Color organ

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The term color organ refers to a tradition of mechanical devices built to represent sound and accompany music in a visual medium. The earliest created color organs were manual instruments based on the harpsichord design. By the 1900s they were electromechanical. In the early 20th century, a silent color organ tradition (Lumia) developed. In the 1960s and 1970s, the term "color organ" became popularly associated with electronic devices that responded to their music inputs with light shows. The term "light organ" is increasingly being used for these devices; allowing "color organ" to reassume its original meaning.

History of the concept[edit]

The dream of creating a visual music comparable to auditory music found its fulfillment in animated abstract films by artists such as Oskar Fischinger, Len Lye and Norman McLaren; but long before them, many people built instruments, usually called "color organs", that would display modulated colored light in some kind of fluid fashion comparable to music.

In 1590, Gregorio Comanini described an invention by the Mannerist painter Arcimboldo of a system for creating color-music, based on apparent luminosity (light-dark contrast) instead of hue.

In 1725, French Jesuit monk Louis Bertrand Castel proposed the idea of Clavecin pour les yeux (Ocular Harpsichord). In the 1740s, German composer Telemann went to France to see it, composed some pieces for it and wrote a book about it. It had 60 small colored glass panes, each with a curtain that opened when a key was struck. In about 1742, Castel proposed the clavecin oculaire (a light organ) as an instrument to produce both sound and the "proper" light colors.

A caricature of Louis-Bertrand Castel's "ocular organ" by Charles Germain de Saint Aubin

In 1743, Johann Gottlob Krüger, a professor at the University of Hall, proposed his own version of the ocular harpsichord.

In 1816, Sir David Brewster proposed the Kaleidoscope as a form of visual-music that became immediately popular.

In 1877, US artist, inventor Bainbridge Bishop gets a patent for his first Color Organ.[2] The instruments were lighted attachments designed for pipe organs that could project colored lights onto a screen in synchronization with musical performance. Bishop built three of the instruments; each was destroyed in a fire, including one in the home of P. T. Barnum.[3]

In 1893, British painter Alexander Wallace Rimington invented the Clavier à lumières.[4][5][6] Rimington's Colour Organ attracted much attention, including that of Richard Wagner and Sir George Grove. It has been incorrectly claimed that his device formed the basis of the moving lights that accompanied the New York City premiere of Alexander Scriabin's synaesthetic symphony Prometheus: The Poem of Fire in 1915. The instrument that accompanied that premiere was lighting engineer Preston S. Millar's chromola, which was similar to Rimington's instrument.[7]

In a 1916 art manifesto, the Italian Futurists Arnaldo Ginna and Bruno Corra described their experiments with "color organ" projection in 1909. They also painted nine abstract films, now lost.

In 1916, the Russian futurist painter Vladimir Baranoff Rossiné premiered the Optophonic Piano at his one-man exhibition in Kristiana (Oslo, Norway).

In 1918, American concert pianist Mary Hallock-Greenewalt created an instrument she called the Sarabet. Also an inventor, she patented nine inventions related to her instrument, including the rheostat.

In 1921, Arthur C. Vinageras proposed the Chromopiano, an instrument resembling and played like a grand piano, but designed to project "chords" composed from colored lights.

In the 1920s, Danish-born Thomas Wilfred created the Clavilux,[8] a color organ, ultimately patenting seven versions. By 1930, he had produced 16 "Home Clavilux" units. Glass disks bearing art were sold with these "Clavilux Juniors". Wilfred coined the word lumia to describe the art. Significantly, Wilfred's instruments were designed to project colored imagery, not just fields of colored light as with earlier instruments.

In 1925, Hungarian composer Alexander Laszlo wrote a text called Color-Light-Music; Laszlo toured Europe with a color organ.

In Hamburg, Germany from the late 1920s–early 1930s, several color organs were demonstrated at a series of Colour-Sound Congresses (German:Kongreß für Farbe-Ton-Forschung).[9] Ludwig Hirschfeld Mack performed his Farbenlichtspiel colour organ at these congresses and at several other festivals and events in Germany. He had developed this color organ at the Bauhaus school in Weimar, with Kurt Schwerdtfeger.

The 1939 London Daily Mail Ideal Home Exhibition featured a "72-way Light Console and Compton Organ for Colour Music", as well as a 70 feet, 230 kW "Kaleidakon" tower.[10]

From 1935 to 1977, Charles Dockum built a series of Mobilcolor Projectors, his versions of silent color organs.

In the late 1940s, Oskar Fischinger created the Lumigraph that produced imagery by pressing objects/hands into a rubberized screen that would protrude into colored light. The imagery of this device was manually generated, and was performed with various accompanying music. It required two people to operate: one to make changes to colors, the other to manipulate the screen. Fischinger performed the Lumigraph in Los Angeles and San Francisco in the late 1940s through early 1950s. The Lumigraph was licensed by the producers of the 1964 sci-fi film, The Time Travelers. The Lumigraph does not have a keyboard, and does not generate music.

