The term “tone color” has varying meanings to different performers. For some, it simply represents a collection of sounds ranging in quality and contextual relevance. For others, “tone color” is associated with interpretative mental images connected with a type of phrase or orchestration often used in conjunction with symbolic words such as “flowing,” “edgy” or “bold.” For myself, and many performers who share my methodology, tone colors are connected to mental pictures of different colors of the rainbow, each representing a particular type of sound that moves in and out of other color spectrums and the music progresses. This concept is based on a number of sources including Alexander Skyrabin’s tone poem, Prometheus and Trevor Wye’s Tone practice book wherein he refers to “yellow” as a type of hollow sound and purple as having a “rich” quality (it must be recognized here that these two words in themselves create different interpretations – my idea of “hollow” may be vastly different than your idea of “hollow” therefore to assign the definition of yellow as “hollow” is already problematic). I have developed the following color scheme for myself to assign varaiances in tone color to virtually all of the solo music I perform. Again I must stress that these colors are based on my own interpretation and not something that I am suggesting everyone reading this blog adhere to in their own practice.
Red – The color of passion! And fire. The color red is associated with a very large sound, tons of vibrato and typically used in conjunction with ff dynamic levels (very loud). This color is reserved for the height of climatic moment or when there is a very bold theme that must be brought out of the texture or when the music is extremely intense.
Orange – Orange is a less intense version of red. It is as if the dial on red has been turned from a 9 to an 6. Orange is used for the climatic moments of phrases that do not necessarily represent important themes but are substantial within the context of a singular phrase. The sound is still loud with a lot of vibrato however the speed at which the vibrato moves is a bit slower than in passages written in red. The dynamic this color is assocated with is generally f (loud).
Green – Green is a full but pleasant sound. Not nearly as intense or offensive as orange or red but used in opening statements of the theme or when the music is controlled. This is essentially the calm before the storm in a phrase that is getting progressively louder. I may also use this color in slower cantabile phrases at the height of a theme. Green is used for music generally in the mf dynamic (louder mid-range sound).
Blue – Blue is water. Blue is air. I use blue primarily slower movements where a beautiful yet simple theme weaves in and out of the texture. Slower but pronounced vibrato is usually accompanied by a pure but simple sound that still has center and focus but is not driving toward a climax. Blue is often used in conjunction with slight moments of purple, indicating the high point of a relatively calm phrase moving in blue. Blue is reserved for mp dymanic markings.
Yellow – Yellow is very quiet, mysterious and at times creepy. Here I use Trevor Wye’s suggestion and create what I imagine to be a hallow and empty sound. This is the sound that one1 makes when they do not want anyone to hear their playing. If music could whisper, this is the sound that I envision it would make. Very little to no vibrato. The music is very still with no forward direction. Dynamics range in the p to pp (and lower) levels (very quiet).
Now it is time for you to select your own colors in your own spectrum and assign your own meanings. What does this look like? How would you organize tone colors to match dynamics, use of vibrato, tempo changes, articulation, etc.? What does each color mean and what quality of sound are you trying to capture? Devise a sound/color plan and stick to it even if the only one that understands it is you.
With these designations in mind, the next step is to create a color plan in the score with colored pencils. Obviously this is not meant to be done on original manuscripts (yikes) so do this using a photocopies of the score. There are two ways that I have seen this done but if you have other ideas of how to plan your color spectrum, please share them in the below comments section:
1. Literally color your staff with the colors you have assigned to each measure of the music. For example, your music may end up looking something like this:
2. Draw a color spectrum above your music. This will allow you to add other marks and notes in the staff without disturbing the color plan:
Much of music is decision making. What do you want to sound like? When do you want your sound to change? Where is your sound going and where is it coming from? What does a particular phrase mean to you and how do you convey that meaning with sound? I color my music to express all of these things and encourage others to do the same using their own spectrums and their own meanings. What does your music look like at the end of the day. What do your colors mean to you?
I would love to hear the way color is used by other performers and what interpretations you have devised for colors. Please leave comments below and share your experiences and thoughts.