Le Violon d’Ingres: Some Reflections on Music, Painting and Architecture

University of Notre Dame

EDITOR’S NOTE: This essay is reprinted with gracious permission from the Newington-Cropsey Cultural Studies Center, who originally published it in American Arts Quarterly, Spring 2006, Volume 23, Number 2.

Sitting in his studio at the French Academy in Rome, the painter Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres picks up his violin and begins to play. His interest in the violin is both musical and visual. The instrument he plays is a composition of molding profiles drawn from classical architecture – torus, scotia, bead and cyma recta – culminating in a spiral resembling the volute of an Ionic capital. The proportion of neck to body of the violin is that known as the Golden Section, a ratio thought to underlie many natural forms as well as the proportions of Greek temples. The anthropomorphism of the instrument is surely not lost on the painter, as his eyes move between its sinuous curves and those of the odalisque taking shape on the canvas next to him. He draws the bow across the strings and produces consonant intervals that correspond to the simple whole-number ratios first demonstrated by Pythagoras in the fifth century B.C. The violin traces out an arc of melody that seems a sonic analogue to the linearity of the artist’s drawing. The music is all beauty of line, and so is the painting. At this moment, the musical and the visual experiences fuse into one.

Violin by Johann Christoph Leidolff, Vienna, <small>1749</small>. <i>Image credit:</i> Harald Fritz.
Violin by Johann Christoph Leidolff, Vienna, 1749. Image credit: Harald Fritz.

So familiar is the story of the great painter and his nearly equal dedication to music that the French phrase le violon d’Ingres has come to refer to an avocation at which one excels. At least in the case of the visual and musical arts, it seems that the “vocation” and “avocation” are not simply two independent pursuits – there seems to be a profound connection between them, and that is how they are often experienced by those who are blessed with such multiple gifts. But, while few would deny a strong relationship between musical and visual forms, the character of that relationship is hard to describe.

For example, many musicians and composers have observed that the key signatures are associated with different colors. Alexander Scriabin contrived a “color organ” – an early precursor of a 1960s psychedelic light show – to accompany performances of his music by projecting the colors corresponding to the score’s harmonies. A few decades later, Olivier Messiaen based his music in part on “chordal colors,” such as “golden yellow, blue of Chartres, violet purple, green and red, orange tint, violet amethyst, mauve and pearl gray.”1 Even less exalted musicians find that they recognize the key in which a piece of music is being played by its “color” as much as by the absolute pitches they hear. The problem is that composers and musicians cannot agree on which colors go with which chords – it seems to be different for each individual – and yet they all attest to this coincidence of harmony and color.

In more extreme cases, some people experience an intense cross-over between their senses known as synesthesia, in which sounds are “seen” and objects – including shapes, buildings or pictures – are “heard.” This is now recognized clinically as an involuntary neurological phenomenon affecting a small number of people, including, famously, the composer Scriabin (and possibly Messiaen), the painter Wassily Kandinsky and the novelist Vladimir Nabokov. Distinct from this clinical designation is the use of synesthesia as an idea or metaphor to explain the visual correlatives to heard music reported by musicians, and musical correlatives to visual and spatial form reported by artists and architects. Some researchers suggest that we are all synesthetes, but only some of us are consciously aware of “the holistic nature of perception.”2 Using this synesthetic metaphor as a starting point, I want to explore some ways a musical interest might affect the work of a visual artist, especially an architect, since that is my own discipline. As we shall see, painting and architecture have parallel – albeit somewhat different – relationships with music.

