A musical score in front of a framed artwork showing a landscape scene of a mountain surrounded by water.
Music Inspired by Visual Art

Music Inspired by Visual Art

Man standing in front of a musical score which is exhibited like a painting on a wall of a gallery.

My previous column posed some broad possibilities and potentials for new music as a catalyst for learning. Now I’d like to turn my attention to one specific realm of music for learning I’ve explored in my work as a composer: music inspired by visual art.

“Inspired by” is, of course, a problematically vague descriptor. (If you think of something better, please share it with me!) My intention has been to create music that draws the listener into the world of the artwork—music that gives the listener a new lens through which to see art.

I’ve come across many pieces of music, by different composers, in which the composer has been drawn to a work of visual art as a source of inspiration—as a writing prompt, in a sense. To my ear, such works oftentimes result in music with an abstract or imperceptible connection to their source material: the visual art has had more to do with process than product. There is, of course, absolutely nothing wrong with this approach or the music that results. However, as both a listener and a composer, I feel a distinction needs to be made between this kind of work and music that has been envisioned expressly for the purpose of illuminating, commenting upon, and conversing with visual art—music where viewing the art while listening to the music is, in some sense, essential to the full realization of the composer’s vision.

Teaching Art Appreciation through Music and Online Media

My love of visual art, and my desire to increase appreciation of relatively under-recognized visual artists, has led me to incorporate art into my musical projects in many ways. These projects have ranged from a one-act monodrama depicting the artistic evolution of painter Charles E. Burchfield (The Coming of Spring, 2014), to a piece for flute and guitar following the work of Japanese-American artist Chiura Obata from Yosemite National Park to an internment camp (Dai-Shizen (Great Nature), 2014). At the heart of many of my visual art-inspired projects have been multimedia concerts, which I’ve brought to art museums as well as concert halls, in which the music is performed live with images of the artworks projected above the performers.

Using music to teach visual art appreciation has been core to my art-inspired endeavors. For one project, I put together an evening-length program of chamber music inspired by visual art and produced an in-depth complementary online “concert companion,” containing videos featuring interviews with senior museum curators about the artists and written commentary with excerpts from the music demonstrating how I translated art into musical ideas (Beyond the Notes: Music Inspired by Art, 2011). This website and related videos are now a standalone educational resource.

Smartphone showing an image of a painting with a text description below.

Illuminating the connections between music and visual art through a mobile website. Photograph by Nell Shaw Cohen.

The specific compositional techniques with which I’ve attempted to evoke visual art are beyond the scope of this article. Generally speaking, in addition to finding musical equivalents to color, texture, line, shape, etc., I’ve sought to represent and even guide the gradual wandering of one’s gaze across an image. Different sections or elements of the music are envisioned as responses to different areas within the image.

Music Helps Us to See

So, how exactly does music deepen an understanding of visual art? It has been empirically shown that pairing visual art with music can stimulate learning experiences and promote art appreciation skills. A study by Victoria Pavlou and Georgina Asthanasiou (2014) found that presenting images of an art object simultaneously with a complementary musical recording (which the researchers selected for pairing) led to significant improvements in art appreciation amongst college students who were inexperienced viewers of art. In post-experiment interviews, the participants reported that listening to the music made a substantial positive impact on their ability to derive meaning from both representational and abstract artworks and generally prompted stronger emotional responses to art.

Anecdotal evidence has confirmed this phenomenon for me. Audience members at performances of my work have commented that listening to the music while viewing video projections of the art enabled them to understand or appreciate the artworks in ways that they hadn’t without the stimuli of music. In some cases, these audience members had actually experienced a music-free viewing of the original painting in the museum’s gallery directly prior to the concert.

In addition to the aesthetic and emotional responses that music can incite, some of the positive effects of pairing music with visuals might simply stem from the support of sustained viewing. Lachapelle, et al. (2009) conducted a study in which they tested the common assumption that there is a positive correlation between duration of viewing and greater appreciation of art. This was found to be true in the majority of non-expert viewers that they studied. Music has the advantage of being a temporal art: in performances of some of my works, listeners are shown a projected still image for five or six minutes at a time during the musical performance. In our highly interconnected and hyper-stimulating age of the Internet, motivating people to simply look at an artwork for a sustained period of time is no small matter!

