A Brief History of Visual Music

Tracing the conceptual and technical developments behind contemporary Audio-Visual Performance
Rob Nichols


It’s becoming increasingly common to see elaborate visual performances to accompany live music. But have you ever stopped to consider the fascinating historical path that brought us here? Having an awareness of past conceptual and technological development can help set a trajectory for future exploration.


Visual Music, or the intersection between music and visual art, can be defined as:

“Time-based visual imagery that establishes a temporal architecture in a way similar to absolute music. It is typically non-narrative and non-representational. Visual music can be accompanied by sound but can also be silent.”
(Evans 2005)

That’s a lot to get your head around. But hopefully this post will provide some context.

Light and Music

Art has always searched for constructive principles: natural rules to ensure harmonious beauty. The Egyptians and the Greeks were well known for having a rigorous “canon of proportions” 1  by which to shape their creations. Similarly Plato, Vitruvius and Le Corbusier all employed mathematical theories behind their work. Despite objective beauty being a point of contention, it is clear to see the impact that this considered structural theory has had on the products of music, dance and architecture. As these areas have been improved by understanding these relationships, one can naturally infer that colour and the visual realm of art should also benefit.

When Isaac Newton proposed the first colour wheel he began to create a structure with which to organise a practical colour theory:

Here’s where it get’s interesting – Newton went on to tentatively propose a relationship between the wave properties of colour and pitch in music, theorising that colour harmony was akin to musical chords.2 This idea sparked a line of enquiry into audio-visual relationships that would ultimately be realised by the colour organists of the nineteenth century.3

This brilliant resource by Fred Collopy shows various attempt through history to map sound and colour:

The Birth of Light Shows

Building on Newton’s idea a large number of elaborate light-based instruments where produced from the 18th to 20th century. These devices varied in shape and size but generally aimed to directly translate music into colourful ‘Lumia’ projections (the first expression of visual music). Notable examples include Louis- Bertrand Castel’s Ocular Harpsichord, Synchromist Morgan Russell’s failed Kinetic Light Machines, and Thomas Wilfred’s Clavilux.

In 1912 Futurist Bruno Corra (1892–1976) published a pivotal manifesto entitled Chromatic Music. In this he and his brother Arnaldo Ginna (1890–1982) attempted many experiments including the production of a colour organ. In general the impact of many of these instruments was underwhelming due to the technical challenges of producing coloured light, as well as visual form of anything other than vague definition.4 Corra expressed these difficulties: “We had at our disposal only twenty-eight tones, the fusions did not work well [and] the sources of light were not strong enough” (1912). It was this technical dissatisfaction that pushed artists such as Corra and Leopold Survage (1879–1968) into exploring celluloid film.

The production of these instruments also began to raise debate as to whether it is indeed valuable to produce visual music by directly transferring the principles of music. Thomas Wilfred believed vehemently that Lumia projectors should not be designed to mimic musical instruments, stating that this would prove “as futile as attempts to write Lumia compositions by following the conventional rules laid down for music”.5 As a result Wilfred’s Clavilux was produced to be performed entirely without music.

Painting Music

“A painter … in his longing to express his inner life cannot but envy the ease with which music, the most non-material of the arts today, achieves this end. He naturally seeks to apply the methods of music to his own art. And from these results that modern desire for rhythm in painting, mathematical, abstract construction, for repeated notes of colour, for setting colour in motion”(Kandinsky 1914)6

Composition VIII – Wassily Kandinsky, 1923

This longing, as described by Kandinsky, compelled many painters to create an abstract visual language that borrowed from musical ideas. Specifically Kandinsky dreamed of a theory of visual harmony that captured the illusive properties of music on canvas. But Kandinsky was not the first. The theories surrounding painting and music truly caught traction in the German Romantic period (early 19th century). Tieck and Wackenroder believed that in removing the “imitative principle” from representational art a more “poetical” quality would be possible.7 These developments started a chain reaction in the art world. By the beginning of the 20th century application of musical principles had become a ubiquitous part of abstract painting. Fauvism developed to Orphism which in turn influenced the American Synchromist movement pioneered by Morgan Russell (1886–1953). Synchromism was based on the idea that “color and sound are similar phenomena and that the colors in a painting can be orchestrated in the same harmonious way that a composer arranges notes in a symphony”.8 In Europe similar movements were started, seeing public success in artists such as Piet Mondrian, Jackson Pollock and Mark Rothko.

Artist Paul Klee even transferred from a disgruntling musical career to further advance abstract painting, heavily exploring visual balance and rhythm through colour and form. He noted in his diary: “I am continually being made aware of the parallels between music and the fine arts. As yet they defy analysis. It is certain that both art forms are defined by time. That can easily be proved”.9 Klee’s study of harmony and counterpoint in 18th century music composition helped him achieve visual rhythm through the layering of watercolours in loose grids, creating a kind of visual polyphony. His paintings are temporal (time based) in that they are experienced initially simultaneously, then as individual elements over time, but ultimately they fell short of producing the truly dynamic expression offered by film.

Highway Byways – Paul Klee, 1929

Film and The Temporal Element

“The complete film we all dream of creating is a visual symphony composed of rhythmic images, which only the artist’s perception can coordinate and project onto the screen” (Dulac 1925)10

Despite abstract painting laying the foundation for visual music, it was the medium of film that would eventually offer the creative liberty desired by the Futurists. Film was superior to Lumia projections in that it “offered much greater control over form and direct synchronisation to music”.11 It was the avant-garde films of Walter Ruttmann, Viking Eggeling and Hans Richter that truly made the leap. By transitioning from still images to film-based animation they successfully captured the temporal element of music. Their practice and theories laid the foundation for the abstract language of contemporary visual music.

