Alexander Scriabin and Artificial Synesthesia

I’ve been listening to a lot of Scriabin lately, and starting reading about his life.

Check this out:

Though these works are often considered to be influenced by synesthesia, a condition wherein one experiences sensation in one sense in response to stimulus in another, it is doubted that Scriabin actually experienced this. His colour system, unlike most synesthetic experience, accords with the circle of fifths: it was a thought-out system based on Sir Isaac Newton's Opticks. Note that Scriabin did not, for his theory, recognize a difference between a major and a minor tonality of the same name (for example: c-minor and C-Major). Indeed, influenced also by the doctrines of theosophy, he developed his system of synesthesia toward what would have been a pioneering multimedia performance: his unrealized magnum opus Mysterium was to have been a grand week-long performance including music, scent, dance, and light in the foothills of the Himalayas Mountains that was somehow to bring about the dissolution of the world in bliss.

In his autobiographical Recollections, Sergei Rachmaninoff recorded a conversation he had had with Scriabin and Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov about Scriabin’s association of colour and music. Rachmaninoff was surprised to find that Rimsky-Korsakov agreed with Scriabin on associations of musical keys with colors; himself skeptical, Rachmaninoff made the obvious objection that the two composers did not always agree on the colours involved. Both maintained that the key of D major was golden-brown; but Scriabin linked E-flat major with red-purple, while Rimsky-Korsakov favored blue. However, Rimsky-Korsakov protested that a passage in Rachmaninoff’s opera The Miserly Knight accorded with their claim: the scene in which the Old Baron opens treasure chests to reveal gold and jewels glittering in torchlight is written in D major. Scriabin told Rachmaninoff that “your intuition has unconsciously followed the laws whose very existence you have tried to deny.”

While Scriabin wrote only a small number of orchestral works, they are among his most famous, and some are performed frequently. They include a piano concerto (1896), and five symphonic works, including three numbered symphonies as well as The Poem of Ecstasy (1908) and Prometheus: The Poem of Fire (1910), which includes a part for a machine known as a “clavier à lumières”, known also as a Luce (Italian for “Light”), which was a colour organ designed specifically for the performance of Scriabin’s tone poem. It was played like a piano, but projected coloured light on a screen in the concert hall rather than sound. Most performances of the piece (including the premiere) have not included this light element, although a performance in New York City in 1915 projected colours onto a screen. It has been claimed erroneously that this performance used the colour-organ invented by English painter A. Wallace Rimington when in fact it was a novel construction supervised personally and built in New York specifically for the performance by Preston S. Miller, the president of the Illuminating Engineering Society.

Scriabin’s original colour keyboard, with its associated turntable of coloured lamps, is preserved in his apartment near the Arbat in Moscow, which is now a museum dedicated to his life and works.

Here is a keyboard colored as described by Scriabin:

scriabin-keyboard (PD)

And his circle of fifths:


“Was Scriabin a Synaesthete?”

There is some interesting biographical information here:

Color mappings:

A great recording of Horowitz:

I would write more, but it’s 1am and I have to go to sleep – but I’m excited to find this… :slight_smile:

Another great recording of Vers la Flamme (Toward the Flame) is below. Scriabin thought that trills were “light” and that the world would be eventually destroyed by fire. This one is more flame-like than Horowitz’s.


According to renowned pianist Vladimir Horowitz, the piece was inspired by Scriabin's eccentric conviction that a constant accumulation of heat would ultimately cause the destruction of the world. The piece's title reflects the Earth's fiery destruction, as well as the constant emotional buildup and crescendo throughout the piece leading, ultimately, "toward the flame."

I don’t know what key this is (PDF score), but it starts and ends with C#, which is red in Scriabin’s system. The last chord has E at the bottom – the blue base of a flame?

Sofronitsky was married to Scriabin’s daughter, so he might have known Scriabin…

(EDIT: Scriabin died in 1915 and he met her in 1917.)

Looking at the colors again, it’s interesting how the colors blend.

Since the gradient follows fifths, and chords tend to do things like I-IV-V-I (C-F-G-C), the colors don’t clash when the music doesn’t.

For a simple song with the chords, C-F-G, the piece would hover around red, maroon, and orange. If one added the Dm* (ii), yellow wouldn’t be totally out of place. If the green vi (Am) is added, then it clashes.

I wonder how other color assignments would work.

  • in the key of C, the chords are C Dm Em F G7 Am B°, which can also be written I ii iii IV V7 vi vii°.

Wauw, Do they sell piano’s like that. If i had this coloured piano, it would probably be more fun and imaginitive to use. This sounds like a system of a genius! Good find Josh!

I don’t think so, but it would probably be easy to print out a square of each color, and then attach small squares on the back of each key. Or if anyone has an electronic keyboard, it could probably be hooked up to a computer to display colors based on notes and chords. That would be an interesting way to play Scriabin…


This post has long since run its course, but as I delve into my study of mnemonics, the prodigious amount of applications becomes more and more visible.

I recall reading in a post earlier about your passion for music, a passion I also share. I’m always looking for new ways to visualize scales and patterns and wasn’t born with the luxury (not sure they’d call it that…) of being a synthesthete. However, it’s encouraging to see how other musicians have encorporated the benefits of synthesthesia into their regimen.

