Music and Visual Art: How Great Songwriting Holds the Keys to Understanding Art

Music and Visual Art: How Great Songwriting Holds the Keys to Understanding Art

Last Updated on April 8, 2024

What is the Relationship between Music and Visual Arts?

The intricate dance between music and visual art is a fascinating exploration of how different creative realms intersect, enrich, and inform one another. At the heart of both disciplines lies the fundamental pursuit of expression, communication, and connection with the audience, whether through the auditory journey of music or the visual narrative of art. This article aims to delve into the symbiotic relationship between these two forms of artistic expression, drawing on personal inspiration from music to understand its profound impact on visual creativity.

For me, music has always been a wellspring of inspiration. It influences my creative process and artistic output, imbuing my work with a rhythm and mood that might not have been discovered through visual exploration alone. This article reveals the reasons behind the resonance of music within my visual art practice, highlighting the universal language of creativity that transcends the boundaries of individual artistic disciplines. Through this exploration, we uncover not only the theoretical connections between music and visual arts but also the practical implications of this relationship in fostering a deeper understanding and appreciation of art in all its forms.

Music and visual arts, though distinct in medium, share core elements that serve as the building blocks of creation—Harmony (Composition), Rhythm (Patterns), Melody (Mood), Lyric (Narrative) and Structure (Presentation). Each of these elements plays a crucial role in the development of a piece, whether it’s a song that moves the soul or a painting that captures the heart. The parallels between music and visual art composition are not merely coincidental but are deeply rooted in the shared human experience of interpreting and expressing emotions, stories, and concepts through art.

Drawing from modern and contemporary art, this article will showcase how these parallels manifest in tangible forms. Artists like Mark Rothko, Jean-Michel Basquiat, and others have masterfully illustrated the relationship between music’s composition elements and visual storytelling. Their works serve as a testament to the intertwined paths of visual and musical artistry, echoing the sentiment that visual artists, much like musicians, compose their pieces with an intricate balance of harmony, rhythm, and narrative to evoke emotion and provoke thought.

Songwriting and Interdisciplinary Creativity

There are many crossovers in approach and shared creative processes within creative fields. Artists, seeking new and unique sources of inspiration can find insights into their own practice through interdisciplinary creativity research. From the origins of a concept, development of an action plan, implementation of a method, and finishing of a work, the visual arts, in particular, have much to learn from their musical counterpart.

In my article, Inside the Creative Mind, we explored how variety can help fuel creativity by providing a wider network of cognitive associations to produce more novel outcomes. This often results in the characteristic of creative individuals naturally being drawn to a range of subjects and themes outside of their own specialty.

Masterclass.com lists 5 Steps to Simple Songwriting. According to the article, the fundamentals of Songwriting are broken into 5 elements: Harmony, Rhythm, Melody, Lyric, and Structure. Let’s break each one down as it relates to the artistic process in the Visual Arts. If we take each step and apply it to the production of visual arts, we can explore in what ways can music be shown visually in visual arts and hopefully find some interesting takeaways for your own creative practice and understanding.

1. Harmony as Composition

Harmony in music refers to the chords that support the melody, creating depth and richness. In visual arts, harmony is seen in how colors, shapes, and elements are combined. This visual harmony creates a cohesive experience, where each component works together to enhance the overall impact, much like a chord progression complements a song’s melody.

DALL·E 2024 02 19 15.06.15 Create an image that illustrates the concept of visual harmony. This artwork should depict a serene and balanced composition featuring elements that 1

Delving deeper into the principles of composition and balance can enrich this parallel further. Composition in visual arts involves the arrangement of visual elements in a way that is aesthetically pleasing and effectively communicates the intended message or emotion. Balance, a key principle of composition, ensures that no single element overpowers others, but rather all elements contribute to a unified whole.

Harmony in visual arts also includes the interplay of texture, form, and space. Texture adds depth and tactile quality, influencing how elements interact visually and emotionally with the viewer. Form, shape, and structure of objects within the artwork contribute to the overall harmony by guiding the viewer’s eye and creating a sense of movement or stability.

Space, both positive (the subject) and negative (the background), plays a crucial role in creating a balanced composition, allowing the elements to breathe and interact harmoniously. By considering these aspects, artists can create artworks where colors, shapes, textures, forms, and the distribution of space work in concert, much like a well-orchestrated musical composition.

