and it's still considered to be music.

What is the rhythm of the photograph- its absolute most basic component? I think it is the frame, the aspect ratio, the border that contains the whole composition and gives it a place to be or a direction to go. I can propose a few illustrative examples:

  • 4/4 common time (and similar time signatures): a squarish aspect ratio; solemn, quite motionless. Centered. Perfectly Balanced.
  • 6/8: not square at all... rather more directional and rectangular. A wider scene rather than a single weighty subject. Motion implied due to imbalance in the frame. Rule of thirds and all that.


Tempo and timing are as essential to musical composition as they are to photography. Whether we imply motion by selecting a slow or fast exposure depends on the subject's motion and the rhythm against which the composition is set. For example, it is not enough to freeze a subject at 1/4000 sec to make the subject truly appear motionless; if imbalance of the subject is implied or perceived, then the subject will appear dynamic even in the shortest of exposures.

Some basic trends seem relatively clear to me: street and journalistic photography, which often attempts to highlight a 'decisive moment' quite often implies motion through the use of subtle motion blur and rectangular framing: in this genre, the subject is usually not fixed, static, at the center of a square frame. Of course, there are always exceptions, but when I think of dynamics and decisive moments, I think of composing to suggest that the subject might literally escape the frame! Landscape photography, on the other hand, tends to wish to highlight the timeless aspects of a scene, as if to confirm our faith that the scene will persist. Again, there are exceptions, but.... this is about broad generalization


There you have it, just a few ideas concerning the common threads underlying photographic and musical composition. What else might musical and photographic composition have in common? Comments... even dissenting comments... are welcome :rolleyes:

Updated 04-02-2009 at 12:15 PM by keithwms





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