In 2000, Jack Ox and David Britton created "The Virtual Color Organ". The 21st Century Virtual Reality Color Organ is a computational system for translating musical compositions into visual performance. It uses supercomputing power to produce 3D visual images and sound from Musical Instrument Digital Interface (MIDI) files and can play a variety of compositions. Performances take place in interactive, immersive, virtual reality environments such as the Cave Automatic Virtual Environment (CAVE), VisionDome, or Immersadesk. Because it is a 3D immersive world, the Color Organ is also a place—that is, a performance space.[11]

Further study[edit]

California Institute of the Arts scholar William Moritz has documented color organs as a form of visual music, particularly as a precursor to visual music cinema. His papers and original research are in the collection of the Center for Visual Music, Los Angeles, which also has other historical color organ papers and resources.[1]

See also[edit]

  • Cymatics
  • Visual music
  • Laser harp
  • AudioCube – an electronic device capable of controlling as well visualizing sound and music through built in full colour RGB lighting
  • New Epoch Notation Painting
  • Light organ – an electronic device which automatically converts an audio signal into rhythmic light effects, which was popular in 1970s discotheques.
  • Jack Ox and David Britton's Virtual Color Organ – a computational system for translating musical compositions into visual performance.


  1. ^ a b Moritz, William (April 1997). "The Dream of Color Music, And Machines That Made it Possible". Animation World Magazine. 2 (1).
  2. ^ US 186298, Bishop, Bainbridge, "Improvement in attachments for key-board musical instruments", published 1877-01-16 
  3. ^ Bainbridge Bishop, A Souvenir of the Color Organ, with Some Suggestions in Regard to the Soul of the Rainbow and the Harmony of Light. 1893 pamphlet
  4. ^ GB 189324814, Rimington, Alexander Wallace, "Method and Means or Apparatus for Producing Colour Effects", published 1895-03-23 
  5. ^ "Articles on Rimington from The Strand, including Colour organ photos". Archived from the original on 18 July 2011.
  6. ^ Rimington, Alexander Wallace, Colour-Music The Art Of Mobile Colour. Hutchinson, London, 1912
  7. ^ Brougher, Kerry; Judith Zilczer; Jeremy Strick; Ari Wiseman; Olivia Mattis (2005). Visual Music: Synaesthesia in Art and Music Since 1900. Thames & Hudson.
  8. ^ "ARTISTS ON LINE - Thomas Wilfred and his Clavilux - the Art of Lumia". Archived from the original on 10 August 2012. Retrieved 15 May 2022.
  9. ^ Farbe-Ton-Forschungen. III. Band. Bericht über den II. Kongreß für Farbe-Ton-Forschung (Hamburg 1. - 5. Oktober 1930). Published 1931.
  10. ^ "Strand - Chronology". Archived from the original on 9 July 2006. Retrieved 13 January 2022.
  11. ^ Ox, Jack, & Britton, Dave. (2000). The 21st Century Virtual Reality Color Organ. IEEE MultiMedia, Journal of IEEE Computer Society, 7(3), pp. 2–5.
  • Thomas Wilfred's Clavilux. [Borgo Press, 2006]
  • Michael Betancourt, Mary Hallock-Greenewalt: The Complete Patents. [Wildside Press, 2005]
  • Michael Betancourt, Visual Music Instrument Patents Volume 1. [Borgo Press, 2004]
  • Franssen, Maarten (1991). "The ocular harpsichord of Louis-Bertrand Castel: The science and aesthetics of an eighteenth-century cause célèbre" (PDF). Tractrix: Yearbook for the History of Science, Medicine, Technology and Mathematics. 3: 15–77.
  • Kenneth Peacock, "Instruments to Perform Color-Music: Two Centuries of Technological Exploration." [Leonardo, Vol. 21, No.4, 1988, pp. 397–406]
  • Tonino Tornitore, "Giuseppe Arcimboldi E Il Suo Presunto Clavicembalo Oculare." [Revue des Etudes Italiennes, Vol. 31, No. 1–4, 1985, pp. 58–77]
  • Austin B. Caswell, The Pythagoreanism of Arcimboldo. [The Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism, Vol. 39, No. 2, Winter 1980, pp. 155–161]
  • Gregorio Comanini, "Il Figino, overo del fine della pittura." [Trattati D'Arte Del Cinquecento: Fra Manerismo E Controrifroma, Volume Terzo Giuseppe Laterza & Figli, 1962, pp. 238–379]
  • Klein, Adrian Bernard, "Coloured Light An Art Medium" 3rd ed. The Technical Press, London, 1937
  • Ox, Jack, & Britton, Dave. (2000). The 21st Century Virtual Reality Color Organ. IEEE MultiMedia, Journal of IEEE Computer Society, 7(3), pp. 2–5.
  • Ox, Jack. (2001). 2 Performances in the 21st Century Virtual Organ: Gridjam and Im Januar am Nil. Paper presented at the Seventh International Conference on Virtual Systems and MultiMedia: Enhance realities: Augmented and Unplugged, Center for Design Visualization, UC Berkeley.
  • Ox, Jack. (2002). The Color Organ and Collaboration. In L. Candy & E. A. Edmonds (Eds.), Explorations in Art and Technology (pp. 211–218, 302). London, UK: Springer.
  • Ox, Jack. (2002). Keynote speaker; Two Performances in the 21st Century Virtual Color Organ. Paper presented at the Creativity and Cognition, Loughborough University, Loughborough, UK.
  • Ox, Jack. (2005). Gridjam. Paper presented at the Creativity and Cognition 2005, London, UK.

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