Ingres was not, of course, the first or last painter with a serious involvement in music. Vasari, in his Lives of the Artists, tells us that Leonardo da Vinci performed for the Duke of Milan on a lyre “that he had made himself, mostly of silver, in the shape of a horse’s head, so that the sound would be more sonorous and resonant.”3 There are tantalizing passages in Leonardo’s Treatise on Painting, in which he calls music “the sister of painting,” and continues: “You will say that music is composed of proportion, and in answer to that I say that in that respect it imitates and follows the example of painting.” Unfortunately, we know little about Leonardo’s musical life, his Treatise on Music is lost, and only a few scraps of musical score in his hand have survived, although contemporary accounts tell of his great skill as both composer and performer. Not surprisingly, given his technological and scientific approach to whatever interested him, his musical activity extended to suggesting technical improvements to numerous musical instruments and even inventing new ones.4

A scientific bent also characterized Thomas Jefferson, who, like his younger contemporary Ingres, was an “above-average amateur violinist,” but who, like Leonardo, also had a technical interest in the design and construction of musical instruments. His music library included scores by Corelli, Vivaldi, Handel, Boccherini, Haydn and Mozart.5 Jefferson did not record his thoughts about the relationship between music and architecture, but his superb design for the University of Virginia always brings to my mind the counterpoint, cadences or tempi of those graceful colonnades and arcades, and the ascent up the Lawn to the Rotunda seems a perfect crescendo. Although it is unlikely that Jefferson knew of it, his endlessly subtle and beautiful Lawn has always seemed to me a built correlative of its near-contemporary, Beethoven’s Seventh Symphony.

Frank Lloyd Wright was an able pianist who admitted that his architectural language was shaped by his musical understanding. Wright was particularly devoted to Beethoven, whom he called a great architect, referring to the Eroica as a “great edifice of sound.”6 There is indeed something of Beethoven’s familiar building-up of complex textures from simple motives that pervades Wright’s work almost throughout his career, from the early Prairie Houses and Unity Temple to the late Marin County government center. Another important modernist, Louis Kahn, often spoke poetically, if cryptically, about music and its relation to architecture. Former students recall his not infrequent habit of humming a theme from Mozart to make a point in an architectural design jury. In his most celebrated works, such as the Kimbell Art Museum in Fort Worth, the library at Exeter Academy or the Salk Institute in La Jolla, California, Kahn shares with Wright an interest in the expressive power of abstract form – space, mass, line and detail – in a way that seems profoundly musical.

Among architects who have sought to revive the Classical tradition in their work, Léon Krier, a leading crusader against the modernism of both Wright and Kahn, nonetheless shares their musical interests. Another accomplished pianist, Krier has a particular devotion to Chopin, which might seem surprising in relation to his design work. At first glance, his robust and enigmatic designs – including his own house at Seaside, the Town Hall at Windsor or the newly completed building for the School of Architecture at the University of Miami – have little of the exquisiteness we associate with the Polish master of the piano. And yet Chopin also evokes a Michelangelesque terribilità in some of the Preludes and Ballades, and close study of Krier’s designs reveal a sense of fantasía and melancholy often overlooked by critics.

Admittedly, these examples are anecdotal and superficial, bordering perhaps on cliché. But, like many clichés, they point to an underlying truth, namely that we often find it natural to speak of the architecture of music or the musicality of architecture. What is the source of this connection? Goethe’s famous definition of architecture as “frozen music” is suggestive, but not very specific. My sense is that there are three fundamental points of intersection between music and the visual arts: the first is the analogy between tonality and perspective, the second is their common interest in proportion, and the third is their non-representational, nonverbal expressiveness.

Renaissance theories of pictorial perspective construct an apparent three-dimensional space in a two-dimensional medium by defining the location and orientation of each object in the visual field with respect to an independent geometrical system. In Western music since the mid-seventeenth century, tonality similarly establishes a metaphorical space within which each tone has a location, orientation and sense of movement. Leonardo da Vinci, who developed techniques for perspective drawing still cited today, noted in his treatise that music’s harmonies “are composed of the simultaneous conjunction of its proportional parts, which are destined to be born and then die in one or several harmonic spaces.”7 Music may be fleeting in time, he is saying, but lingers in a remembered space of the hearer’s own making.

