“Hearing the Light” – The Deep Connection between Photography and Music

The bird’s song would then strike our retina as a pageant of color; we should see the magical tones of the wind, hear as a great fugue the repeated and harmonizing greens of the forest; the cadences of stormy skies. (Author unknown)

The connection between photography and music has always fascinated me. Like many, I was deeply exposed to music growing up. As a child, I learned how to play the piano by ear, often reconstructing complex melodies in my head.

As my musical ambitions progressed, I eventually saved up for a Korg T3 synthesizer, and would spend countless hours creating soundtracks to movies that didn’t exist. Although I didn’t realize it at the time, my immersive exposure to music was laying the groundwork for my photography.

McConnell's Mill (Western Pennsylvania)
McConnell’s Mill (Western Pennsylvania)

In this article, I will attempt to explore the common synergies that are shared between the two mediums—posing many questions and thoughts along the way. For example, can musical training make you a better photographer? Do you often see images when you listen to music, or conversely, hear music when photographing? What is it about the two art forms that make them so similar, so complementary to one another?

When we think of the connection between music and photography, one iconic name that often comes up in any discussion is Ansel Adams.

Ansel Adams spent his formative years obsessively training to become a concert pianist. Although he eventually abandoned his musical aspirations, the piano taught him a great deal about disciplined technique, accuracy, structure, and the value of persistent practice and repetition.

When reminiscing about his transition into photography during a 1984 interview conducted by Milton Esterow (Editor, ARTnews), Adams reflected, “Study in music gave me a fine basis for the discipline of photography. I’d have been a real Sloppy Joe if I hadn’t had that.” When asked to elaborate, he added, “Well, in music you have this absolutely necessary discipline from the very beginning. And you are constructing various shapes and controlling values. Your notes have to be accurate or else there’s no use playing. There’s no casual approximation.”

Adams revealed that he would often hear music while photographing (not in the sentimental sense, but structurally), “You see relationships of shapes. I would call it a design sense. It’s the beginning of seeing what the photograph is.”

Valley of Fire State Park, Nevada
Valley of Fire State Park, Nevada

From the detailed writings he left to the near perfectionist approach he took in the darkroom, it was evident that his rigorous musical training had a profound impact on his visual aptitude (and behaviors). He even went so far as to incorporate musical metaphors into his narrative when describing the act of photography – “The negative is comparable to the composer’s score and the print to its performance. Each performance differs in subtle ways,” he would later say.

Aside from an enhanced sense of discipline and good order born out of years of diligent practice and repetition, did Ansel Adams gain any visual cognitive advantage from all of his musical training? The scientific research would suggest he did.

There appears to be a growing volume of published data to support the notion that the brains of musicians are structurally and functionally different from those of non-musicians. These differences may include changes in plasticity, density, connectivity, morphology and overall cross-lobe brain function.

Research from the Society for Neuroscience, for example, finds that music training may increase the neural connections in regions of the brain associated with creativity, decision making, and complex memory—and they may improve a person’s ability to process conflicting information from many senses at once.

In the Jailhouse Now (Rhyolite Ghost Town, Nevada)
In the Jailhouse Now (Rhyolite Ghost Town, Nevada)

Much like a musician, being adept at multisensory processing can be considered a desired attribute in any photographer. It has been shown to speed our reactions, help us identify objects, and heighten our overall awareness and sensitivities—allowing us to perceptually (and intuitively) make sense of our world.

For example, a forest scene (which is inherently visually chaotic) can be very complicated to photograph. Multisensory processing, therefore, might allow us to see the forest for the trees (metaphorically speaking), giving us the cognitive tools we’ll need to simplify and refine our framing and composition. This is often accomplished through scene extraction – whereby we capture a smaller (and often more compelling) scene, out of a larger more disordered one.

Babcock State Park - Clifftop, WV
Babcock State Park – Clifftop, WV

At any given moment, we are processing and absorbing a ton of information when practicing our camera work—from technical and equipment considerations to lighting and composition. We are then interpreting this information through our own eyes and emotional filters—ultimately translating the material into a language our camera can understand.

Take for example a street photographer, who is operating in a stimulus-rich environment that some might find overwhelming. Success is often predicated on their ability to tune out the extraneous and distracting background elements, focusing attention on only those scenes and moments that really matter.

Durbin, WV
Durbin, WV

Anyone can simply respond to their environment by pressing the shutter. But if we are to truly create photographs that transcend the ordinary, we must make the right choices and decisions out of hundreds of possible scenarios—engaging our senses and cognitive abilities to their fullest.

