A Few thoughts on "Visual Harmonies"

During a recent conversations regarding the Golden Ratio, the idea of our ability to instinctively detect “visual harmonies” came up. AS is often the case, these “harmonies” were described as being analogous to musical harmonies. Now while I believe that we indeed experience aesthetic responses to certain visual stimuli when they are combined in certain ways—the idea that we could perceive visually harmonic relationships in the same way that we perceive musical harmonies might be problematic for a significant number of reasons. (Don’t worry, I will not bore you with that laundry list here.)

Harmony can be understood as an aspect of music’s vertical dimension. For example, in Western, tonal classical music (music with a tonic key), the most frequently encountered chords are triads. They are called this because they consist of three distinct “stacked” notes: the root note, and intervals of a third and a fifth above the root note. The manner in which certain frequencies/pitches “align”, or “fit together”, give rise to what we call harmony. Many can easily discriminate the sound of a chord that contains such a coordination of waves from the sound of a group of waves that does not.

So are there visual harmonies that can be observed in “fitting together” in a manner similar to musical ones? Can we discriminate visual primitives (sans context) that are in some harmonious ”alignment” from those that are not? Some proponents of the compositional geometries mentioned yesterday might think so.

Well, within the first image provided here is a group of lines labeled a-g. These lines are divided in a number of ways, one of which is a division that forms the basis for what has been dubbed “The Golden Ratio.” Does it jump out at you? Does the specific division of one of the lines produce a perceived proportional relationship that is distinctly more “harmonious” than the others? Does it elicit some aesthetic response for you?

What if we extended this idea of visual stimuli somehow “fitting together” beyond simple visual primitives like lines, and even the invisible shapes that are often superimposed over masterworks as evidence of “visual harmonies”, and just jumped into actual representations of form? How easily do you think we would be able to discriminate representations of form that are intended to “fit together” in a given context from others that are not? To toy with this idea I have modified the Shepard & Metzler (1971) mental rotation task (shown in the upper left of image 2) into a larger rotation AND combination task. How easily can you determine which construct can fit together with the root (indicated by a star) to form a cube? (I’ve added a version in color to help.)

Now while these exercises are not intended to be significant substantiations for my position on this issue, I do think it might offer a bit of insight as to how claims of such analogs might be problematic.