Of course, well-chosen music can certainly complement art viewing even if the composer hadn’t envisioned the music for that purpose. Conversely, music inspired by art should certainly have the potential to be fully engaging without being presented in tandem with the artwork (most of my art-inspired works have, at some point, been performed and heard sans video projections). I’m simply seeking to create work that is optimized for that pairing, in which the art and music are enriched and elevated for audiences through their juxtaposition.

A musical score in front of a framed artwork showing a landscape scene of a mountain surrounded by water.

Interpreting visual art through music. Artwork shown: Point Reyes from Chimney Rock by Tom Killion (2011). Photograph by Nell Shaw Cohen.

Engaging New Listeners

In addition to enhancing appreciation of visual art, my other motivation for creating music inspired by visual art is to bring experiences of new music to audiences that are interested in visual art and attending arts events in general, but would be very unlikely to listen to new music in another context. Ideally, this works on two levels: first, by attracting new audiences through strategic marketing, then supporting the listening experience through visual stimuli.

I strongly suspect that, for people unfamiliar with new music, there is a substantial boost in the immediate appeal of a new music concert when placed within a larger arts context. For example: the multimedia concerts of my chamber music inspired by paintings on display at the Peabody Essex Museum in Salem, Massachusetts, and the Parrish Art Museum in The Hamptons, New York, attracted some of the largest audiences my music has enjoyed—most of which, I perceived, were not usual new music listeners or even particularly devoted consumers of “classical” music. I can’t imagine the Peabody Essex concerts, for example, would’ve been nearly so well attended if they had been publicized as performances of “String Quartet No. 1” rather than a musical representation of paintings featured in the museum’s special exhibit.

(Disclaimer: it’s extraordinarily irritating when music is publicized as having a close relationship to visual art but doesn’t deliver on the promise! Furthermore, an irrelevant-seeming or super distracting video projection can tend to overshadow any enjoyment I might’ve derived from the music alone.)

Once the audience is present, attaching musical experiences to visual content may actually help many listeners to focus on, comprehend, and enjoy the music as they listen—especially if there is a strong, carefully considered resonance and balance between the visuals and music. This phenomenon has been demonstrated in a range of contexts, from cartoons to music videos. Many composers have long been exploring the integration of custom, dynamic visuals with musical performances. I think the potential for visual content to support listening deserves further investigation and consideration in contexts where music is being used as a learning tool for visual art appreciation.


Has music ever altered the way you perceived a work of art, whether or not the music was intended for that purpose? Are there any works of music explicitly inspired by visual art that you’ve found particularly effective or impactful? What do you think are the most important problems and possibilities of pairing these two art forms in the ways I’ve described?

NewMusicBox provides a space for those engaged with new music to communicate their experiences and ideas in their own words. Articles and commentary posted here reflect the viewpoints of their individual authors; their appearance on NewMusicBox does not imply endorsement by New Music USA.

10 thoughts on “Music Inspired by Visual Art

  1. David Falterman

    We here at UNT just had a wonderful performance by eighth blackbird of their 2015-16 program “Hand Eye.” The program is six commissioned works by the composer group Sleeping Giant, each of which is directly “inspired by” works of art all from the same gallery.

    In this case, “inspired by” really means “modeled upon.” Some snippets from the program notes will illustrate what I mean:

    “‘Swarm,’ an interactive sculpture by the London-based collective, rAndom International, responds to sounds with a blast of beautifully asynchronous lights. The first time I saw the work…I immediately had the idea for a piece of musc in which sharp and loud attacks in the piano and percussion would inspire a flurry of wild and improvisatory gestures from the rest of the ensemble.”

    “‘Mine, Mime, Meme’ was inspired by rAndom International’s installation piece “Audience,” in which a field of small, mirrored machines rotates to follow the movements of any viewer that steps into their midst. In my three short pieces, the cellist finds himself in a sonic space where everything he does is mimicked by the five other instrumentalists.”

    The rest of the pieces are similar. They aurally recreate the visual art as best as they can, so that the music serves as a “copy” of the visual art existing only in an aural medium.