The Harmony of Starry Night

One exemplary artwork that illustrates the parallel of harmony as composition is “The Starry Night” by Vincent van Gogh. This iconic painting, completed in 1889, masterfully demonstrates how harmony in visual composition can evoke deep emotional responses, akin to the way harmony in music enriches a melody.

In “The Starry Night,” van Gogh employs a vibrant palette of blues and yellows to create a dynamic and emotional effect. The swirling, expressive sky filled with stars that seem to pulsate with energy and light contrasts with the quiet, orderly village below. This contrast between the tumultuous sky and the serene village exemplifies harmony in composition; disparate elements coexist and complement each other, enhancing the overall impact of the artwork.

Van Gogh Starry Night Google Art Project 1
Van Gogh, Starry Night. 1889.

The use of color in “The Starry Night” is particularly noteworthy. The cool blues and greens of the night sky are harmonized with the warm yellows and whites of the stars and moon, creating a visual experience that is both vibrant and cohesive. This color harmony supports the emotional tone of the piece, conveying a sense of awe and mystery.

Furthermore, the painting’s composition—the way elements are arranged and interact—demonstrates balance and unity. The curving lines of the sky guide the viewer’s eye around the canvas, while the structured layout of the village provides a grounding counterpoint. This balance of movement and stability is a visual representation of harmony, similar to how chord progressions in music provide a foundation for a melody.

“The Starry Night” also exemplifies how texture and brushwork contribute to harmony. Van Gogh’s thick, impasto brushstrokes add depth and intensity to the painting, creating a tactile quality that invites the viewer to experience the emotional and physical landscape of the artwork.

2. Rhythm as Visual Patterns

Rhythm in music is defined by patterns and beats, providing structure and progression. In the visual realm, rhythm translates to the repetition and arrangement of elements that create movement within the artwork. This visual rhythm guides the viewer’s eye, offering a dynamic experience akin to the temporal flow of music.

rhythm as visual patterns, music and visual art

Expanding on this, the concept of rhythm in visual arts can also encompass directionality and flow, which guide the viewer’s eye through the artwork in a deliberate manner. This broader interpretation of rhythm can be instrumental in creating a narrative flow or emotional journey within a static piece. For instance, the strategic arrangement of lines and shapes can lead the viewer’s gaze from one part of the artwork to another, subtly telling a story or evoking a progression of emotions as the eye moves across the canvas.

Just as the rhythm in music can build anticipation, climax, and resolution, visual rhythm can simulate these phases through compositional techniques, guiding the viewer through a visual and emotional narrative. By manipulating visual rhythm, artists have the power to influence how viewers perceive and emotionally react to an artwork, crafting experiences that resonate deeply, much like a well-composed piece of music.

The Rhythm of The Kiss

Gustav Klimt’s “The Kiss” (1907-1908) is a striking example of rhythm as visual patterns in the realm of visual arts, showcasing how repeated elements can create a sense of movement and harmony that guides the viewer’s perception and experience of the artwork.

The kiss, Klimt, Music and Art, Rhythm

In “The Kiss,” Klimt employs a luxurious pattern of gold leaf and intricate designs that envelop the figures and the space around them. The use of repeating geometric shapes, floral motifs, and ornamental details across the canvas establishes a visual rhythm that draws the eye across the painting. These patterns not only unify the composition but also create a dynamic interplay between the figures and the background, blending them into a single, harmonious whole.

The rhythm in “The Kiss” is further emphasized by the contrast between the highly decorated, patterned areas and the more softly painted, organic forms of the lovers’ bodies. This contrast creates a visual cadence, akin to the rhythmic interplay between strong and weak beats in a musical piece. The patterns around the figures seem to pulsate with energy, enhancing the emotional intensity of the embrace and imbuing the scene with a sense of timelessness and universality.

According to the video below, the repeated stiff black squares represent masculinity. This is juxtaposed with the softer rounded circles of the female’s clothing which represents female ovum and fertility.

Moreover, Klimt’s use of gold leaf adds a tactile dimension to the patterns, making them almost musical in their visual impact. The gold not only catches the light, creating a physical rhythm as the viewer’s perspective changes, but also elevates the painting’s narrative, suggesting the sacred or sublime nature of the love depicted.

The flowing robes and the cascade of flowers and geometric shapes across the canvas mimic the natural rhythms found in life and nature, suggesting a deeper, cosmic harmony. This visual rhythm invites viewers to explore the painting in a non-linear fashion, moving between the lovers, the patterns, and the golden aura that surrounds them, much like a melody invites a listener to move through time and emotion.