This space is not simply an abstract diagram in our minds, but is experienced as an analogue to our daily physical space, whose three dimensions are mirrored in the musical dimensions of harmony, melody and rhythm. A sound becomes a tone when it assumes a character within a harmonic, melodic or rhythmic context and a hierarchical position with respect to other tones. Philosopher Roger Scruton points out that “a tone has implications in these three dimensions, which correspond to three kinds of expectation that are aroused or thwarted in musical experience. A tone arouses ‘vertical’ and ‘horizontal’ expectations – the first being harmonic, the second melodic and rhythmic.” Through what Scruton calls “metaphorical transference,” these musical dimensions conjure a “space” through which we can imaginatively walk, finding in it such spatial attributes as intimacy or grandeur, a soaring upward or cascading down, a sense of compression or release. Scruton describes our musical understanding as revealing “a first-person perspective on a world that we know is not ours. Neither is it anyone else’s. It is a creation of the imagination, and retains the impersonality of the imaginative act.” We hear music when “sounds are transfigured into movements, harmonies, rhythms—metaphorical gestures in a metaphorical space.”8

In an architectural analogue to musical space, commuters entering Grand Central Terminal in New York from 42nd Street pass through a low vestibule into the generously proportioned Vanderbilt Hall, continue through a Piranesian passage where ramps lead to the lower levels, and finally emerge into the great concourse, a crescendo worthy of Beethoven. It is not only the spaces themselves that impress us, but the way the elements enclosing them are organized compositionally. We see walls, floors and ceilings punctuated by openings and organized proportionally by the classical orders – the exact opposite of randomness. In the same way, a musical space has a hierarchical structure – “the essence of which is groups combined within groups” – parts forming wholes which are themselves parts of larger wholes, extending from the microcosm to the macrocosm.9 Just as pictorial-spatial perspective orders the structural hierarchy of an architectural work, so the sonic perspective afforded by tonality orders the individual tones into coherent music.

Music and architecture, then, are constructed with respect to both perceptual and metaphorical space and time, but as mirror images of one another. In music, tonality uses a temporal sequence of tones to construct a metaphorical space in which time seems suspended; architectural perspective uses a spatial sequence of fixed rooms to suggest a journey unfolding in time. In each case, it is the interweaving of space and time that is essential, one being given to the senses and the other being provided by the imagination. Perhaps it is this synchronization of sense and imagination that makes the experience of both perspective and tonality so satisfying.

Testing the analogy between architecture and music, Hersey translated the proportional ratios of Bernini's Baldacchino into musical intervals and these into a melody. The musical quality of the resulting tune is debatable, but it is notable that the melody is tonal and consonant (Architecture and Geometry in the Age of the Baroque, University of Chicago Press, 2000).
Testing the analogy between architecture and music, Hersey translated the proportional ratios of Bernini’s Baldacchino into musical intervals and these into a melody. The musical quality of the resulting tune is debatable, but it is notable that the melody is tonal and consonant (Architecture and Geometry in the Age of the Baroque, University of Chicago Press, 2000).

Music and architecture are linked by a second kind of geometry, that which orders figural shape and proportion rather than space. Since ancient times, we have understood that a common set of numerical ratios may be used to describe a series of pleasingly shaped rectangles, based on the relations of adjacent sides, and consonant musical intervals, based on the lengths of the strings that emit those tones when plucked. In other words, sounds have shapes and shapes have sounds, a kind of naturally occurring synesthesia. A common terminology was developed to describe these ratios; for example, the ratio 2:3, or sequialtera (Latin for “more by half” – or two plus half of two), denotes both a rectangle with sides in this proportion as well as the musical interval of a fifth.10 Recognition of common geometric and musical proportions retained a central role in the Western artistic imagination from Vitruvius to well into the nineteenth century.

