Visual works by RUTH MONTGOMERY with ELOISE GARLAND, a deaf musician with chromesthesia.

One of the things that I love about being a musician is being able to explore music of many cultures and eras throughout history, from renaissance through to the baroque, classical, romantic, modern, pop, and jazz eras.

exposure to music

By reading and accessing a huge range of music, the evolution of writing systems and common performance practices is revealed. The chromatic scale system (which is made up of twelve separate notes) is the basis of Western classical music, and derived from this are major and minor scales and key signatures. Scales are almost like choosing colours from a palette; they help to create various distinctive moods, atmospheres and tonal flavors within music.

During my childhood, I found it fascinating that the members of my family (who are hearing) could naturally listen to and distinguish between major and minor scales, and therefore identify whether a piece of music was in a major or a minor key. Musicians (and many non-musicians) develop a sense of pattern in which they can hear the gaps between tones and semitones in music – and it is these patterns that make up the type of key that the piece is written in, thus giving it its mood, atmosphere, and tonal flavour. These patterns can be heard in everything from nursery rhymes to church music, film music, and even television adverts.

Generally speaking, a major key has a bright sound that people often describe as cheerful, inspiring, exciting, or fun.  A minor key is more likely to sound sad, ominous, or mysterious.  Of course, other musical patterns can be derived from the chromatic scale system, including blues scales (seen commonly in jazz music) and pentatonic scales (common in both Western and World Music e.g. Chinese music).  For me, knowing the variety of scales/key signatures is important as they guide me in how to shape and interpret the music as a performer.

In this series, I strip to the basic building blocks of music by looking solely at scale patterns.  Although scales are traditionally written out on staves (lined music) and supported by key signatures, I used hexagon cut-outs to visually show the patterns of four types of common Western scale – major, minor harmonic, minor melodic, and arpeggios (broken chords). Using this technique reveals the mathematic properties of Western scales.

The colours used in this project are taken from the mind of professional musician, Eloise Garland.  Although she has hearing loss, Eloise has an involuntary mixture of senses, called ‘chromesthesia’, which causes her to visualise an individual colour for every note in the chromatic scale system. Following these colours helps with recognising scale patterns, including identifying enharmonic notes (notes which sound the same to the listener but are written differently on the stave and hold different meanings within the music). Using Eloise’s colours with my notation patterns revealed a piece of work that was both beautiful and practical.

With Deaf musician, Eloise Garland – colours relating to synaesthesia

note colour note Colour note colour note  


Cb Black E Yellow G Green B# Bluey siliver
C White E# Bright yellow G# Grass green Bb Muddy blue
C# Light grey Eb Dull yellow Gb Dark green
D Royal blue F Purple A Red
D# Bluey green F# Lilac Ab Rust
Db Navy blue Fb Plum B Bright blue

A scale is an ascending or descending sequence of small intervals. In Western music, those intervals are known as tones (whole steps) and semi-tones (half steps). In order to identify a specific scale, you need to know its unique sequence of intervals. A typical simple Western scale (known to musicians as being ‘diatonic’) will always consist of five tones and two semitones. Therefore, recognising a type of scales relies on being able to identify the position of the two semitones.

Picture 1: The Major Scale


Interpreting this piece of work isn’t as hard as you would think – simply start in the bottom left-hand corner on the white hexagon (labelled C) and work your way up diagonally to the dark blue hexagon (D), and up again to yellow (E), and so on. The larger gaps represent the tones (whole steps), whilst the smaller gaps represent the semitones (half steps). This shows that a major scale is made up of tone/tone/semitone/tone/tone/tone/semitone. Therefore, the position of the two semitones (E-F and B-C) can be easily visually identified, enabling us to recognise the type of scale as being ‘major’.

Picture 2: The Minor Harmonic Scale


Again, start from the bottom left-hand corner (red hexagon labelled ‘A’) and work your way up to blue (‘B’), white (‘C’), etc. The harmonic minor scale can be seen to have a pattern of tone/semitone/tone/tone/semitone/tone + semitone/semitone.

Picture 3: The Minor Melodic Scale


Working up once more from the bottom left-hand corner, we can see that the melodic minor scale is made up of tone/semitone/tone/tone/tone/tone/semitone.

Picture 4: Major and Minor Arpeggios (Broken Chords)


Major and minor arpeggios (broken chords) ascending and descending are depicted here. The addition of notation shows how the first (known as the ‘root’), third, fifth, and octave notes of the scale make up an arpeggio. This particular image can be interpreted by starting in the bottom left hand corner, but this time coming back down again to the lower right hand corner after reaching the middle.



The whole display at Arlington Arts Centre, Newbury, UK.