Walter Ruttmann (1887–1941) produced the oldest surviving abstract film, Lichtspiel Opus 1, in 1921. His technique of painting on glass allowed for the creation of fluid forms of colour that performed a choreographed dance across the screen. Ruttmann commissioned Max Butting to compose a string quartet to accompany his works. In an effort to achieve seamless synchronisation between sound and image he went so far as to make special markings on the sheet music.12

Motifs and Musical Structure

Quickly following Ruttmann, Viking Eggeling (1880–1925) and his close friend Hans Richter (1888–1976) pioneered further animation techniques. Both Eggeling and Richter were born into heavily musical families, an upbringing that would leave both with an intrinsic connection to music. The most prevalent principle viewable in Eggeling’s work is his application of musical structure. By breaking his film sequences into defined thematic blocks, it became possible to develop different visual motifs over strictly regulated time, in turn utilising musical structures such as sonata form.

Sonata form was a highly popular structuring technique used in classical music at the time Eggeling was creating. It can be clearly seen in his film Symphonie Diagonal. Initially two themes or ‘subjects’ are introduced, first separately and then together. The film then enters a third ‘development’ stage in which the two themes interact together. Then follows the final concluding ‘coda’. Each of the visual ‘instruments’ in Symphonie Diagonal have their own specific properties of motion and interact accordingly.

Eggeling, in contrast to his contemporaries, never went so far as to introduce colour into his films, preferring a chiaroscuro aesthetic. This allowed him to follow the Futurist tradition, ensuring his primary concern was with the abstract relationships of plastic forms over time. He viewed colour either as an unnecessary distraction or as an additional task to be subsequently explored. He also produced Diagonal Symphony to be silent, emphasising that in and of itself it should be analogous to music.13

Rhythm and Balance

Eggeling’s close friend Hans Richter (1888–1976) explored a fundamentally different dimension in his animations. His primary concern, like Klee, was with the creation of visual rhythm. In his animations Rhythmus 21 and 23 Richter instead presents pure black and white geometric forms, the square and the circle that grow and diminish. In this way he hoped to capture time: “the fast, the slow, the backwards, the forwards – all the articulation we read in music”.14 By simplifying to this level Richter isolates the abstract ‘musical relationships’ between shapes.

In addition to film Richter also produced long scroll paintings. The paintings showed a series of abstract forms that transformed from one to the next: a kind of frame by frame animation that again could be read, left to right, as if it were music. Richter’s scroll painting Fugue is a visualisation of the musical concept of a fugue: a contrapuntal composition in which graphic elements are introduced, developed and then mirrored on exit.

Figue by Hans Richter, 1920

The use of visual counterpoint in both Richter’s and Eggeling’s films resounded directly with their philosophy. Richter wrote, “Every action produces a corresponding reaction. Thus, in the contrapuntal fugue, we found the appropriate system, a dynamic and polar arrangement of opposing energies”.15 This is further confirmation of their belief in balance and visual harmony.

Inspired by seeing Ruttmann’s work, German painter Oskar Fischinger started producing his own abstract films. In Ornament Sound (1931) he reversed the traditional process, instead turning visual shapes into sounds through an adapted camera, focusing closely on the “direct synchronisation to music”.16 Fischinger noted that “the flood of feeling created through music intensified the feeling and effectiveness of this graphic cinematic expression, and helped to make understandable the absolute film”.17 The recurring desire to create visual rhythm was also a prominent theme in his work:

“As in the dance, new motions and rhythms sprang out of the music — and the rhythms became more and more important” (Fischinger 1947).

Avant-Garde Film

The abstract films of the pioneering animators quickly developed into the broader avant-garde film movement. This non-narrative cinematography came about in tandem with experimental modernist composers such as John Cage, Karlheinz Stockhausen and Cornelius Cardew. Avant-garde film artists of note include Stan Brakhage, Robert Breer, Malcolm Le Grice and Nam June Paik, many of whom produced films that can be considered visual music.

Early visual music had further room to develop before realising the Futurists’ dream of bringing a truly “dynamic sensation” into an immersive visual art form (Boccioni 1973). It was the element of spontaneity, similar to that enjoyed by improvised jazz musicians, that would advance visual music one step closer to producing truly human, immediate poetic expression.

Live Audio-Visual Performance

This improvisation can be seen in the modern relative of visual music, the live audio-visual performance. Producing a film can be done with care, taking time to cut as desired, whereas live audio-visual performance, like musical performance, even if pre-planned, always maintains an element of human spontaneity. Creating live performances with the same level of musical theory and structure that Eggeling and Richter employed in their work would require a large amount of prior planning and knowledge of the music to be played.


Unfortunately the early pioneers lacked the technical precision provided by computer analysis and so could only go as far as to explore their own “subjective perceptions of synaesthesia”.18 These technical limitations may however have forced them to spend more time on the intellectual concepts behind their films, something that may be lost in modern digital heavy work. The question arises as to whether the lessons learned through overcoming these limitations have been retained or forgotten.

Looking at the history of visual music we’ve seen varying attempts to transfer musical concepts, such as harmony, rhythm and counterpoint. More complex musical structure such as fugue and sonata form have also been applied. Perhaps it is time to revisit these ideas?