John Hersey’s recent book Architecture and Geometry in the Age of the Baroque shows how the coincidence of musical and geometrical consonance may be reflected quite literally in the designs of such artists as Vignola and Bernini. As an example, Hersey develops “intervals, chords, and melodies out of the geometric envelope of Bernini’s baldacchino” by translating its constituent rectangles into musical intervals. I must say that I am not overly impressed by the musical value of the tune Hersey derives from Bernini’s composition, but the demonstration is nonetheless illuminating.11 Looking at the matter from the other direction, years ago I attended a performance by the harpsichordist Davitt Moroney at which he analyzed the counterpoint in one of J. S. Bach’s fugues by relating its composition of subjects and countersubjects to the arcaded wall treatment of the classical room in which he was playing, using the moldings and elements of the room to clarify the fugue’s musical structure. While the room, of course, did not explicitly manifest specific patterns derived from the piece, the analogy between the musical and spatial architectures was effectively illustrated.

While both musical and architectural proportions are rooted in geometry, I believe there is not necessarily a one-to-one correspondence between them. Attempts by composers to write music according to a predetermined architectural pattern of beats or intervals have, in my hearing at any rate, not been particularly effective; and architectural designs rigidly composed according to prescribed musical ratios, to my eye, lack the liveliness we ascribe to an architectural design when we say that it sings. One reason for this non-correspondence is perceptual: an architectural composition, more often than a musical one, must compromise with contingent reality; hence we have the optical corrections of the Greek temples that adjust the ideal configuration of columns and entablatures to compensate for the distorting effects of human vision.

In truth, music and architecture each have their own proper proportional procedures that keep recurring, whether consciously applied or not, and the actual patterns so recurring are not necessarily mutually transferable between the two art forms. I believe the analogy between them goes deeper than ratios regulating intervals or dimensions. Musical and architectural structures both arise from their relation to a common measure.12 In classical music this is usually a reference tone – the tonic or tonal center; in classical architecture, a module or ratio – such as a recurring rectangle, column diameter or the Golden Section. The consistency with which this common measure is applied in each respective art is the key to its expressive structure, allowing for the establishment of a norm built into the individual work, violations of which then become significant.13

Our recognition of proportional consonance in both music and architecture leads to another, even deeper truth: we are drawn to things that are made in the same way we ourselves are made. A harmonious chord and a well-proportioned structure mirror back to us the constructive harmonies of our own bodies, and by extension, of the cosmos itself. Such was the point of the classical doctrine of the “music of the spheres,” which was taken quite literally from ancient times until the birth of modern astronomy in the seventeenth century. Modern cosmology debunked this ancient picture of the cosmos as mysticism, a view paralleled in Schoenberg’s dismissal of tonality as an arbitrary convention and the modernist architects’ dismissal of the classical orders as relics of an exhausted past.14

In recent decades, however, there has been growing scientific interest in the formative power of naturally occurring patterns as a far more complex cosmology slowly emerges. Scientists are interested in pattern and proportion once again. Neuroscience is beginning to reveal ways in which pattern-recognition is built into the complex and subtle mechanisms of the brain. From this viewpoint, classical music and architecture are analogous, not just because they reflect one another, but because they reflect us and the way our minds work. It should come as no surprise, then, that both music and architecture today are engaged in retrieving their respective traditional languages: melody, tonality, proportion, ornament, the classical orders – the whole lot.

These reflections lead to a final relationship uniting music and architecture: their non-representational mode of expression, that is, their abstraction. This is a property that is not necessarily shared by painting to the extent that it is representational, which music and architecture cannot be. The painter’s depiction of his subject – that is, content outside of the painting itself – potentially communicates thoughts about the subject that might be put into words. Whatever music Ingres played on his violin, it did not express definite thoughts about a non-musical subject that could be restated in words. Architecture, too, may be intensely expressive, communicating strong feelings purely by manipulation of “space, mass, line, and coherence” (to borrow Geoffrey Scott’s terms),15 but it cannot say anything definite about a non-architectural subject.16 This is why architecture needs decorative painting and sculpture to introduce narrative content, and why music relies on sung or spoken words for the same purpose. So while Ingres’s appreciation of the affinities between music and painting may have led him to reflect on their differences in this regard, an architect like Wright or Kahn might reflect on the similarities between music and architecture for the same reason. I think this is why an architect who is also a musician might think about architecture differently than one who is also a painter.