3. Melody as Mood

Melody in music serves as the emotional hook, the memorable sequence that resonates with the listener. In visual arts, the equivalent is the tone and mood conveyed through the use of color, line, and composition. Just as a melody can evoke feelings and memories, the visual tone sets the emotional atmosphere of a piece, engaging viewers on a profound level.

Taking this idea further, specific visual techniques such as color theory, contrast, and lighting play crucial roles in establishing the tone of an artwork. For instance, color theory can be used to evoke specific emotions; warm colors might convey warmth and passion, while cool colors can create a sense of calm or melancholy.

BYR color wheel 1

Contrast can highlight focal points and direct the viewer’s attention, creating a dynamic that can be either harmonious or intentionally jarring, depending on the desired emotional effect. Lighting, too, can dramatically alter the mood of a piece, with soft, diffused light evoking a serene, contemplative atmosphere, and harsh, directional lighting creating dramatic tension. By thoughtfully applying these techniques, artists can craft complex emotional landscapes, guiding the viewer’s emotional journey much like a melody guides the listener through a song.

The Moody Melodies of Rothko

An example that illustrates the concept of melody as mood in visual art is Mark Rothko’s No. 61 (Rust and Blue), painted in 1953. Rothko, a leading figure in the Abstract Expressionist movement, is renowned for his large-scale color field paintings, which use color, form, and scale to evoke complex emotional responses.

music and visual art, The Moody Melodies of Rothko
Mark Rothko, No. 61. 1953. Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles. Fair Use.

No. 61 (Rust and Blue) exemplifies Rothko’s approach to painting as an emotional and spiritual experience. The artwork features large, soft-edged rectangles of color that seem to float against a contrasting background.

In Mark Rothko’s No. 61, the interplay between the rich, rusty blood color and the expansive fields of cool blue and deep navy creates a compelling visual tension that deeply affects the viewer. This juxtaposition of warmth against coolness does more than merely contrast hues; it evokes a complex emotional landscape within the observer.

The warm, rusty tones seem to bear down with a weight and intensity, suggesting a sense of urgency or passion, while the cool blue and navy offer a counterpoint of depth, serenity, and vastness. This dynamic interplay mirrors the nuanced ebb and flow of a musical melody, where the tension and resolution between notes and chords stir the soul.

No. 61 Color Palette

Rothko’s masterful use of color in No. 61 invites the viewer into a contemplative space, where the emotional resonance of color harmonies provokes a profound internal reflection, akin to the experience of being enveloped in a poignant, beautifully rendered piece of music.

In addition, the scale of the painting, often viewed at a size that fills the viewer’s field of vision, further intensifies the emotional impact. Rothko intended his large-scale works to be experienced up close, allowing the viewer to feel enveloped by the colors and the mood they evoke. This immersive experience is comparable to the way a melody can dominate the listener’s attention, creating an emotional landscape that feels both vast and intimate.

4. Lyric as Narrative

The parallel between lyric in songwriting and narrative in visual arts is a profound exploration of how stories are told and experienced across different media. In songwriting, lyrics serve as the vessel through which stories, emotions, and messages are conveyed. They guide the listener through a journey, painting mental pictures, evoking feelings, and often leaving a lasting impact long after the song has ended. These lyrics are meticulously crafted, combining the power of language with melody to engage the listener’s imagination and emotions. Each word is chosen for its ability to resonate, to convey meaning, and to fit within the musical composition, creating a cohesive and immersive narrative experience.

In visual arts, the narrative is intricately woven through subject matter, themes, and visual symbolism, offering a rich tapestry of storytelling that engages the viewer on multiple levels. Artists select subjects that resonate with their intended message, using them as the protagonists of their visual story. Themes emerge as the narrative’s backbone, addressing universal concepts, personal experiences, or societal observations that invite deeper reflection. Visual symbolism further enriches the narrative, with artists employing symbolic colors, shapes, and objects to imbue their work with layers of meaning.

This symbolic language transforms the artwork into a dialogue between the artist and the viewer, where the interpretation of symbols becomes a key to unlocking the narrative’s full depth. Whether through a detailed representation that guides the viewer to a specific understanding or an abstract composition that encourages personal interpretation, the use of subject matter, themes, and visual symbolism establishes the artwork’s narrative, shaping its creation and defining its purpose.