To simply “look” at a scene only requires the most basic sense of sight. To “see” requires us to tap into all of our senses—opening ourselves up to the possibilities of the moment. When I talk about processing senses, I’d like to think beyond the five basic ones: seeing, hearing, touching, smelling, and tasting. Although there is much debate on the subject, many experts claim that we also have awareness for temperature, pressure, pain, itch, motion, balance, body presence, sense of place, aesthetics, time, empathy, humanity, spirit – and even intuition.

It has been said that “hearing the light” occurs on an intuitive level – and I personally believe this to be the case for some photographers. I won’t attempt to define intuition in this article, but it does result in part from intense practice and repetition. Eventually, we break free from the form that we are attempting to master, and only true expression and freedom from deliberate action are left.

So, did Ansel Adams’ early musical training help him to become a better photographer later in life? Let’s dig a little deeper.

A study conducted by Harvard University researcher Dr. Gottfried Schlaug MD, PhD, presented during the Neuroscience 2013 annual meeting, found a correlation between early childhood training in music and enhanced motor and auditory skills, as well as improvements in verbal ability, nonverbal reasoning and overall language processing.

Afternoon at the Park (Western, PA)
Afternoon at the Park (Western, PA)

People with musical training are believed to be better at understanding and analyzing complex visual information – such as identifying relationships, similarities and differences between shapes and patterns, and even emotional and sensory cues.

“Playing a musical instrument is a multisensory and motor experience that creates emotions and motions — from finger tapping to dancing — and engages pleasure and reward systems in the brain. It has the potential to change brain function and structure when done over a long period of time,” noted Dr. Schlaug.

In a 2006 article published in the Educational Psychologist, Dr. Frances Rauscher of the University of Wisconsin Oshkosh explained that “Young children provided with instrumental instruction (rather than just passive listening) scored significantly higher on tasks measuring spatial-temporal cognition and reasoning, hand-eye coordination and arithmetic.” Part of this is due to the linkage between music and math skills.

Autumn Glass (Lindy Run, WV)
Autumn Glass (Lindy Run, WV)

Rauscher noted that the same cognitive concepts that are required to understand some advanced mathematical constructs are highly relevant in understanding rhythm, for example. “A literate musician is required to continually mentally subdivide beat to arrive at the correct interpretation of rhythmic notation,” she wrote.

While one might argue that musical rhythm and visual rhythm are in fact two different entities—they are really very similar in their fundamental meaning. Whereas musical rhythm deals with the progression of notes over a period of time (within a time-based medium), visual rhythm focuses on the repetition of positive objects and shapes, separated by negative space. In both, there is a sensation of movement.

Let’s look at spatial-temporal reasoning for a second. This can be defined as the cognitive ability to picture a spatial pattern and understand how items or pieces can fit into that space. Photographically, we use this reasoning to determine how the elements of a scene (such as lines, shapes, forms, tones, colors, textures, etc.) can be combined or deconstructed in order to create overall scene harmony.

Beautiful Chaos (Western, PA)
Beautiful Chaos (Western, PA)

Much like its brethren music, we should define photographic composition as the holistic blending of the disparate parts into a radiant whole. We often use this reasoning when pre-visualizing a scene, which requires us to predict how different artistic and technical choices will impact our final image.

While the ultimate purpose of this article is to explore the connection between photography and music, I would be somewhat remiss if I didn’t digress a bit to talk about the connection between photography and math. After all, some music theorists describe math as a “basis of sound” – although these definitions are typically limited to discussing acoustic rather than compositional aspects.

Regardless, the significance of mathematics as a common denominator in both music and photography cannot be ignored—especially if we are to suggest that musical training can increase our cognitive and analytical thinking – exactly the type of high-level thought processes that go into our own photography.

Whether we realize it or not, we use math quite a bit in our photography. Technically, we use some degree of math to derive at the proper exposure, factoring in settings like aperture, shutter speed and ISO.

For today’s discussion, I’m much more interested in exploring the compositional and cognitive connection between photography, music (and math) – especially if we are to consider shared constructs like balance, symmetry, proportion, harmony and rhythm.

Mathematically speaking, famous street photography Henry Cartier-Bresson was a master at aligning moments along with the geometry of a scene. He used his deep understanding of shapes, structures and forms (along with a keen understanding of human behavior) as a basis for much of his work.

Bresson was also said to integrate the Golden Ratio (otherwise known as the divine proportion) into his photography. Much like the rule of thirds, the Golden Ratio is based on the idea that there is an ideal compositional arrangement of elements (using a naturally occurring mathematical ratio). By arranging the elements a certain way, the artist achieves the ideal blend of symmetry, proportion and harmony.

Artists throughout history learned long ago that if one maintained a ratio of small elements to larger elements that were the same as the ratio of larger elements to the whole, the end result was particularly pleasing to look at.

