Expressing Music in Visual Language

By Vieth, Ken | School Arts, May-June 1998 | Go to article overview

Expressing Music in Visual Language


Vieth, Ken, School Arts


Music can greatly affect our moods and emotions. Historically, artists have been challenged to interpret the impact of music into visual statements. To explore the idea of expressing music with high school students, I divided the concept into two projects. The first was an observational drawing of musical instruments set up in the classroom. This focused on improving students' skills of observing and representing what they were actually seeing. The second part was an expressive color project that was more challenging. Making the leap from observational drawing of what is real to personal interpretation and expression of a given subject is a desired outcome of visual artists. Encouraging high school students to be more expressive requires a thoughtful approach to the structure of the assignment.

Observational Pencil Drawings

For the first assignment, I borrowed a variety of musical instruments from the high school music department and with the help of the band director we hung the instruments from the ceiling. To ensure their safety and security, we used 20 lb. nylon fishing line. Because the spatial relationship between each instrument was important, this was emphasized by the careful placement of each piece. The nylon thread, which was more visible than expected, added an unexpected division of the negative air space. Some students incorporated these negative spaces into their compositions.

Each student began with an observational pencil drawing, by focusing on one section of a musical instrument. This was done as a line drawing, using a 2B pencil on 18 x 24" (46 x 61 cm) white vellum paper (80 lb). Next the students chose black and white media to develop the image further. Some of the various materials used were pen and ink, felt tip marker, black and white pastels, and drawing pencils, 4H through 6B. (Note: For a discussion of pencils and paper see HandOut in the February issue of SchoolArts.) This was intended to be more of an experimental use of the materials than a value study exercise. We listened to Classical music throughout each class period to add to the overall ambiance. This work was completed in about eight, forty-minute class periods and resulted in large, impressive visual statements.

An Artistic Response to Music

During the time of this first drawing assignment, some very important information was shared on a daily basis. I asked the students to begin thinking about how they could express qualities of music. Also, while finishing this black and white study, the students decided which kind of music they would choose to develop into their color expression. I also showed them examples by other artists who had responded to music in their art. The students thought about the kinds of art materials that would help them to reflect on the style of music they chose.

I asked the class to create a two-dimensional, expressive work of art that reflected the qualities of a style of music. After selecting a style of music they began to interpret it through the use of color, line, form, or texture. …

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