    1. Nell Shaw Cohen

      Very interesting examples of music taking cues from art’s sensory/aesthetic qualities (e.g., sharp, bright, fast) as well as more conceptual or experiential levels (e.g., echoing or repetition). I wonder if these pieces deepened the audience’s understanding of or connection to the works on which they were “modeled”?

  2. Curt

    As an old visual artist with a lifetime enthusiasm for music, I have several thoughts on this subject. The most successful marriage of sound and image in my experience is probably Koyaanisqatsi, followed maybe by Decasia. In the first case particularly I think sound and image were individually weaker without the other (Reggio’s slow-moving, non-narrative imagery needed something more, and Glass’s music, much less stand-alone than Steve Reich’s, was never better than when supported by either imagery or operatic narrative) So the two reinforced a synthesized, composite, effect. YouTube offers a lot of pairings of sound and image (sometimes moving imagery) that are always interesting to me. But for either art of the first rank of music of the first rank, the effect of combination on me is like strong perfume on a concertgoer who sits next to you–not by itself offensive, but distracting as hell. Great music, particularly if heard for the first time, need have no visual accompaniment, or else, can be as easily enhanced by a word or two in the program to nudge one’s understanding, observing the expressions of the musicians, the wallpaper, whatever randomly abets the music or helps you focus.
    I once put together a homemade CD of all the music inspired by Paul Klee’s imagery. I revere Klee but found no correlation for me in any of it. All I could say to the composers, or to you, with all respect, for that matter, is that if visual art of any kind prompts a work of music, wonderful. (“La Mer”or “Pictures at an Exhibition,” who would be without them?) But arguably a walk in the park, a day vacuuming the apartment or doing one’s taxes could serve the same end, depending on the composer.
    Footnote: Jeanette Winterson, in “Art Objects,” mentioned her habit of studying paintings for an hour at a time. God bless! How many do that? So your slide projections may certainly be performing a service for art.
    Thanks for your post, and the provocative thesis.

    1. Nell Shaw Cohen

      Curt, thanks for reading and for your response. Regarding your story about the CD of music inspired by Klee, and the combinations of music and art being distracting, I have also had both kinds of experiences with works inspired by visual art or paired with visual art (see my third paragraph). That’s why I’m making the argument for making a distinction between music that was the result of the composer’s initial inspirations from visual art vs. music that the composer has envisioned expressly to illuminate the artwork for listener-viewers (although of course the result may not be effective for all listeners). This is a different intention and may even imply different creative processes. For example, I personally will sometimes “check in” with an artwork while I’m working on a visual art-related composition to ensure that I am doing my best to create something that is aesthetically supportive (being careful not to stifle the musical evolution of the piece, of course). I think this is fairly rare and may not have been fully realized by any composer yet.

      There is also a distinction that needs to be made with visuals that have been “paired” with music, after the fact of the music’s creation, for the purposes of a live performance or a video piece. I’ve seen a number of examples of this and while it can work really nicely if the video/projection artist is truly sensitive to the musical material, it also has serious distraction potential if done without a careful awareness of how attention-grabbing visuals can be (see my “disclaimer” near the end – I won’t name any names here!). This is part of why I’m a fan of visuals that move or change very slowly (probably one of the things that makes “Koyaanisqatsi” effective, as you noted). An example that comes to mind of a mostly very effective projection-and-music pairing was Wolfe’s “Anthracite Fields” at the NY Phil Biennial with projection by Jeff Sugg. But this is essentially a very different kind of work than that which I am discussing in the article, which is fundamentally about learning and visual art appreciation.

      1. Nell Shaw Cohen

        A clarification: when I say “I think this is fairly rare and may not have been fully realized by any composer yet,” I mean the intention to make music in order to support visual art appreciation and the fully realized success of that endeavor. What kind of wonderful work might get created if more people worked in this direction?

