How Music Can Impact Our Photography

How Music Can Impact Our Photography

There are sometimes surprising overlaps between photography and music. The more we learn about music, the more we can understand how that knowledge can improve our photography.

At the same time as Beethoven, Chopin, Liszt, Mendelssohn, Paganini, and Schubert were at the height of their musical powers, Joseph Nicéphore Niépce was creating his first heliograph. Of those composers, Franz Liszt became the classical music equivalent of a rock star, with crowds swarming to see him play. He even had women’s underwear thrown at him. He was photographed by none other than the court photographer Franz Seraph Hanfstaengl.

And so was forged the link between music and photography. For the last 100 years and especially from the 1940s and onwards, photography became a big part of promoting musicians. Photographing them became a specialization, and some photographers became inexorably linked to different performers: Alfred Wertheimer snapped a young Elvis Presley; Astrid Kirchherr, Fiona Adams, Robert Freeman, Ethan Russell, Linda Eastman, and others captured images of The Beatles; and Jim Marshall shot the iconic images of Johnny Cash at Folsom Prison.

Frans Liszt, photographed in in 1858 by court photographer Franz Hanfstaengl

These photographers were successful at what they did because their photos reflected the image that those musicians portrayed in their work. Their art became an integral part of the musical package.

But the link between photography and music goes much deeper than that. Successful photography tells a story, as does music. Listen to Morning from the Peer Gynt Suite by Edvard Grieg, could it describe anything other than the sun rising over a beautiful Norwegian landscape? Similarly, Camille Saint-Saëns’ Danse Macabre very vividly evokes the image of skeletons dancing. That isn’t restricted to classical music, though. Different genres of music are all capable of evoking images in our minds. Bluegrass, country and western, rock, punk, jazz, folk, and funk all bring very different images to our minds.

So too do photographs. Like the title and lyrics of a song that reinforce the literal meaning of music, images have a precise meaning in the subject's portrayal. However, the best photographs have metaphorical and emblematic meanings too. The metaphor or symbol can be intended or unintended, and viewers can have a very different experience from each other and, indeed, from the photographer.

Like music, photos can evoke feelings. However, this is much harder for the photographer to achieve than the musician because of the former’s literal interpretation of the world; it’s difficult to see past that. Consequently, photos that reduce the viewer to tears or make them laugh out loud with joy are far less common than pieces of music that do just that. Nevertheless, photos can be comforting, allowing us to be in touch with places and people that are otherwise unreachable. Just like listening to certain songs brings back fond memories of times spent with old friends, I certainly get comfort from seeing photos of people I was once close to but have since lost.

Emotions generated by photographs can be positive or negative. This photo of Richard Wagner, again by Franz Seraph Hanfstaengl, will evoke positive feelings because of his music and negative because of his political ideals.

There is a universality in both photography and music, a common understanding of what each is, no matter where in the world we are. Although there are stark differences in both musical and photographic styles depending on the cultural background of the creator, there is recognition and appreciation of them no matter the audience. For example, the music and photography of Japan are quite different from what we produce in the West, but we can appreciate them, nonetheless.

Sadly, globalization is bringing about a change in that. As we are exposed ever more to other cultures, the differences are being eroded. We are losing diversity, so much popular music from around the world is getting very samey, as is photography. Luckily, we live in a time when both photographic and musical traditions can be preserved.

It’s a common complaint by older generations that modern music all sounds the same; I remember my parents moaning about that in the 1970s. However, that became an accurate observation as powerful music studios in the west used marketing techniques that limited our listening to relatively few styles of music. Furthermore, the range of notes that appear in most modern pop songs have been greatly reduced since peaking in the 1960s.

Ten years ago, Dr Joan Serrà and his colleagues at the Artificial Intelligence Research Institute of the Spanish National Research Council in Barcelona studied the timbre of music, which “accounts for the sound color, texture, or tone quality”; its pitch, roughly corresponding to “the harmonic content of the piece, including its chords, melody, and tonal arrangements”; and the loudness. His research found that timbre had declined. However, while pitch used the same notes today as 50 years ago, the variety within each piece had reduced. But music had become louder. It would be interesting to hear whether that decline has continued over the last 10 years.

