TONAL RELATIVITY: VISUALIZING MUSIC THEORY/SONIFYING COLOR THEORY

Hues in a tertiary color wheel — coupled with corresponding shapes/spaces — can be used to  explore relationships in a 12-tone musical system.




Lines emanating from red above can be imagined originating from each of the twelve colors, connecting with all other colors to form sets of patterns (see INTERVALS for examples).


While any twelve different colors could be used to make visible the patterns inherent in musical scales and intervals, the use of twelve hues that form a gradient allows for a more literal correspondence between the colors and an equally-tempered 12-tone chromatic scale.

One can begin on any pitch (or color). All tones/colors remain relative to all other tones/colors.


Playing each interval or mode over a sustained tone (drone) of the pitch the scale or interval begins on will audibly illustrate the relationships:

When the Tonal Relativity project began in 2015, squares were used to indicate whole steps and half-squares (rectangles and triangles) to indicate half-steps (in both color and pitch). The 2020 version has taken on a circular shape that reveals additional information.


All of the pieces in the 2020 incarnation began as paintings in gouache on paper at a scale of ½ inch = ½ step in both color and pitch (one octave therefore equals 6”) and later digitally altered.


Documentation of original works-in-progress can be viewed on Instagram.


While the color wheel at the top of this page can be used as a key to the color relationships, the images below can be used as keys to the patterns depicted in the sets of MODES and other sets of scales.


Dot sizes are relative, with smallest dot representing half a step, dot with twice the diameter representing a whole step, dot with 1.5 times the diameter representing a step and a half, etc.


High-resolution PDFs of the following graphics in worksheet form are freely available for download here.

Audio-visualization of the Modes of the Harmonic Minor Scale:

A 3-part rotating wheel such as the one below may be used to quickly identify intervals (for example, the wheel makes it immediately apparent that, while any color can be aligned with any note, tritones are always represented by complementary colors):

Click below to download a PDF containing DIY wheel parts (print on heavy stock, cut out, connect with split clip):

Here's Alyce speaking with David Samas of San Francisco's Center for New Music about the project (on view at CFNM during April 2021):


“I think music is an instrument. It can create the initial thought patterns that can change the thinking of the people.” — John Coltrane, 1966 Interview with Frank Kofsky for KPFK Radio


"Musical innovation is full of danger to the State, for when modes of music change, the fundamental laws of the State always change with them." — Plato, The Republic


"Color deceives continually...in visual perception there is a discrepancy between physical fact and psychic effect. What counts here — first and last — is not so-called knowledge of so-called facts, but vision — seeing." — Josef Albers, introduction to Interaction of Color


"The theory of relativity occurred to me by intuition, and music is the driving force behind this intuition. My parents had me study the violin from the time I was six. My new discovery is the result of musical perception." — Albert Einstein in Shinishi Suzuki's 1969 Nurtured by Love: A New Approach to Education


"Begin anywhere."John Cage


The charts contained herein are intended only as a starting point; patterns derived from scales consisting of any number of tones or intervals could be depicted using similar methods.
Creative Commons License
All parts of the Tonal Relativity project are licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License.