What’s blue about the blues?

As humans, we have an instinctive understanding of how colours map to emotions. Don’t we?

Anyone who has ever chosen a set of brand colours has probably sat down with a colour chart and thought to themselves “but what does this shade of green say about me/us/my client as a business?” They may well have looked up colour meanings and settled on a colour which has properties in keeping with the brand’s values. And those properties are entirely based on a shared perception of colour; the implication being that most people will interpret brand colours in the same way.

So while there does appear to be some kind of universality to our interpretation of colour, whether it’s a matter of nature or nurture may remain up for debate. But if it is a learned sense, how is our interpretation of colour so broadly similar across (Western) cultures? Where do we learn it? Why do we associate red with passion and anger, blue with melancholy, and green with health?

Of course, I’m far from the first person to ask these questions.

Titans of 17th century philosophy and science, Rene Descartes and Isaac Newton, published their theories on light and colour. Newton’s prismatic theory proved particularly influential, going on to be cited in scientific circles for centuries.

Yet there was a – perhaps unlikely – figure who publicly refuted Newton’s theory. 

Another scientist, as a result of a breakthrough in the laboratory? A young upstart trying to make their name in the science world by taking a swing at the champ?

No. Funnily enough, it was the German Romantic author and poet, Johann Wolfgang Goethe.

Better known for his classic works in the Sturm und Drang era of German Romanticism, Goethe penned and published Farbenlehre (his ‘Theory of Colours’) in 1810.

As well as refuting Newton’s understanding of light, stating that darkness is an active ingredient in the formation of colour, as opposed to simply the absence of light, Goethe’s writing took a decidedly poetic approach to what had previously been a scientific field. He explored colour through its impact on human mood and emotion, describing the psychological effects of the different shades and hues with the aid of a colour wheel (above). There is a wonderful Brainpickings piece here which covers each of the colours in more detail.

The concept that colour could be defined by the emotional effect it has on the beholder was quite radical and not particularly scientific. While Goethe was factually correct in some areas, his theory was of more interest to philosophers than scientists. And, later, it would inspire the early abstract painters of the modernist Blaue Reiter movement, such as Wassily Kandinsky.

And, I’d argue (albeit in an indirect way) the incredible Alabama Shakes record, Sound & Color.

The name of the record perhaps a reference to the neural phenomenon of synesthesia, as part of which those affected involuntarily ‘see’ sound as shifting colour, it’s a beautiful collage of styles and influences. While rooted in the blues and rock’n’roll of the American south and west, it’s also decidedly modern, with nods towards contemporary and avant garde movements. It’s as if the record shifts through Goethe’s colour wheel, with instrumentation and lyrical content shifting in response to the changing colour palette.

Close your eyes and listen. Can you see the colours? I see a kaleidoscope which spirals through blues, reds, and purples. The ceasuras of Gimme All Your Love are a deep black, which suddenly floods with a nebulous cloud of deep red as the guitar roars back in. This Feeling lingers in a moody midnight blue, punctuated with rays of light as Brittany Howard sings “I know I’m gonna be alright.” And title track Sound & Color, an abstract tale about space exploration, is a broad rotating palette of blue and orange, simultaneously warm and cold. It’s “beautiful and strange.”

The blues are just blue. And there’s nothing wrong with that. But spin the wheel and inject some colour, and you may end up evoking some surprising emotions.


Don’t you wonder sometimes? About Sound & Color?

  1. She’s a Rainbow – The Rolling Stones
  2. Pink + White – Frank Ocean
  3. Colours – Hot Chip
  4. Cherry-Coloured Funk – Cocteau Twins
  5. Blue Boy – Orange Juice
  6. Sound and Vision – David Bowie
  7. New Colours – Holy Shit ft. Ariel Pink
  8. True Blue – Dirty Beaches
  9. Pink Moon – Nick Drake
  10. Baby Blue – P.P. Arnold
  11. Blue in Green – Miles Davis
  12. Sound of Silver – LCD Soundsystem
  13. Blue Monday – New Order
  14. Bluish – Animal Collective
  15. Ein Bisschen Goethe, ein Bisschen Bonaparte – France Gall
  16. All the World Is Green – Tom Waits
  17. Blue Moon – Chromatics
  18. Red Right Hand – Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds
  19. Green Onions – Booker T. & The M.G.s
  20. Little Green Bag – George Baker Selection
  21. Pretty in Pink – The Psychedelic Furs
  22. Primary Colours – The Horrors
  23. The Pink Room – Angelo Badalmenti