We can debate whether the quality of the content in photos has faced a similar decline. The same cannot be said of the trend in photographic technology; we know that color, texture, and tone have improved. However, I believe there is a homogenization of photographs where images within most genres are becoming mundane in their similarity. My personal belief is that photos from before the digital age, and especially before the early 1970s, have an undefinable quality that is missing from photos today.

When we use those words to describe the attributes of the music — color, texture, tone — we realize they are strikingly, like those we use to describe photos. Equally, in both music and photography, we talk about rhythm, harmony, and contrast. Elements in a photo that clash are discordant, just as musical notes can be too.

In both photography and music, we talk about composition. The same mathematics we apply to photography are applicable to music too. Bartok, among others, used the golden ratio in his music. Symmetry can be applied to music too, just as it can to photos.   

I do admit that the following assertion is tenuous; nevertheless, there is a similarity in the frequencies of sound and light.  An octave comprises eight whole notes, there are only seven before the new octave starts, just as there are seven colors in the visible spectrum: red, orange, yellow, green, blue, indigo, and violet, before we jump to ultraviolet. Some people with a condition called aphakia can see that eighth color. The frequency of sound doubles as we increase the tone by a whole octave. Similarly, the frequency of red light is approximately double that of ultraviolet. Both sound and light are formed by waves and can resonate and form interference patterns.

Both music and photography have strong links with experimentation. The psychedelic sounds used on The Beatles Rubber Soul, Revolver, and Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band albums were reflected in the experimental photography and artwork of the albums’ covers.

There are differences between photos and music. Music is temporal, changing over time, whereas a solitary photo is a fixed moment. Nevertheless, photos can be gathered in collections that represent a timescale.

Finally, photography and music can inspire one another. There is a romantic notion of photographs preserving memories of special moments, a nostalgic quality that songwriters pick up on: Simon and Garfunkel, “Old Friends/Bookends”; REM, “Nightswimming”; Stereophonics, “Local Boy in a Photograph”; Def Leppard, “Photograph”; Ed Sheeran, “Photograph”; and Rihanna's “Photographs.”

Equally, we can use music to inspire us. Photographic artists may use song titles, lyrics, and the emotions evoked by a tune to influence them in their creations as this blog post demonstrates. We can also let music put us in a state of mind to project on our shoots the feeling we are trying to portray. Some studio photographers agree on music with models to help them both achieve the right mood for the photo shoot. Also, the music played at events can have an impact on the style of image the photographer shoots.

Have you used music in your photography? Is it an important part of your workflow? It would be great to hear your comments.

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13 Comments
Stuart C's picture

As someone who’s Instagram handle is @stuc_picsnmusic I greatly appreciate this article:)

Fully agree that there is a massive connection between the two.

In my specific connection to music (mix DJing) I also find many similarities in the gear side of things too, particularly around those who keep buying the latest and greatest because they ‘need’ XYZ feature, against those who use cheaper, older gear and still rock it.

I can’t put into context the relationship between written or performed music and creative photography as I’m useless at one and distinctly average at the other, but it’s absolutely a heavily linked process and you have described it perfectly Ivor.

Below is my favourite part of our house, all the camera gear is stored below the decks, so it’s essentially the creative hub.

Ivor Rackham's picture

That looks great. The importance of creativity, whatever branch of the arts, is greatly underestimated and everyone should do something as it's good for the soul, no matter how good or bad we are at it. I'll be taking my guitar off its hook and making the neighbourhood cats howl a bit later on. Thanks for commenting.

Stuart C's picture

Haha and more power to you Ivor. Love it.

Tom Reichner's picture

What you discuss in paragraph #9 is a topic that my friends and I discuss often. Rick Beato had done a few videos that address this topic, and he breaks down the music to show exactly what it is about current music that causes it to have that universal sameness. His videos about music are very insightful, and available to view on YouTube.

Ivor Rackham's picture

Thanks, Tom, I'll look him up.

