Bauhaus-Universität Weimar

Helmholtz's treatise on physiological optics. Volume 2. Edited by James P. C. Southall. Translated from the 3rd German edition
Helmholtz, Hermann von
97, 98.] 
§19. The Simple Colours 
urements, the values of the wave-lengths of light of different colours have 
been ascertained, and, with the aid of these data, Drobisch has tried again 
to find a connection between the colour scale and the musical scale. Like 
Newton, he compared the width of the colours with the intervals of the so- 
called Pythagorean scale : 1 : f : § : f : f : f : V6 : 2. But since the width 
of the ordinary visible spectrum, as measured by Fraunhofer, is less than 
an octave, he raised each of those ratios to a certain power, which had the 
value f at first, afterwards f. In this way he got the following table, in 
which the wave-lengths are given in millionths of a millimetre : 
Red \ 
Line 11 = 687.8 
/ 622.0 
(7 = 655.6 
Orange 1 
Yellow j 
Green \ 
D = 588.8 
F = 485.6 
Indigo < 
Violet I 
G = 429.6 
H = 396.3 
In this scheme the boundaries between the colours themselves agree 
fairly well with the natural ones. Possibly, it might be better to use the 
major third instead of the minor third, that is, to make the whole comparison 
on the bas:s of the major scale, as Drobisch himself suggested. Then the 
border between orange and yellow instead of being at D in the golden yellow, 
as in the above arrangement, would fall nearer the pure yellow. Even so, it 
must not be forgotten that any comparison between sound waves and light 
waves ceases to have any sense at all as soon as the numerical values of the 
musical intervals are modified entirely by the process of raising them all to a 
certain fractional power. Moreover, the spectrum is broken off arbitrarily 
at both ends, because, as a matter of fact, the faint terminal colours of the 
spectrum extend much farther on both sides. And, finally Newton’s division 
into seven principal colours was perfectly arbitrary from the beginning and 
deliberately founded on the musical analogies. Golden yellow has just as 
much right to a place between yellow and orange as indigo has between blue 
and violet; and the same is true with respect to yellow-green and blue-green. 
Indeed, there are no real boundaries between the colours of the spectrum. 
These divisions are more or less capricious and largely the result of a mere love 
of calling things by names. In the author’s opinion, therefore, this comparison 
between music and colour must be abandoned. 
Lastly, quite recently Unger has endeavoured to establish a theory of 
aesthetic colour harmony by an analogy between the wave-length ratios and 
the musical intervals. In his actual statements about harmony of colours there 
seems to be a good deal of truth, in large measure borrowed correctly from 
works of art; but the theory itself, the analogy with the musical ratios, is 
rather far-fetched. On his chromo-harmonic disc he has assembled a lot of 
hues intended to correspond to the 12 semi-tones of the octave, but for this 
purpose he has inserted purple reds between violet and red, although the 
purples do not exist as simple colours. He makes the Fraunhofer lines G, 
H, A fall in these purple hues, whereas G and H are the borders of the violet, 
and A belongs to pure red. The simple colours that lie beyond violet are, as


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