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The Sound of Color


Inspiration often comes from unexpected places. For Andrew Little ’22, it arrived at the hands of a $4,500 electronic instrument called a Lumatone, which produces notes based on a color microtonal scale. Reading about the Lumatone online, Little thought that it seemed like a “really cool instrument to mess around with” — that is, until he noticed the price.

It was at that point that Little decided “I might as well try to make one.”

About Andrew Little ’22

Majors: Music and Creative Writing

Hometown: Groton, Conn.

High School: The Williams School

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To accomplish this, he will be undertaking a project to “make an instrument out of the whole color spectrum.” Using a microtonal scale — which, as the name suggests, is composed of “microtones,” or intervals smaller than the familiar semitones of the Western 12-note scale. Eight colors will assume the function of marking different sub-intervals, each an eighth of a semitone apart. “It’s just notes between notes, broken down by color,” Little explained.

All of this will be programmed into a MIDI keyboard via Max, software Little described as a “visual programming environment for music and sounds.” Little was introduced to Max in a class with Assistant Professor of Music Ryan Carter, who is experienced with the software and also serves as the project’s faculty advisor. “My freshman year,” recalled Little, “Galantis was here. And [Carter] opened for Galantis with an instrument that he made … these strings that he would pull and it would control a synthesizer. And that was controlled through Max.”

Little said he will soon start customizing the keyboard that will ultimately become a color-tuned instrument. Once the Max program is completed, it can hopefully be shared for others to use.

Another goal of Little’s project is to create a body of work with the instrument — a few songs that, Little said, will sound pretty dissonant. But this, he explained, is only natural: “We’ve taken this whole range of sounds and then combined it to 12 notes. But the world around us, the bird songs and that type of thing, can sound kind of scary … there’s so much more like range of motion within there, tone color, and that sort of thing.” 

The songs that Little hopes to create with his instrument will be based on work he plans to commission from another student, Charlie Guterman ’22. Her art pieces, he said, will all be centered around “specific color palettes,” which will determine what notes Little can use to create compositions. Little said he hopes to exhibit their work in Hamilton’s Kennedy Center for Theatre and the Studio Arts, perhaps with an mp3 player and some headphones, so that others can “get to hear what the color frequencies would sound like.”

Despite the work that remains to be done, Little is eager to take on the challenge of learning his new instrument — which, he acknowledged, will be cumbersome to play. “What I’ve learned in my musical career so far,” he said, “is that whenever you can, limit yourself in a certain way that pushes you to do more with what you have.”           

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