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.

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. Accordingly, 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. While, 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.

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 appeared 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. Interesting, 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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