Music Production and Visual Arts

There are many parallels between the visual and audible arts. In one field, the creator composes with colour, shapes, light and dark to put forward their interpretation of a visual event. In the other, the creator composes with rhythm, melody, harmony, texture and space, to create their interpretation of a sonic event.


The painter holds in their mind a prototype of what is to be their final work. This might be a complete work with every brush stroke, shadow and subject considered and planned, or it might be a completely theoretical idea of what the piece will mean or represent with no consideration of the visual elements to be determined during the physical act of the creation of the piece.

This is mirrored in music, where the creator might have in their mind a plan of every element of the final piece: from recording equipment, to arrangement and instrumentation to the full notation predetermined going in to the physical creation process. The alternative in the musical case is the creator who enters the physical process with a conceptual idea but no technical or final plan of what will occur on the final product.

The physical portion of creativity in these cases is the final act of creation. For a painting, this might be the first brush stroke, an initial sketch or the choice of the subject matter. For a musical creation this could be the moment one begins to record or draft the first ideas for a composition. This is a harder point to determine as there is such variety in the methodology of music production. For one musician, the act of composition could begin as early as the first notated idea, while another musician may only begin the compositional process after the record button is pushed, usually in a ‘jamming’ scenario where a flow of consciousness occurs and the musician simply hopes that the moment of inspiration strikes in the time that he/she plays.

The choice of subject for a piece of music holds many parallels with that of a painting or photograph. While a painter might consider a portrait of a person they know, a musician might write a song about someone in their life. A painter may decide to paint a landscape in a place that holds significance for them whereas the musician might write a song about that place and explain its significance.

Influence of life events is often a determining factor here as the author might go through a phase where their subject is chosen partially due to their mental state. A musician might go through a particularly ‘dark’ period during a stressful point in their life just as a painter might focus more on darker themes in their work for the same reason.

The parallel here is most notable when considering the work of a single creator with a long career in their field. This might describe, for instance, a musician with a history of releasing work that reflects their personal life where the movement from joy to distress to acceptance is audible in their work. For the painter in this scenario their work might go through similar changes. Considering this parallel in terms of subject matter, rather than technique or process, we can consider some case studies.


Picasso’s paintings following his commission for Guernica in 1937 were darker and more serious than some of his work before and after this period. He had been commissioned to create Guernica by the Spanish Republican Government to raise awareness of the Spanish Civil War, which had begun the year before. Picasso was living in Paris at this point and had not returned to Spain in several years but felt himself affected by the war and began work on a series of paintings on the subject. One of the most famous of this series is his ‘Weeping Woman’ also painted in 1937. This was a clear phase in Picasso’s art that mirrored his feelings on the subject matter. A similar scenario can be seen in many cases in music where the events in a musician’s personal life influence their choice of subject matter. For example in the work of Neil Young we see a conventional folk-song writing style focusing on subjects like love, dreams and everyday life until a friend and bandmate of Young’s died of a heroin overdose, which spurred him to write ‘The Needle and the Damage Done’ on that subject.


It is also the case that knowledge of the lifestyle and character of the artist can influence a viewer’s opinion of a piece. For example, Brian Sherwin, an American art critic and writer, was involved in a psychological study where two paintings were shown to a number of people who were not made aware of who the artists were. They were asked to critique the pieces and gave their opinions on the artistic competence of the artists respectively. A second group performed the same critique but were told the artists’ names. In this case the artists were Adolf Hitler and John Lennon. Once the critics were aware of the artists and, through their fame or infamy, their characters, they were also asked to critique the work. As one might expect, Adolf Hitler’s work was judged somewhat more harshly than that of Lennon, whose work was being admired in a much more favourable light.