        1. Curt

          Nell, perhaps I can be let off the hook for my initial misreading for the very reason that it’s so unusual! I’ve never before heard of a composer willing to subordinate her work to a still work of art (as opposed to writing a music score for a film), intending for that work to be seen while the work is performed. (Though maybe it’s not really subordination any more than other music may subordinate itself to an occasion, a commissioned theme, etc. And after all, you choose the art!) But as a dynamic sounds original and intriguing.
          I know many artists who’ve been inspired by music and make it known in the titles of their works, and one I heard only last night about one who has specialized in that dynamic and even furnishes the audio on her website:
          or if that doesn’t get you there, go to her website, then click “gallery”:
          but your m.o. must be much rarer. I’ll save your name and maybe can hear some work online later! All best wishes.

          1. Nell Shaw Cohen

            Thanks for your response, Curt! Your surprise is understandable. I’ve personally observed that music can be enhanced and given greater context and meaning through association with visual art, so I don’t see this kind of work as subordinating the music to visuals so much as a different set of artistic goals (which include educational goals!). The artist you linked to seems to be doing very interesting work, thanks for sharing that. Her philosophy/approach reminds me a bit of the painter Carol Steen, who I interview several years ago about her research on synesthesia


  3. Michael Robinson

    In ancient India, paintings of ragas, known as ragamalas, were passed from person to person around a table for the purpose of aesthetic enjoyment through the eyes, similar to how performances of ragas enthralled listeners through the ears. What connects the two disciplines is the heart soul of rasa, representing the divine essence, or poetic individuality, of each raga, which then splinters into infinite possible interpretations by both musicians and painters.

    Shortly after moving into Manhattan in 1985, a friend introduced me to the excitements of visiting museums. One night at MOMA, I came upon a painting by Ad Reinhardt, which induced technical and expressive concepts that transformed my music, including compositions such as Thursday Evening and Trembling Flowers.

    In the autumn of 1991, I was visiting Manhattan from my home in Los Angeles. One morning, I woke up coughing blood. Quite alarmed, I went to see my former internist. It turned out to be only a cold, and the blood had simply come from my nose!

    Riding waves of relief, I walked to the Metropolitan Museum, which was only a few blocks away, and found myself sitting down in front of Pierre-August Renoir’s Figures by the Sea in the Robert Lehman Wing.

    The painting shows a young boy and a small white dog playing on the shore, accompanied by his mother and another women, and it brought back memories of my childhood. Those recollections, together with the sensation of relief upon learning I wasn’t very ill, brought about a serene mood, and the ostinato figure played by the strings came to me.

    Borrowing some paper and pencil, I wrote down the musical idea, and when I got back to my apartment, began composing the through-composed music sounded by the piano timbre. Later on, in the realization phase, I added the playful sounding water bells, and the soothing ocean waves for a richer texture.

    Renoir is more commonly known for his sensuality, yet I am also dazzled by his perfect technique and sense of form.

    Some other painters who have inspired compositions are Giorgio de Chirico (Dark Yellow) and Paul Gauguin (Polynesian Woman).

    Getting back to ragamalas, in 2001, I was invited for breakfast by a professor of Indian art who is also a major collector. (We had originally met in 1999, while attending a lecture about ragamalas.) She shared with me that after her husband passed away, the only thing that gave her comfort was listening to one of my compositions over and over for several weeks. Originally inspired by bansuri artist, Hariprasad Chaurasia, I subsequently learned that the swaras I used for this composition were similar to an obscure South Indian raga, Nagamani, which translates to mean jeweled snake or cobra.

    For those who may be interested, here is the composition inspired by Renoir, titled Sea of France, together with Nagamani.



  4. Colleen

    I recently performed a recital of works “associated with” visual art. Some were more performance art than just music – one where the act of painting created the soundscape, some where the text quoted painters, some inspired by art, one where a painter created a work for the piece in person, and on that was known to be favorite of a specific artist. Performing the same program in another town this spring, and I plan to distribute art materials to the audience to encourage creation during the program.

  5. Elizabeth

    This is a topic about which I am extremely passionate, so much so that I curate (direct) a contemporary music series tied to visual art exhibitions, called Sounds Modern. We primarily perform at the Museum of Modern Art in Fort Worth, TX, but we have branched out as well, most notably at the Chinati Foundation in Marfa, TX. I find it very rewarding, and my audiences seem to as well.


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