What Music Theory Taught Me About Digital Images

I’m blessed to have grown up with two creative interests in my life; music and design. As I alluded to in an earlier post (You’ll probably never realize your full potential as a photographer), my musical training early in life experienced a serious boost when, as a senior in High School, I enrolled in a Music Theory class for a semester.

What I learned about the science behind those wonderful sounds opened up a life-long appreciation and understanding of music. That Music Theory course helped me become a better musician. I understood how major keys sounded positive and inspiring and how minor keys were more serious and moving. I learned why certain chord structures sounded richer than others, and how controlled sound dynamics actually helped tell a story, not just fill the air with notes. My musical world simply opened up after that and has enriched my life ever since.

The very next semester I enrolled in a Graphic Design course, which I enjoyed equally as well. It was during this semester that I realized that communication skills were the key to fully experiencing life. In High School I had a double major going and didn’t realize it.

It was several years later, while working my way through college, that I began really developing my visual communications skills. Design skills came just as easily as music had. I think the mathematical logic behind both arts was what made sense to me.

What I discovered rather quickly was that Music Theory has a paternal twin named Color Theory.

I managed to secure a scholarship serving as the art director and production manager for the college newspaper. Since my part-time employment was as an apprentice pressman at a Miami lithography company, I began applying what I was learning about good design and print production to the school newspaper. I invested many evenings after work just watching and learning the skills of the craftsmen in the camera and stripping departments. That made me a better pressman.

F1 Testing in Valencia - Day One

I began to notice that photographs taken with balanced lighting (good shadow detail and visible highlight detail) produced much better results on press. My art direction and production responsibilities at school actually helped me understand the challenges of my customers at work, and my job as a pressman helped me understand why some photos seemed to jump off the page where others just laid there lifeless. I also got an early education about dot gain (the inevitable darkening of the mid-tones of photos when printed), and quickly learned how to compensate for some of that dot gain during the photo sessions.

The parallel between the mechanics of music and the mechanics of imaging became clear when I purchased a graphic equalizer for my home stereo system. A graphic equalizer is an audio device that allows you to individually boost or diminish individual tones of sound to shape the overall sound to your own taste. Whereas a simple treble/bass knob (called a parametric EQ) simply amplified either the high or low notes, the graphic EQ allowed me to individually adjust specific parts of the musical spectrum.

This Graphic Equalizer was the key that made my stereo system the one that all of my friends wanted to come listen to. I had the ability to shape the sound so that the bass (very low) notes were very punchy, but not “boomy,” the middle tones (vocals and solo instruments) were clear and distinct, and the treble (very high) notes were precise but not shrill. Taking the boom out of the bass allowed us to play music loud without getting a headache or annoying the neighbors. Imagine that! Clean bass. Hmm-m.

It was then that I understood that what was true for my sound system was also true for my visual graphics. It became evident that shadow tones in an image needed the same tonal separation and contrast that kept the bass notes clean in my sound system. When I distinguished between the shadow point (THE very darkest tone in an image) and the three-quarter tones (litho term referring to darker tones between the shadow point and the middle tones), my images suddenly revealed serious detail.

The very audio control process (ironically called a “graphic” equalizer) that allowed me to further shape the middle frequencies and high-end tones for audible clarity is an ideal illustration of how you can take control of visual tones, bringing out tons of latent (present but not visible) detail in your digital images. You’ll be amazed at the detail you can uncover throughout the tonal range of your digital images.

In future posts I’ll tell you how to recognize, distinguish, and separate these tones. Each image has a personality. It’s up to you to clarify it. You’re going to fall in love with shaping each of your images. There is more information in your images than perhaps you realize. Take control of your images, push some pixels around, and take the muddiness out of your shadow detail.

If you appreciate abstract photo rendering, you might enjoy the shadow detail in this imageXpression rendering of the Red Bull race car above.


See you next time, Herb



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PS. if you have an iPad and are interested in learning about more about the fundamentals of digital photography, I suggest that you take a look at my Accurate Color iBook in the iTunes Store


About Herb Paynter

Herb is a published author, photographer, retoucher, color reproduction specialist and a regular writer for Digital Photography School. Download his iBook "Digital Color Photography: A Deeper Look" from the iTunes store and view his Light and Color Fundamentals video series at GottaKnowVideos.com.
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