Of course, photographers and painters weren’t the only artists using the Golden Ratio. Scholars have suggested that French impressionist composer Claude Debussy structured many of his musical pieces mathematically, dividing them into sections that reflected the Golden Ratio (using the numbers of the standard Fibonacci sequence).

The math connection aside, it’s easy to draw many parallels between photography and music.

Take for example the concept of contrast (choosing the definition that concerns itself with elements that are unique from one another). Although specific definitions may differ between the two mediums, both musicians and photographers may seek to incorporate contrasting ideas into their compositions – such as movement versus stillness, soft versus hard, or even symmetry versus asymmetry.

Other contrasts that are common between the two mediums might include texture, pattern, rhythm, repetition, energy, color, tone, shape, form, line, spacing variation, balance/counter-balance, dominance, weight, or even perspective. Individually they convey some meaning, but when combined into a harmonious whole, they tell a larger story.

Kebler Pass, CO
Kebler Pass, CO

In photography, we are not looking to photograph our subject as an exact representation, but rather a series of shapes, forms, lines, colors, tonalities and more – that when visually arranged into a harmonious whole, convey an emotion or suggest a mood. Just as the basic building block of all photographs are some combination of primary shapes (circles, squares and triangles), the same could be said about the foundation of music, which is a combination of notes in a scale, all structured and arranged using the compositional elements of pitch, rhythm, dynamics – along with the sonic qualities of timbre and texture.

In both mediums, these combined elements can help us capture a state of mind, suggest a feeling, or even evoke a sense of time and place. Common themes that are often explored between both music and photography (covering the full gamut of human emotion and experience) may include: solitude, joy, mystery, sadness, spirituality, escape, nostalgia, loneliness, tension, passion, etc.

In both, we are creating a sense of structure and order out of chaos; simplifying and refining our compositions down to their strongest fundamentals—hopefully including those elements that best convey the inner workings of our heart and soul. Yes, the old adage that “less is more” applies to both forms– where often the most compelling compositions contain only three or four major artistic ideas.

Even the viewers of our photographs (or listeners of our music) can be said to share a similar emotional response. Both music and photos have the power to freeze moments in time; both can be strong receptacles for past memories and experience. Whether we’re listening to a song or looking at a photograph, we always find a way to internalize the expression and emotion as our own, reacting and interpreting the art through our own eyes and personal experience.

Much like music, photography can be said to be a true common language that is universally understood everywhere. Show a photograph of a person smiling to a remote tribes-person deep in the rainforest of Brazil, and they’ll probably understand the emotional context, even if they don’t understand the cultural one. The same can be said of music.

Up to this point, I’ve spent a great deal of time talking about the connection between photography and music – with the implication that an understanding of both can lead to greater insight (and possibly capability) in our visual aptitude.

I would only add that I think even casual or passive exposure to music can translate into some visual benefit—as I’d never suggest that this advantage is only limited to professionally or classically trained musicians, especially if we view ultimate capability on an ever-evolving (and often incremental) continuum.

In other words, I think we’d be short-sighted if we didn’t look to other art forms and mediums (or life experience, for that matter) for inspiration and insight. Everything contributes to who we are and how we think.

It is often said that taking a cross-disciplined approach to art broadens our horizons and expands our creative intuition and vocabulary. If you’re a photographer, I encourage you to immerse yourself in other mediums – whether music, poetry, writing, painting or even sculpture.

There are many parallels to be drawn between the different genres, and often the ideas that inspire an artist in one medium will be emulated, interpreted and assimilated into our own art. So maybe it would have been more appropriate to title this article, the connection between photography and other art forms.

So what is it about the synergy between photography and music that makes them so interchangeable, so undeniably linked? Photographers often talk about creating visual music in much the same way that a musical artist might describe the visual imagery that is conjured up with a song.

Just as music is a thoughtful arrangement of sound and silence, photography can be said to be a carefully crafted arrangement of objects and space – different, but remarkably similar.

Whether we’re talking about the notes on a scale or the tonalities that reside between shadow and highlight – both photography and music share a common DNA; and a strong bond that is inexplicably based on the idea that art truly is the discovery of harmony, both in the literal and figurative sense.

White Pocket Wilderness Area (Paria Canyon, AZ)
White Pocket Wilderness Area (Paria Canyon, AZ)

Ultimately though, I think we can all agree that there is a connection between the two that transcends their boundaries; a mind, body and spirit link that might have a bearing on our own visual artistry.

Want to become a better photographer? Consider learning to play the drums or piano (or take up sculpture) – it’s never too late to embrace your inner Adams.

Tagged with: