Light and Music

August 05 2010 — by Claudia Clements
One of the major issues that lighting designers constantly struggle with is how to represent the changing character of a lit environment. At any given moment, light can be described in terms of its spectral distribution, colour rendering, colour temperature, illumination and luminance measurement scales. But there is no standard mark-up language or established system to describe how the lit character of a space changes over time, to enable lighting concepts to be documented, information disseminated and a lit environment to be evaluated. Without a system to record and analyse light, it becomes difficult to provide a qualitative and quantitative assessment.

The Western music notation system is universally acknowledged as a highly successful method of describing music. It is possible to take any sound and notate it, as the system is infinitely flexible and adaptable. From looking at a piece of music, a musician can build up an image of its character, how it changes over time and the relationship and balance between different instruments and voices. Music notation contains complex information and records it in a very economical way. It is a universal language, which successfully crosses cultural and geographic boundaries.

There is a clear relationship between the art of music and the manifestation of light. Music and light possess an ‘emotional quality’. The subjective emotional response takes as its object the musical notation or lit composition. The science of sound and the balance of lit elements within an environment can be considered a composition for the enjoyment of the ‘listener’. We rely on the spoken and written language of emotions to describe both music and light, as we have no precise terms. Other ideological concepts and narratives are used to define the character and sensibility of music and light. Language and semantics are substituted for emotional characterisation. Both disciplines have at their heart a common language of expression. Words that describe music i.e. articulation, intensity, texture, contrast, brightness, dullness, ambience, clarity, colour and form are also used to describe qualities of light.

Pure music can be seen as a nonrepresentational form of art as opposed to light which is representational. Music contains many layers of events either happening simultaneously or in relation to one another. Similarly, a lit environment will be composed of different components which complement or contrast with one another. Music, light and space are inextricably linked. Music has a directional quality and a concept of musical space. The use of high and low to describe pitch is not just metaphorical. High tones are experienced as though they come from a higher position in space. The medium of light can manipulate perception of space and the way spatial and conceptual boundaries are experienced. It has a strong directional quality which can transform or enhance the materiality of a surface.

A system of analogous relationships between music and light can thus be established which reinforce the commonalities of language and expression. The seven parameters of musical notation; pitch, dynamic, articulation, duration, tempo, silence and timbre and their associated modes of lighting representation; colour, intensity, texture, time, movement, darkness and ambience provide a valid model upon which to base a lighting notation system. The musical system of notation can be used as a graphic model that determines how to represent a lit environment.