Take the Edge Off: Richard Mehl Strikes Several Color Chords

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Richard Mehl takes color very seriously. He wrote a book for Rockport titled Playing with Color, which includes 50 experiments for exploring color. He also teaches color theory at the School of Visual Arts in New York. I knew he’d come up with a colorful scheme when I asked him to create a set of MOO MiniCards, but I didn’t expect a musical theme, as well. Here, he explains the colorful concept behind his MiniCards.

Sitting at a computer, doing graphic design, and making sounds on a guitar can be a positive form of multi-tasking. When I’m studying something on the screen and not typing or using the tablet, my hands move to the guitar.

I’m usually not aware of associations between the shapes and colors on the screen and the sounds I make on the guitar—I’m not lucky enough to experience synesthesia.

But this time, I recognized a similarity between the shapes of the mini card and a traditional guitar chord diagram. This led me to the idea of the chord cards.

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I began experimenting with layouts of lines and dots, representing frets, strings and finger placements. I quickly realized that the proportions of the mini card worked better for four strings than six, so I decided to create chord cards for my newest passion: the tenor guitar.

Once the layout system was defined, color was next.

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I was already aware of the historical relationship of music and color. Plato wrote of tone and harmony in relation to art; Aristotle thought pleasing color combinations could be created according to mathematical proportions, like musical harmonies. Newton believed in a relationship between the seven colors of the light spectrum and the seven notes of the musical scale.

Wassily Kandinsky is believed to have been a natural synesthete—or at least he knew and cared enough about “the mixing of the senses” to use it as a basis for his art. He believed the inherent abstract language of music made it a superior form of artistic expression, and he attempted to translate that language into abstract compositions of form and color. He used musical metaphors to describe his paintings—he called simple compositions “melodic” and complex compositions “symphonic.” The forms and colors in his abstract compositions “sing” together.

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In “The Art of Color,” Johannes Itten expressed the relationship of the 12 musical notes and the 12 colors of his color wheel. Like the 12 musical notes, the 12 colors of the color wheel are arranged in steps. Each note is a defined by the surrounding notes; each color is defined by its adjacent colors. Musical notes can be combined to form harmonic sonic chords; colors can be combined to form harmonic color chords.

There’s a lot of theory and not a lot of agreement about specific relationships between musical notes and colors. I needed to invent my own rational and system. In terms of musical pitch, C is considered the first note. Is there such a thing as a “first color”? For me, the answer is red. So, in a stepped arrangement with C as red, the next note would be the next color, either red-orange or red-violet—a warm or cool variant. I decided that C#, the next note, should be red-orange. D would then be orange, D# yellow-orange, E yellow, F yellow-green, F# green, G blue-green, G# blue, A blue-violet, A# violet, and B red-violet.

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The 12 colors that define the 12 notes/chords are printed in fully saturated variants in the backgrounds of each card, so they are easily distinguished from one another, and easily remembered—red is C, orange is D, yellow is E, etc.

Together, the backgrounds and finger dots for each chord are expressed in split-complementary colors: against the background of red, the finger dots for the C chord variations are yellow-green with violet outlines. The fret lines are printed in adjacent colors—on C chords, they are red-orange. The strings and nut are printed in variants of gray.

There are a total of 48 cards in a set—12 chords in 12 colors, with four basic variations of each chord: major, minor, major 7th and minor 7th.

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Overall, I’m very happy with these cards. I’m still learning the tenor guitar chords, and for that alone the cards are helpful. But it’s when I use them for exploring chord progressions that I experience their real value. The relationships between the colors, sounds and sequences are truly surprising and often very beautiful.

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Btw, “Mehlhaus” is the brand name my wife and I use for our products.

Get Richard’s book right here!

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