The Lyricism of Basquiat

Jean-Michel Basquiat, with his explosively colorful and deeply symbolic artworks, serves as a vivid illustration of how the concept of Lyric as Narrative manifests in the realm of visual art. Basquiat, an artist who emerged from the gritty New York City street art scene of the late 1970s and early 1980s, infused his paintings with layers of meaning, blending text and imagery to convey complex narratives about identity, power, and society.

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Basquiat’s work is characterized by its raw energy, spontaneous brushwork, and fragmented anatomy, which together create a visual language as potent and nuanced as any set of lyrics. His canvases are populated with a recurring set of symbols and motifs—crowns, warriors, skeletal figures, and cryptic inscriptions—that serve as characters and themes in his visual storytelling. These elements are not random; they are carefully chosen for their historical and symbolic resonance, acting as Basquiat’s vocabulary in his narrative exploration.

For instance, the crown motif, which appears frequently in Basquiat’s work, can be interpreted as a symbol of both majesty and struggle, highlighting the artist’s themes of black identity and resistance. Similarly, his incorporation of words and phrases—sometimes crossed out, other times emphasized—mirrors the lyrical practice of emphasizing certain messages while questioning others. This textual element of his art introduces a direct narrative component that invites the viewer to read the canvas as one would listen to a song, searching for meaning in the lyrics.

Basquiat’s ability to combine these elements into cohesive works that communicate powerful narratives is akin to a songwriter crafting a song where the lyrics, melody, and rhythm come together to tell a story. His paintings, like songs, are open to interpretation, with the narrative depth allowing each viewer to find personal resonance within the universal themes explored.

5. Structure as Production and Presentation

The structure of a song—its verses, choruses, and bridges—determines its overall flow and impact. In visual arts, this concept can be likened to the production of an artwork. It’s about how the piece is finalized and presented, ensuring it communicates effectively with its audience. This aspect of production values the viewer’s experience, aiming for optimal engagement and appreciation.

Delving deeper, the production values in visual arts, such as medium choice, scale, and framing, play significant roles in affecting the viewer’s experience. The choice of medium, whether it be oil paint, watercolor, digital, or mixed media, sets the tone and texture of the artwork, influencing its overall mood and message. Scale adds another layer of impact; a large-scale painting can engulf the viewer, creating an immersive experience, while a smaller piece may invite closer inspection and a more intimate connection. Framing and presentation further refine the viewer’s experience, guiding their focus and enhancing the artwork’s aesthetic qualities.

Additionally, the concept of “remixing” elements, a common practice in music production, can also be applied to visual arts. Artists can take existing motifs, styles, or elements from their own work or others’ and combine them in new ways to create something fresh and innovative. This approach allows for the exploration of themes and techniques across different pieces, creating a dialogue between the new work and its source materials.

Just as remixing in music can breathe new life into a song, remixing in visual arts can challenge traditional boundaries and expectations, offering new perspectives and enriching the viewer’s experience. By considering these aspects of production, artists can ensure their work not only communicates effectively but also resonates deeply with its audience, akin to a well-structured song.

Conclusion: Riding the Wave of Music and Visual Art

In closing, this exploration into the symbiotic relationship between music and visual art unveils a profound connection that transcends the traditional boundaries separating these disciplines. Through the lens of music songwriting and artistic composition in the visual arts, we discover a shared language of creativity that speaks to the fundamental human desire for expression, communication, and connection. This article has sought to delve into how the principles of harmony, rhythm, melody, lyric, and structure resonate within both realms, highlighting the universal threads that weave together the auditory journey of music with the visual narrative of art.

The works of visionary artists like Mark Rothko and Jean-Michel Basquiat serve as testaments to the intertwined paths of musical and visual artistry, illustrating how the core elements of music composition can deeply inform and enrich the process of creating visual art. This cross-disciplinary dialogue not only broadens our understanding and appreciation of art in all its forms but also sheds light on the practical implications of this relationship in fostering a richer, more holistic approach to creative expression.

As we reflect on the insights garnered from both music and visual art, it becomes evident that the integration of these artistic disciplines offers a wellspring of inspiration. By embracing the interconnectedness of music and visual art, artists are afforded new avenues for innovation, allowing them to craft works that resonate with a deeper sense of harmony and evoke a more profound emotional response from their audience.

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