The Colors of Sound: Poikilia and Its Aesthetic Contexts

In: Greek and Roman Musical Studies


Poikilos and poikilia are, respectively, an adjective and a noun commonly used to describe characteristics of both visual and aural phenomena. But how do the two uses (as term of color and term of sound) relate to each other, and does poikilos metaphorically describe the “colors” of sounds? In examining the semantics and ideological connotations of poikilos and poikilia, as well as the contribution they make to an archaeology of the senses, this paper reflects on the connection between senses, language, experience and representation. It argues for a transformation, between the archaic and late classical period, in the way poikilos is used to qualify aspects of the musical experience. In archaic and early classical poetry, poikilos captures, rather than a specific feature of sound, a certain mode of relationship with an object, a rapt pleasure in the experience of the beauty of the object through all senses. Later uses of poikilos however, especially in connection with the New Music, rely on the (negative) ideological, rather than sensual, dimension of the term, while technical musical vocabulary adopts the metaphor of colors (chrōmata) to describe specific features of music and sound.

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    Bettini 2008, 3-7.

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    A dragon/snake: Alcm. fr.1.66, Pi. P.8.46, P.10.46; a bird: Pi. P.4.249, Alc. fr.345.2; a horse: Pi. P.2.8.

  • 11

    Rocconi 2003, 69-77 and 2004 for musical vocabulary metaphorically borrowed from the visual realm; Grand-Clément 2011 on the visual arts.

  • 12

    Stanford 1936, 47-62 has beautiful pages on the significance of trans-sensual vocabulary for the ancient perception of beauty. While some of his statements should probably be revised in light of modern cognitive studies, others remain stimulating ways of thinking about the connection between senses and language: “Synaesthesia is on the sensuous plane what metaphor is in the sphere of words, and both are methods of corroborating by a unanimity of diversities the essential oneness of beauty and truth” (59).

  • 16

    Rocconi 2004, 30.

  • 17

    Stanford 1936, 43. Also Irwin (1960, 210) who asserts that “for the Greek poets of our period, then, the divisions between the senses were not barriers, requiring a conscious transfer of particular vocabulary from one to the other; instead there was an overlapping between senses such as sight and touch, so that something seen could be described naturally in terms of touch”.

  • 19

    Smith 2007, 1. See Fèbvre 1941, Serres 1985, Ackerman 1990, Howes 2005, Jütte 2005.

  • 20

    Schafer 1977, 10: “in the West the ear gave way to the eye as the most important gatherer of information about the time of the Renaissance, with the development of the printing press and perspective painting”; Cazelles 2005, 6: “At the basis of this distinction between the eyes and the ears lies, in reality, a distinction between the individual and the collectivity.” Smith 2007 contests the binary aspects of McLuhan and Ong’s [1962] work and builds on their insights about intersensoriality under modernity.

  • 24

    Montiglio 2000.

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    Wilson 1999.

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    Détienne and Vernant 1974, 27-54.

  • 29

    Stanford 1936. The same could be said of sympotic vase-paintings, which aim at involving not only the eye, but also the ear in representations of instruments and the effect of their music on symposiasts.

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    Porter 2010, 197.

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    Grand-Clément 2011, 492-3.

  • 36

    Rocconi 2004, 30-3, 31 for the quotation. As she points out, this use is different from the older, non-technical, use of the term, for example Ath. 638a relating Philochorus’ description of the kithara-music of Lysander as χρώµατα εὔχροα, lovely-shaded colors.

  • 38

    Csapo and Wilson 2009, 291-2, with further reference to Csapo 2004.

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