Sam Sims's picture

Rick Beato’s YouTube channel really is a delightful insight into his intelligent views on music. His interview with Sting is a highlight.

Tom Reichner's picture

Rick's channel is where I go to gain a better, deeper understanding of music.

Ivor Rackham's picture

I watched a couple. Yes, there is some really good content there. Thanks Tom.

Justin Sharp's picture

An important difference is in the experience of the two, particularly the temporal aspect. If a piece of music is 10 minutes long, then of course it will take 10 minutes to fully experience the music. You can glance at a photograph and simply see it in the entirety. The longer you look then you might possibly see more detail and gain a greater understanding, but there isn't that set time that the music plays from the beginning to the end. There's also the linear aspect of the music. You listen to the beginning to end. A The experience of the photograph is nonlinear. The viewer can look at any part of the photograph in any order or step back and view it in its entirety. I have a colleague who is a painting professor and he has said he is jealous of music because it can travel around a corner. To experience a painting (or photo) you must be in front of it and looking at it. Music has a life of its own and can fill a space. You can turn away from visual art but you can't escape music unless you leave or cover your ears.
Music and photography are my two passions. I teach music as a profession but I pursue photography as an escape. The colleague that i mentioned earlier told me that I'm probably attracted to photography partly due to the fact that it can be absent of sound. I need that juxtaposition from the world of sound that i experience everyday.

Ivor Rackham's picture

Yes, I only lightly touched on this in the temporal difference in the article. You are absolutely right about that and the ability for music to fill a space. Do you think moving pictures can be as inescapably immersive as music?

I do think we can push the boundaries by observing and interpreting both music and images in similar ways if we choose to.

The photo itself is a single moment in time, albeit of varying lengths. However, although the viewer can glance at an image, as most people do, we can also sit and observe it for several minutes and meditate upon its meaning, something I like to do. It can absorb me in a similar way to listening to music, and I can have an emotional response if it conjures up memories. This is harder to achieve with a photo than it is with music, and it is a different approach to the way most people interact with photos or paintings.

Music can also be glanced at too. I was in a shop yesterday and there was background music playing. I didn't even notice it until my phone rang and the key of that was discordant with the musak. Also, you could play a single note from a piece of music I was familiar with and I would know what the song was. Play the opening piano chord of A Day in the Life, the first second of Chopin's Nocturne op 27 no 2, or the ringing strum from Smells Like Teen Spirit, or a thousand other pieces of music and I would recognise it in the same way as I would glancing at a photo of my son.

It's a fascinating topic and insightful into the way our minds work. Thanks for the great comment.

Justin Sharp's picture

The many ways in which they both communicate similar things but also in very different ways is fascinating. it can possibly be argued that moving pictures function in a very similar way as music. The progression of images introduces the linear element to the experience in much the same way that we experience music.

The idea of "glancing" at music is problematic. I played the Chopin Nocturne op. 27 no. 2 in university and as soon as I hear those opening notes in the left hand I immediately know the entire piece of music, but in that moment (removing my memory and experience from the equation) I am experiencing just a fragmentation of the music. I don't like the use of word glance in this context. The equivalent to photography is possibly taking a portrait and cutting out a portion of the face with a scissors. If I know the portrait really well then I would probably recognize the portrait just like the Chopin. A glance at the portrait can be a brief visual experience of the complete photograph. From my perspective, outside of the fragmentation of hearing a fraction of the music, this just isn't possible in music.

Thank you for writing about this topic. I appreciate your willingness to approach these thought provoking subjects. It's refreshing to read an article that's a bit different than the usual post.

Ivor Rackham's picture

Thanks Justin! That's kind of you to say so, and I enjoy your interesting contributions to the discussions.

Ivor Rackham's picture

Thanks for the great comment.You are right, and maybe I should have included the impact of titles in the article too as it's another commonality.

However, when I was at school, we did an exercise in listening to music by Saint-Saëns without knowing the title and had we had to say what images it evoked. The class was quite successful. I think he was particularly good at painting images with his compositions.