Sorry, I get long-winded sometimes. My question is, have you made any progress via these color schemes in your musical studies, or any progress musically via mnemonics for that matter? I’d understand if you’d already made a post about this, so feel free to redirect me and save yourself the repitive process of restating.

I’m extremely curious and, by sifting through the site for many weeks now, like the way you think.

Thanks in advance,

I haven’t done much with the music and colors, since I have chronic hand injuries that forced me to stop playing music a couple of years ago.

Do you play an instrument?

The forum threads are permanently open – so the conversation can continue, even in old threads. :slight_smile:

Yes I remember reading about the hand injuries but I also remember reading about work you were pursuing regarding the “playing” of music in your mind (a topic that seems absolutely fascinating). I personally do a lot of work in underground hiphop (i.e. electronic stuff), but my roots as a musician come from 10+ years of saxophone, with dabs of guitar and piano mixed in.

Lately I’ve been trying to use mnemonics (I recall, again, reading about a conversation you had with another blogger about the doe, ray system, which I’ve only scratched the surface of through research), to help me identify intervals between pitches.

It’s wonderful how many different fields mnemonics can be applied to.

I got too busy to work on the music memorization. I’m hoping to pick it up again as soon as I have some free time. I have some more ideas in my head, but need time to write them down… :slight_smile:

(My first post here)

As a pianist this thread interests me a lot. I just learned about the art of memorization through my reading of Foer’s book, so I am completely new to the subject. I am constantly looking for new ways to memorize musical scores and stumbled on this site.

At times I am engaged by one of the leading orchestras of Sweden. A couple of months ago we had a conductor with an astonishing memory. I have never seen anything like it. He is a very young conductor from Poland named Urbanski. Conducting Lutoslawskis Concerto for Orchestra by heart is one thing, but this was something extra. He managed to rehearse the whole week without even once have the need to consult the score. Things like “four bars before rehearsal number 56” was commonplace, and he could tell in an instant if something was not exactly as written. At one point a clarinet player asked him (maybe to put him to the test): “Maestro, what should the second clarinet play on the 7th sixteenth of the fifth bar before figure 65. Is it A or C?” Without hesitation: “It is an A”

Apparently this man has an inner map to consult somehow. According to Foer’s book there is no such thing as a “Photographic memory”. But it is really hard for me to imagine that a musician would make the painstaking effort to memorize the score using mnemotechnics (i.e. if he didn’t have the “gift” of almost immediate memorization). I get the feeling that he never made an effort to memorize the music this way, that it came easy to him.

Maybe you here on this site, with your expertise in the field of memorizing has some comments to this?
What kind of inner imagery do you think is useful when memorizing music? Colour is certainly one factor, but what else?

If he had been involved in music for a long time, it is very possible he had both what is called “perfect pitch” and an exceptional memory. If you’ve read Foer’s book, you will recall the piece about chess grandmasters; how their memorise weren’t really better than an average person’s, but their memory for chess games and positions was exceptional, they had thousands of chess games in their heads, could recreate a position after only looking at a board for a few seconds, and such feats. It is possible that this conductor had the same task-specific ability.

This is related:
A Midcentury Composer’s Luminous Rainbow Wheels Representing Music Through Color

Russian composer Ivan Wyschnegradsky was a 20th-century avant-garde pianist devoted to “creating a work capable of awakening in every man the slumbering forces of cosmic consciousness,” according to his journal. To achieve this mystical ideal, he set out to create sounds that no one had ever heard before. His music was microtonal, a style that transcends the limitations of the 12-scale tuning system in traditional Western music.

In the late 1940s, he translated his “ultrachromatic” compositions into these mesmerizing rainbow color wheels. He applied the concepts of synesthesia, blurring the line between sound and color. Each cell on these drawings corresponds to a different semitone in his complex musical sequences. If you look closely enough, you can follow the spirals as if it were a melody and “listen” to the scores they represent.


Ivan Wyschnegradsky (1893-1979) is typically acknowledged as a microtonal composer who spent most of his creative life in Paris and Germany developing his theories and "ultrachromatic scales." Before his emigration to Paris in 1920, he studied composition at the St. Petersburg Conservatory and became an avant-garde composer. Wyschnegradsky was clearly a disciple of Scriabin's music. He actually experienced something like an epiphany after hearing Scriabin's works and thereafter became a mystic, abandoned his Wagnerian approach to music, and emulated the "scriabinesque." His early orchestral work "The Journey of Existence" owes much to Scriabin's "Poem of Ecstasy". However, he was more interested in pursuing quarter-tone composition and even had Scriabin-like visions that this kind of music would push mankind to the next step in evolution. Composers like Messiaen and Boulez appreciated and performed his microtonal music, but there is virtually no interest in Wyschnegradsky today.

I was listening to some other Scriabin recordings on YouTube while working and thought I would share them here.

Someday I want to write a program that converts the sheet music into the colors – if not a visual, on-screen lightshow, then at least colorized sheet music. It looks like it would be easy to do with Lilypond and Scheme.

The intro is incredible:

Glen Gould:

More Scriabin to check out: