The Colour Of Music – Finding Your Mood Niche

In the last article I looked into the finer points of finding genre niche as part of defining your identity as an artist (also why you should even bother when no-one likes being pigeonholed), but genre, subgenre and even micro genre is only part of what makes up your musical identity.

I think of genre niche as being like establishing a home base – a stylistic structure that acknowledges who you are and where you’ve come from, which you can move out of and return to, incorporating other influences as you go into your core identity. It is a home rather than a prison, built in your own image and developed over time, but if you want people to come and visit (by listening to your music) you also need to have some idea what they might get out of the experience. If genre niche is about you as an artist, mood niche is about your listeners and their reasons for spinning your record in the first place.

This article is going to include a lot of abstract esoterica. You might find it to be pretentious crap, and it might well be – but as the point is to start a thought process, at least try going along with it before deciding if it’s right for you.  Over the course of an album or project you may well explore a range of concepts, emotions and themes, the point here is not to homogenise or limit your expression but to find where those disparate elements meet, the common denominator that ties together the unique quality of your music.

As for what you’re actually going to do with this information, the most tangible application is in things like keyword tags, SEO terms, band biogs and cover art, but mostly it is about establishing an overall aesthetic that will feed into everything you do and resonate with your audience before they even hear the first note.

The M.U.S.I.C. Framework

This comes from an academic psychology paper published in 2011 by Peter Rentfrow, Lewis Goldberg and Daniel Levitin. They set out to explore the psychological reasons why people would choose to listen to one type of music over another, eventually defining five basic categories from the data they collected from survey results (you can follow the link above to read about the process they used to collect data). These categories are intended to transcend genre distinctions and can combine in different combinations, though inevitably some relate to particular genres more than others.

The five categories (paraphrased with my own definitions) are as follows:

Mellow – calming music, to unwind to.

Unpretentious – music where the core message or feeling is prioritised over musical complexity.

Sophisticated – more complex music demanding some level of intellectual engagement.

Intense – Rawwwrrr! Music to provoke (or reflect) highly charged emotions.

Contemporary – music connected with social setting or fashion.

One way to use these is to try placing them in order of importance in relation to the music you’re trying to describe, or if you want to get even more mathematical assign 15 points across the five categories RPG style. Here’s how I’d do this in relation to my last album Human:Beautiful :

Sophisticated (5)
Intense (4)
Unpretentious (3)
Mellow (2)
Contemporary (1)

It might seem odd at first glance being both Unpretentious and Sophisticated (especially as I am decidedly pretentious with much of what I do – right now I am writing a blog post citing an academic psychology paper, even though I can only claim a lay interest in psychology as a field), but by the above definitions it’s about how you balance the intricacy of the art with the directness of the message. I am a trained musician and like to be able to think on some level about culture I produce and consume, but I never want my core statement to be “look how clever I am”. I love punk and pulp culture and will rock a blues or funk groove anytime I feel like it, but if I’m honest anyone looking for down to earth roots music will want to check out other artists first. I bring a lot of charged emotional content to my work (Intense), with calming Mellow elements mostly acting as a counterpoint to that. As for Contemporary, while I bring a lot of pop sensibilities to my current sound I am much more fashion victim than fashion icon, no-one is going to buy my stuff in order to fit in with the crowd.

Location Location

Where would be the perfect setting for someone to experience your music?

Even if you never play live and only release studio recordings, music is an evocative experience which can suggest all kinds of environments and associated emotions.  The most obvious are kinds of live music venues – the grand opera house, the glitzy nightclub, the summer festival… but think beyond the literal.   Does your music lend itself to the mass humanity of the city or the wild expanse of nature?  If urban, are you focused on the lives of the people or cold and impersonal industrialism?  Maybe your ideal location is one you cannot visit except by imagination – a fantasy landscape, a cosmic journey through space or an imagined point in the past or future.  Also worth considering is whether you wish your listener to think of themselves as part of a vast crowd, a more select and intimate group or as an individual enjoying meditative alone time.

To soundtrack composers making musical and production decisions to reflect a particular setting is bread and butter, but it can work the other way as well – even if you set out to just make music freeform without a particular audience in mind, over the course of production you will inevitably have gone to some kind of creative ‘place’ even subconsciously, the same place you are now inviting to the listener to come and explore with you.

Colour Theory and Temperature

Strange as it may seem to apply visual theory to an aural medium (music), thinking about mood in the same way artists and designers do can reveal a lot.  While as artists (musical or otherwise) we like to explore a full spectrum of emotional content, in practice we tend to work more within a palette of related shades – you’re unlikely to explore existential despair and bubbly whimsy at the same time in the same piece of work, and if you do it will be to deliberately mark the contrast.

Take a look at http://www.palettefx.com/ .  This is a tool (there are other similar available) that will analyse any image uploaded into it, breaking it down into the component colours that make it up to show the overall palette.   Try it with your cover art or band photos, those of your main influences, or go on a google image search to find a picture that best conveys the ‘place’ described above.  By way of example, here is the stylised artist photo I used on the back cover of my album Human:Beautiful:

Now think about the “temperature” of the colours you end up with.  In basic terms, reds, oranges, browns and yellows are thought of as “warm” colours, while greens and blues are “cold” (think of a summer sunset versus an icy winter morning).  In emotional terms, warm colours suggest life, passion and intensity, while cold ones feel more distant and aloof.

I recently listened to a really good album by an ambient electronic artist who wanted help confirming his genre niche.  He’d toyed with “space” and “organic” as keywords to describe his sound, but as I heard the album unfold I found much more of the latter than the former. There were a lot of complex world music and acoustic textures suggesting much more life than I would associate with space – even though the album ended with a colder, expansive space soundscape the overall vibe was warm and full of life.  The feedback I left suggested emphasising world (not necessarily this world) and organic while downplaying space (which suggests more cold emptiness than was on display here).

In the case of my artist image above, the colour palette sits around the join between warm pinks and cold blues, in muted pastel shades.  Though I didn’t think of it that way at the time, this actually reflects the mood of the album pretty well – I produced it during a particularly traumatic period in my life when I felt isolated and detached from people I had previously trusted, but with strong emotions and attachment to family and a few close friends.  The palette contains synthetic shades rather than organic greens and oranges (for example), reflecting the largely electronic sound I settled on for the album.  None of this was a conscious decision, but now I think about it the design choices I made at the end of the production process matched the mood of the music on a theoretical level.

Finally, a note on contrast.  Dark and light shades reflect mood in an obvious way, which is why metallers wear black while gospel singers go with white, but how those shades combine hugely affects the mood created. Tonal and visual colour pallettes can be in similar shades, which will give a more calming, intimate feeling, whereas emphasising contrast will jerk you out of your seat to get up and dance.  The ultimate example of the latter is two-tone ska, though the energy that comes from a black-white monochrome contrast has been used a lot elsewhere in music too.  In darker music, such as in the Sisters Of Mercy cover shown below, the contrast is tempered with shades of grey, deep colours or, in this case, a hot passionate red.

How do you like to think about the mood your music creates?  Got any other tips and tricks to share?  Let me know in the comments!

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