Their common wordless expressiveness is perhaps what most links music and architecture in my own experience. Why can I be reduced to tears on hearing Bach’s “O Mensch, bewein die Sünde Gross” or upon stepping into Michelangelo’s vestibule to the library of San Lorenzo? Paradoxically, the first is music in a major key (which we tend to associate with “happy” content in contrast to the “sad” minor keys), and the second is simply an arrangement of columns and niches around an oddly configured stairway, seemingly without explicit emotional associations. And yet, the response in both cases was immediate and profound. The emotional effects of music and architecture are simply ineffable, but it is also now clear that the modernist abandonment of traditional tonality and perspective rendered both arts capable of communicating only anxiety and disorientation. Only in a system in which consonance and dissonance can be distinguished, and in which consonance is the norm, can we find and express a fuller range of human emotion.

Like many people, from an early age I found that music provided a doorway into my own feelings, without which those feelings may have been much less accessible. As childhood passed into adolescence, architecture joined music in this role, and both of them now occupy central places in my life, in which feeling and reasoning seem to work together productively. Perhaps had I been blessed with talent in painting and poetry instead, I would say the same thing; but something about the wordlessness of music and architecture bring them into an intimacy and immediacy of enjoyment that I cannot help thinking is unique to them.

I don’t know if Ingres ever had any thoughts like these, but he might have mused to himself along similar lines as he drew the portrait of his friend and fellow Academician, the composer Charles Gounod, or later, when Gounod sat at the piano and accompanied the painter-violinist in some new music the composer had brought with him. To me, the lovely phrase le violon d’Ingres connotes much more than a glorified hobby. It expresses recognition that all the arts and all our human faculties – despite their individual characters, distinctive requirements and separate domains – are fundamentally one.


1 Olivier Messiaen, The Technique of My Musical Language (Paris: A. Leduc, 1956). The quotation about “chordal colors” is taken from the composer’s liner notes for the recording of his “Méditations sur la Mystère de la Sainte Trinité,” released by the Musical Heritage Society, MHS 1797/98.
2 Richard Cytowic, “Synesthesia: Phenomenology and Neuropsychology: A Review of Current Knowledge,” PSYCHE, 2 (10), (July 1995).
3 Giorgio Vasari, Lives of the Artists (Penguin Classics, 1965). p. 261.
4 Carlos Velilla , “Leonardo da Vinci and Music,” Jacqueline Minett, trans., Goldberg (online music magazine: www.goldbergweb.com).
5 Helen Cripe, Thomas Jefferson and Music (Charlotteville: University Press of Virginia, 1974).
6 “Frank Lloyd Wright on Record” (audio recording of interview in New York, June 5, 1956), Caedmon Records, TC1064.
7 Quoted in Velilla, op. cit.
8 Roger Scruton, “Understanding Music,” The Aesthetic Understanding (New York. Methuen, 1983), pp. 77–100.
9 Molly Guston, Tonality (New York: Philosophical Library, 1969), p. 85.
10 John Hersey, Architecture and Geometry in the Age of the Baroque (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 2000), pp. 9–10.
11 Hersey, op. cit., pp. 46–51.
12 Guston, op. cit., p. 83.
13 Guston, op. cit., pp. 88–89.
14 Robert R.Reilly, “The Music of the Spheres, or the Metaphysics of Music,” The Intercollegiate Review (Fall 2001), p. 12.
15 Geoffrey Scott, The Architecture of Humanism: A Study in the History of Taste (New York: W. W. Norton & Co., 1999).
16 Roger Scruton, “Representation in Music,” The Aesthetic Understanding (New York: Methuen, 1983), pp. 62–76.

