Visual art and music are two essential forms of expression, and both can elevate the mind of the viewer or listener. In this age, it seems that more people spend more time listening to music than mindfully gazing at a work of art. But oftentimes, even without realizing it, we are experiencing both simultaneously. When driving and listening to music, for example, it’s likely that we are also visualizing. Sometimes the words, tone or beat of a song lead to visceral emotions or memories. At its best, music is not only heard, but also felt. This is why soundtracks are so integral to movies—the music heightens the impact of the visual, making it more palpable, more relatable. And when multiple senses are called into action, we become more attentive to our surroundings, because multi-sensory engagement allows for a more complete perception.
Many art historical movements have musical counterparts. Impressionism, developed in the late 19th century in France, is known for the painterly, atmospheric landscapes it produced. Artists like Claude Monet and Pierre-Auguste Renoir took painting outside the studio and into the open air. Instead of spending days, weeks, or months analyzing and finishing a work of art, they created in the moment—using quick brushstrokes and the interaction of color and light to capture a subjective impression of the moment. These paintings usually lacked meticulous detail because the goal was to memorialize an instant—a first impression gleaned from the senses reacting and blurring. In impressionism, each brushstroke works together to convey a general feeling, and the individual brushstrokes become meaningful only when viewed as part of the whole. Impressionist music produces similar effects. The listener may not detect specific notes, but instead perceives a layer of sound. Composer Claude Debussy employed a variety of instruments to achieve new sounds and experimented with unpredictable chords. His pieces sometimes seem vague, without a clear melody, structure, or direction. Like an impressionist painting, his music enlivens the senses, demanding their involvement by summoning a mood rather than a precise object or place.
We enlist our senses constantly—it’s how we interact with the world. But we often overlook (literally) the hard work of our senses, until we’re dazzled by them. For example, when we’re standing in a garden after a rain, and there is an intense color contrast between the vibrant flowers and the soaked earth, and the air is still thick with moisture, and we breathe in that ineffable smell of moisture in the air—in these moments we are arrested by our environment and our awareness of it. It is these instances that the impressionists were trying to convey. And the more we hone the collaboration of our senses, the more we can gain from—and even be dazzled—by our everyday experiences.
- Discover new sensory relationships. Familiarize yourself with the connectivity between impressionist music and art. Conduct a quick Internet search for Debussy’s music and then Monet’s paintings. Play one of Debussy’s pieces while looking at a painting by Monet. Don’t force analysis, just listen and look. It’s likely you’ll begin to notice both pieces stimulating your senses and setting the tone for the atmosphere.
- Understand your own multi-sensory experience. Turn on one of your favorite songs and listen closely. Close your eyes and visualize. What images come to mind? What colors do you see and feel most prominently? What emotions or memories surface? Write your observations in a journal to better understand the impact of music on your senses.
- Create. Gather a set of paints and a sheet of drawing paper. With the song on repeat, bring your brush to the paper. Try not to analyze what you’re doing, and allow yourself to create an abstract image based upon the mood and feelings generated by the music. Feel free to move while you paint! If the song makes you want to dance, then the artwork should reflect that.