Catapulting into Classical

A headlong leap into music, history, and composing

Haiku Wednesday: Telemann, Newton, and Roy G. Biv Walk into a Concert…

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Color joins music
The ocular harpsichord
The world’s first light show.

After the recent excitement about the discovery of a lost work by Telemann, I couldn’t resist this story, which I read in an entertaining article by Becky Ferreira.

Turns out, Telemann also wrote several pieces for the ocular harpsichord.

Wait…the what?  Ok, settle in for a slightly convoluted story.

It’s hard to believe that there once was a time when people didn’t know how colors worked, but it’s true.  The laws of physics governing them hadn’t been worked out yet.  People were coming up with all kinds of theories, and Isaac Newton decided to throw his hat in the ring too.  Maybe he shouldn’t have, what with the apple and all; or maybe the theory came after that alleged apple assault (actually it did; his Principia Mathematica that discussed gravity came out in 1687.  As a further side note, a piece of Newton’s apple tree escaped Earth’s gravity briefly in 2010).

Anyway, in his 1704 work Opticks, Newton presented his theory of colors.  He also related the seven colors you see in a prism (or a rainbow; hence the Roy G. Biv) to musical notes, the seven notes in the diatonic scale.  Here Newton used the Dorian scale, the white notes on a piano starting with D.  Newton theorized that the spectrum of colors and the diatonic scale used the same ratios.


As it turns out, Newton didn’t get it quite right (but I think we can cut him some slack, given the whole gravity thing, and calculus).  But his theory generated a lot of excitement and discussion (for more on historical discussions of color and music, read this).

The French mathematician Louis Bertrand Castel, inspired by Newton’s theory, souped up a harpsichord, adding sixty lanterns with different colors whose light would be shown when specific notes were pressed.  Castel said, “the pressing of the keys would bring out the colors with their combinations and their chords; in one word, with all their harmony, which would correspond exactly to that of any kind of music.” (Franssen, via Ferreira).

Sadly, the only image of the ocular harpsichord, also called the color organ, is one that lampoons the device (shown above).

Enter Telemann (finally).  Telemann saw the ocular harpsichord while he was in Paris, and penned a description of the device.  He also was inspired to write several pieces of music for it.  Sadly, I could not find those specific pieces—I wanted to see how chromatic they were (sorry! couldn’t resist).

While the ocular harpsichord has not survived, the idea of combining light, color, and music certainly has, providing a new avenue to interpret the tonal colors of music.

Here is John Adams’s Harmonium, as visualized on the face of Usher Hall, Edinburgh.


With thanks to my friend Louis B. for referring me to the Ferreira article.


Becky Ferreira, “Behold the Ocular Harpsichord, the Laser Light Show of the 18th Century”, Motherboard, 16 November 2015.

Maarten Franssen, The Ocular Harpsichord of Louis-Bertrand Castel,

Isaac Newton, Opticks, 1704, Book I, Part II, Proposition VI, Problem 2


Image attribution

Castel’s ocular harpsichord, characactured by Charles Germain de Saint Aubin, [Public domain] via Wikimedia Commons,’s_%22ocular_organ%22.jpgNewton’s color wheel.

Color wheel.  Isaac Newton, Opticks [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

One thought on “Haiku Wednesday: Telemann, Newton, and Roy G. Biv Walk into a Concert…

  1. Way neat! Too bad we don’t have any clear notion of the ocular harpsichord. The idea of synesthesia is of course really old (Platonic, I suppose), and there have been some folks who appear to have had serious versions of it- Scriabin for one, Goethe for another, Michael Torke and more. I’m sure Oliver Sacks has written about it- we have but haven’t yet read Musicophilia. I couldn’t get a couple of the citations to load- including the one on Telemann; will try again later.




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