About the Author

Steven Semes is Associate Professor at the University of Notre Dame School of Architecture, where he also served as the Rome Studies Program Director from 2008-2011. He is the author of two books, “The Architecture of the Classical Interior” (2004) and “The Future of the Past: A Conservation Ethic for Architecture, Urbanism and Historic Preservation” (2009). Professor Semes is particularly interested in the recovery of classical language and architecture and the impact that this recovery has on changing approached to the conservation and interpretation of historic monuments. His current research focuses on new architecture in historic settings. He is a Fellow Emeritus of the Institute of Classical Architecture & Art.
*                *                *


  • This is a very good article that was worth the repost. It is especially memorable as the few other times that I have seen traditional architects discuss music, they demonstrated such poor knowledge of it that they undermined some of their own arguments about architecture.

    I would add that scales since ancient times have been built around approximations of geometric ratios that are also common in basic architectural forms, and the notes with simpler ratios have a more prominent structural function. In traditional melodies, longer notes include wider pitch intervals between them, while shorter notes are separated by smaller intervals, and ornaments use the shortest notes with the smallest intervals and include the most repetition, following a scaling factor around 2, rarely 3.

    It is true to a degree that “only in a system in which consonance and dissonance can be distinguished, and in which consonance is the norm, can we find and express a fuller range of human emotion”. There are, however, problems in music that are more widespread and also correlate to modern architecture and urban planning. Most pop music not only overuses 4/4 time to an extreme, but also groups these measures of 4/4 into 4 and 8 measure phrases far too often and tends to repeat those phrases 4 times in a row. Melodic ornamentation tends to be used much less than in traditional music, leaving out a level of scaling. Independent polyphony, which would provide another level of scaling, is also avoided. The result is a close equivalent of concrete and glass cubes arranged in grids in place of real cities.

    • Dymitry,
      You make excellent points that further our understanding of the parallels between these two related arts.

      We are working towards putting our finger on precisely what it is that is so musically problematic about the monotonous repetitiveness that characterizes pop genres. There is a strong movement in the US orchestral world – with Europe’s trailing not far behind – to merge the fleeting fashions of industrialized pop music with what we do. The motives range from purely economic “wishful thinking” to political ideologies that demand a flattening of social hierarchies wherever they may be found. Neither result in good music making. That classical music is beautiful for many tangible reasons, none of which are simply arbitrary, is an argument that every musician needs to be prepared to make. Thankfully we have architects like Steven to help us with it.

  • Thank you for the consideration of these points.

    The other musically problematic characteristic of pop is the value placed on pitch bending and syncopated variations of those 4/4 rhythms for “expressive” purposes, which are less common (in many regions nonexistent) in traditional music. While trills, passing notes, and auxiliary notes build upon an underlying structure, these distort the underlying structure without embellishing it. Pop, which otherwise has similarities with some forms of folk music, differs mostly in the emphasis of block-like form combined with structurally distorting effects, and lack of ornament. These elements detract from what Nikos Salingaros refers to as “organized complexity” (a better developed version of the idea behind George Birkhoff’s aesthetic measure) and are used to an extreme in deconstructionist architecture. The movement to combine classical music with pop probably serves an agenda to interfere with organized complexity in classical music without provoking as much of a reaction as atonality or minimalism did trying to do the same thing (the first removed the organization, the second the complexity). There should be an international movement to promote organized complexity in music instead, as there would be both enough research and historical evidence to back its claims, and all it would need are a few examples to prove its effectiveness.

  • Great essay. Especially the comparison of tonality with perspective in painting and architecture is striking. Also one has to think of late 19C ‘Wagnerism’ in France which was invoked by Wagner’s theory that all arts have a common ground and can be ‘united’.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

*                *                *