If we were to categorize the key elements of Lennon’s picture we might say that it is a minimalistic, monochromatic interpretation of a real world place in what is conceivably a real world scenario. It has perceived depth, but only in a rudimentary and forced fashion. The work is childlike and cartoonish. It places the entire focus on the characters and their surroundings. It takes place in a familiar setting (one that we have seen many times before in culture). It makes the conscious decision to avoid colour and obscure detail. Breaking down this analysis, we can apply many if not all of these observations to musical techniques in just the same way:


This comparison of parameters was made in several lectures given by Paul Klee (1879-1940) at the Bauhaus when speaking on his art. In 1917 he stated that ‘Polyphonic painting is superior to music in that there, the time element becomes a spatial element. The notion of simultaneity stands out even more richly’. In this statement Klee has shown that he believes there to be a clear link between music and painting since in his own words painting can be polyphonic: in this case referring to variety of colours and textures. It also brings up another point: art as a stationary idea, as opposed to music as a temporal one. A painting is a snapshot of one creative idea, which can be viewed for extended periods in isolation as a complete piece of work. Music is a continuous process, which can never be appreciated as a whole, since there is no point where one can stop and analyse the music without it developing and changing in some way. Klee considers the temporal element of music to be akin to the spatial element of a painting, and that the simultaneous nature of the painting is more striking than the ongoing nature of music. He also found the rhythmic nature of painting to be similar to that of classical music, with particular focus on technique rather than final product. He found that the gradual building up of the work and each brush stroke granted the process of painting a musical rhythm. Klee was known to practice his violin in preparation for working on a painting, which would suggest that he felt one art form could mentally prepare him for the other. This type of synaesthesic exercise is fairly common, with many painters listening to music while they work. Klee’s pictures can be said to have some ‘musical’ qualities to them, especially in their progressive nature where the elements build up throughout the piece, often in more defined regions, which can be compared to changes in music which are temporal rather than spatial.

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Visual stimuli have been experimented with in music in some creative ways. Cornelius Cardew, for example, composed some works with abstract scores, including The Great Learning, which bore little relevance to typical notation but were to be interpreted by the performers as they saw fit. Cardew prefaced performances of his composition by reminding the performers that they should ‘bear in mind that parts of the score may be devoid of direct musical relevance’. The notation would vary from simple shapes and lines to complex webs of symbols and vague instructions, all to be used for directing the performance. The Great Learning was the first recording that musician and producer Brian Eno took part in. He would later remark that the process had a profound effect on him and influenced his later involvement with music and its relation to the visual arts. This is clear in his included notation for his work Music for Airports in which he experimented with creating ambient atmospheres in sound, similar to how an artist may decide to create an ambient atmosphere in a painting. This occurred when Eno was confined to his bed after a car accident as he listened to an album of harp music with one broken speaker at low volume, unable to alter the level. ‘This presented what was for me a new way of hearing music — as part of the ambience of the environment, just as the colour of the light and the sound of the rain were parts of that ambience’. In this way he began bridging the gap between audio and visual, placing emphasis on aspects of the music that he considered important in the visual realm and vice versa, allowing him to create ‘ambiences’ rather than purely musical tracks.

Eno had a unique approach to the artistic process, intrigued by the idea of random generation of sequences and the ability to create complexity from a series of simple processes, he likened his idea of composition to the theory of evolution put forward by Charles Darwin in that it presented the possibility of complex and unique organisms coming from basic, simple processes over time. This was the concept behind his audio-visual art installation 77 million paintings. The installation is a combination of audio and visual elements that follow a similar method of generation. The visual art is made up of 296 pieces, which are overlaid to create a random final piece composed of four of the originals. This process is repeated to form a set of originals to be viewed one after the other. In this way it can be said that each person who views the piece will have a different visual experience. The musical element of the installation follows a similar process with several original pieces being overdubbed with one another to create a wholly original piece. The software used to generate the installation was released on purchasable discs in 2006. This highlights the fact that an artist can use similar compositional methods to produce both visual and audible art, as in this case the two are combined seamlessly and their similarities are exhibited through this.

For some artists or musicians there is a defined link between one sense and another. This is referred to as synaesthesia and can mean a link between any two senses, usually between pitch and colour. In some cases, certain words or timbres can hold colour or vice versa for synesthetes. David Hockney is an artist and photographer and a synesthete. He interprets different bass tones as defined colours. He has remarked that this does not affect his art or photography but that he designs sets and staging for ballet performances where he will design the colours he interprets the music having into the staging.

In these ways it can be said that music and art have comparable methods of composition, creative production and consideration of elements. This is evidenced by those who have experimented with projects that bridge the gap between the two mediums such as Eno or Cardew. In these examples, the idea of visual art forming music or vice versa is explored and as such we can determine that the two are compatible in that sense.