by Enrique Ubieta

A synesthetic experience for the musician

We know that music elicits an emotional response. So does color. What if we were to merge both in order to interpret instantaneously the sound dynamics in a musical score?

Back in 1951, I proposed a method of writing music that replaces the way we represent the intensity of sound by relying on acronyms of Italian terms with a more visually and more readily recognizable way of seeing the intensity of sound through colors.

If we were to replace written dynamics (e.g. pp, p, mf, f, ff, etc.) by directly color-coding the notes themselves, musicians would experience a synesthetic effect allowing them to see just how soft or how loud they should play the notes on the sheet of music before them.

Communicating through sound and color are universal to all human beings, and more efficient, whereas writing systems are not. Writing requires learning to decipher symbols and then interpreting them in the brain. It takes at least an extra step. No one, however, needs a translator to listen to music or to interpret color in a painting. What you see and what you hear goes straight to the mind.


Above is the original color scheme, as I intended it to be back in 1951, based on the feedback from professional musicians from the Cuban Philharmonic Orchestra, the Municipal Band of Havana City, and professors and students from the Amadeo Roldan's Music Conservatory of Havana; as well as consultations with renowned conductors as Gonzalo Roig, Anastasio Borrego and Alberto Bolet. At the time, it was the consensus that these were the colors effectively matching the corresponding dynamics signs in music.

It’s that simple!

How to Color-Code Notes

There are three goals here:

Create a universal standard that is easily reproducible

Rely on only five distinct hues, where mp and mf share the same color, as they are arguably indistinct

Accommodate musicians who are red-green color blind, in order to account for the most common form of color blindness. (NB: They can perceive in their own way red and green, as long as both are not together in the same printed space.)

In order to create a standard, the method must be employed the same way consistently and employed everywhere. I propose therefore an open standard that relies on the following values for dynamic notation in music:


Base Color
CMYK Value
TruMatch Color
Web-Safe RGB
Web-Safe HEX
90, 20, 0, 0
0, 153, 255
100, 70, 0, 12
51, 102, 255
mp, mf
26, 85, 0, 6
204, 102, 204
0, 82, 100, 0
255, 102, 51
0, 82, 85, 0
255, 44, 37


It’s important to choose colors that are easy to recognize against a white background, and to specify them in terms that are universal to all printers and printing devices.

These color choices rely on a standard formula for sufficient contrast between foreground object (the musical note) and background object (the white page).

The printing values rely on international color printing standards. All printers understand CMYK [q.v.], which is the subtractive four-color printing method based on mixing Cyan, Magenta, Yellow and blacK to varying percentages in order to achieve full-color printing.

Spot colors are an alternate method (q.v. I use the well-known swatch codes from TruMatch Inc., which have been around for many years, but any printer can substitute or approximate them for other spot color systems readily, since most printing software employ various look-up tables for color equivalents. I chose TruMatch specifically because their correspondence between spot and CMYK is much closer than with competing systems, such as Pantone. In addition, the color proximity between printed form (four-color) and display form (RGB, HEX) is closer than with Pantone.

RGB (red-green-blue) and HEX (hexadecimal) are two standards used to represent colors on your computer monitor, such as when you’re looking at a website that may display a musical score online. I chose colors from a web-safe palette, which means that most monitors can view the same set of colors the same way everywhere on the Internet. This is useful for those who want to publish their scores online.

The point of this table is to show that once we define the base color, we can then establish equivalent values across various methods for both print and online media.

What Does Phonochromatic Notation Look Like?

By way of example, here is a score recast phonochromatically:

Example: Brief excerpt from Beethoven’s 5th Symphony with alternating dynamics for f and p.

Beethoven Symphony #5


Note: I used Sibelius in this example to color-code manually. Unfortunately, the software was not designed to carry out the full intent of Phonochromy, which is to color-code, along with the note heads, the stems, flags, and beams.

If companies like Sibelius or Finale were to adopt phonochromatic notation as an option for users, they would have to rewrite their source code to synchronize dynamics within the exact color palette proposed here, and then allow the user to color-code the discrete note heads along with their corresponding stems, flags, and beams.

Ideally, they should find an easy way to do this by highlighting or selecting a cluster of notes within a certain dynamic range and then have the software automatically resolve the results with the intended colors, rather than have the user manually color each note individually, which would become quite tedious if you need to write an entire score this way. Notwithstanding, it would still be a good idea to allow users to apply color-coding to individual notes for those who have the need for greater dynamic granularity.

Notice how easy it is to see the intensity of the sound. Notice too how you can see clusters that shift from soft to loud or vice versa, either gradually or suddenly (subito).

In other words, crescendos and decrescendos are easy to spot, because you can see the colored cluster of notes increasing or decreasing along the phonochromatic spectrum.

The overall effect is a color map of the musical score.

Printing Today versus Yesteryear

Back in the 1950s, my proposal for phonochromatic writing represented a significant increase in printing costs, because offset printing required either a four-color press, or the use of five spot colors (i.e. five separate printing plates and therefore five passes per page, because the original proposal also called for five discrete colors.) Printers and publishers would have considered it impractical and prohibitive.

Nowadays, however, a full-color page can be reproduced in a single pass thanks to new technology and standards. Ink jet and laser color printers are ubiquitous in homes, offices, conservatories, and professional printers use direct-to-plate digital technologies that can print a full-color page in a single pass.

Phonochromy was an idea ahead of its time. While serious musicians took it seriously and would have liked to have benefited from the system, the printing technology was simply not around or cost-effective to make its use widespread, so my innovation was shelved and dormant for all these decades.

But since cost and availability are no longer an issue, we therefore have no real obstacle in making use of phonochromatic writing. The opportunity presents itself anew.

Promoting an Open Standard

I publish this article in the hopes of reviving an old proposal and to broaden awareness of this innovation among the community of musicians and their publishers, as well as to the makers of various musical notation software.

Software notation systems, such as Sibelius or Finale, already have the capability to color-code musical notes. What’s missing, however, is a systematic method that adds a universally defined functionality and logic for coloring notes, which is what Phonochromy is all about.

In other words, if every user of Sibelius or Finale, and similar software, decided to color-code their own scores arbitrarily simply because the software allows it, and were to follow their own individual logic and usage, then there would be no standard, nor any benefit to the broad community of people who read and play from written musical notation.

This is why I now propose Phonochromy as an open standard, with the simple requirement that the usage and color key in this article be maintained universally, and that my coinage for the terms, “Phonochromy” and “phonochromatic” be associated with its unique implementation.


Copyright © 2009 — 2011 by Enrique Ubieta (SACEM/SDRM).
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