Composing the New Canon: Music, Harmony, Proportion

Ohne Musik wäre das Leben ein Irrtum

—Friedrich NIETZSCHE, Götzen-Dämmerung, Sprüche und Pfeile 33, 1889

Somehow, music is hardcoded in human beings. It is something we understand and respond to without prior knowledge. Music exercises the emotions and our imaginative reflex, not just our hearing. It behaves so much like our emotions that music can seem to symbolize them, to bear them from one person to another. Not surprisingly, it conjures memories: the word music derives from Greek μουσική (mousike), art of the Muses, whose mythological mother was Mnemosyne, memory. But it can also summon up the blood, console the bereaved, inspire fanaticism, bolster governments and dissenters alike, help us learn, and make web designers dance. And what would Christmas be without music?

Music moves us, often in ways we can’t explain. By some kind of alchemy, music frees us from the elaborate nuisance and inadequacy of words. Across the world and throughout recorded history – and no doubt well before that – people have listened and made (and made out to) music.

[I]t appears probable that the progenitors of man, either the males or females or both sexes, before acquiring the power of expressing their mutual love in articulate language, endeavoured to charm each other with musical notes and rhythm.

—Charles DARWIN, The Descent of Man, and Selection in Relation to Sex, 1871

It’s so integral to humankind, we’ve sent it into space as a totem for who we are. (Who knows? It might be important.) Music is essential, a universal compulsion; as Nietzsche wrote, without music life would be a mistake.

Music, design and web design

There are some obvious and notable similarities between music and visual design. Both can convey mood and evoke emotion but, even under close scrutiny, how they do that remains to a great extent mysterious. Each has formal qualities or parts that can be abstracted, analysed and discussed, often using the same terminology: composition, harmony, rhythm, repetition, form, theme; even colour, texture and tone.

A possible reason for these shared aspects is that both visual design and music are means to connect with people in deep and lasting ways. Furthermore, I believe the connections to be made can complement direct emotional appeal. Certain aesthetic qualities in music work on an unconscious and, it could be argued, universal level. Using musical principles in our designs, then, can help provide the connectedness between content, device and user that we now seek as web designers.

Yet, when we talk about music and web design, the conversation is almost always about the music designers listen to while working, a theme finding its apotheosis in Designers.MX. Sometimes, articles in that dreary list format seek inspiration from music industry websites. There’s even a service offering pre-templated web designs for bands, and at least one book surveyed the landscape back in 2006. Occasionally, discussions broaden somewhat into whether and how different kinds of music can inspire and influence the design work we produce.

Such enquiries, it seems to me, are beside the point. Do I really design differently when I listen to Bach rather than Bacharach? Will the barely restrained energy of Count Basie’s The Kid from Red Bank mean I choose a lively colour palette, and rural, autumnal shades when inspired by Fleet Foxes? Mahler means a thirteen-column layout? Gillian Welch leads to distressed black and white photography? While reflecting the importance we place in music and how it seems to help us in our work, surveys on musical taste and lists of favourite artists fail to recognize that some of the fundamental aesthetic characteristics of music can be adapted and incorporated into modern web design.

Antiphonal geometry

Over recent years, web designers have embraced grid systems as powerful tools to help create good-looking and intuitive user experiences. With the advent of responsive design, these grids and their contents must adapt to the different screen sizes and properties of all kinds of user devices. Finding and using grid values that can scale well and retain or enhance their proportions and relationships while making the user experience meaningful in several different contexts is more important than ever.

In print, this challenge has always started with the dimensions and proportions of the page. Content can thereby be made to belong inside the page and be bound to it. And music has been used for centuries to further this aim. As Robert Bringhurst says in The Elements of Typographical Style:

Indeed, one of the simplest of all systems of page proportions is based on the familiar intervals of the diatonic scale. Pages that embody these basic musical proportions have been in common use in Europe for more than a thousand years.

Very well. But while he goes on to list (from the full chromatic scale, rather than just diatonic) the proportions and the musical intervals they’re based on, Bringhurst fails to mention what they’re ratios of or their potential effects. Shame. In his favour, however, he later touches on how proportions in print might be considered to work:

The page is a piece of paper. It is also a visible and tangible proportion, silently sounding the thoroughbass of the book. On it lies the textblock, which must answer to the page. The two together – page and textblock – produce an antiphonal geometry. That geometry alone can bond the reader to the book. Or conversely, it can put the reader to sleep, or put the reader’s nerves on edge, or drive the reader away.

So what does Bringhurst mean by antiphonal geometry, a phrase that marries the musical to the spatial? By stating that the textblock “must answer to the page”, the implication is that the relationship between the proportions of the page and the shape of the textblock printed on it embodies a spatial (geometrical) call-and-response (antiphony) that can be appealing or not.

Boulton’s new canon

But, as Mark Boulton has pointed out, on the web “there are no edges. There are no ‘pages’. We’ve made them up.” So, what is to be done? In January 2011 at the New Adventures in Web Design conference, Boulton presented his vision of a new canon of web design, a set of principles to guide us as we design the web. There are three overlapping tenets:

  1. design from the content out
  2. create connectedness between the different content elements
  3. bind the content to the web device

Rather than design from the edges in, we need to design layout systems from the content out. To this end, Boulton asserts that grid system design should begin with a constraint, and he suggests we use the size of a fixed content element, such as an advertising unit or image, as a starting point for online grid calculations. Khoi Vinh advocates the same approach in his book, Ordering Disorder: Grid Principles for Web Design.

Boulton’s second and third tenets, however, are more complex and overlap significantly with each other. Connecting the different parts of the content and binding the content to the device share many characteristics and solutions:

  • adopting ems and percentages as units of size for layout elements
  • altering text size, line length and line height for different viewport dimensions
  • providing higher resolution images for devices with greater pixel densities
  • fluid layout grids, flexible images and responsive design

All can help relate the presentation of the content to its delivery in a certain context.

But how do we determine the relationship between one element of a layout and another? How can we avoid making arbitrary decisions about the relative sizes of parts of our designs? What can we use to connect the parts of our design to one another, and how can we bind the presentation of the content to the user’s device?

Tim Brown’s application of modular typographic scales hints at an answer. In the very useful tool he created for calculating such scales, Brown includes two musical ratios: the perfect fifth (2:3); and the perfect fourth (3:4). Why? Where do they come from? And what do they mean?

Harmonies musical and visual

Fundamental to music are rhythm and harmony.

As any drummer will tell you, without rhythm there is no music. Even when there’s no regular beat, any tune follows a rhythm, however irregular, simply because a change of note is a point of change in the music. Although rhythm, timing and pacing are all relevant to interaction design, right now it’s harmony we’re interested in.

Sometimes harmony is called the vertical aspect of music, and melody the horizontal. But this conceit overlooks the fact that harmony is both vertical and horizontal. A single melodic line, as it is played, implies various sets of harmonies on which it is grounded, whether or not those harmonies are played. So, harmony doesn’t just sit vertically beneath the horizontal melody, but moves horizontally as well, through harmonic progression.

To stretch this arrangement pixel-thin, we could argue that in onscreen design melody is the content, and the layout and arrangement of the content is the harmony. We sometimes say a design is harmonious when the interplay of different elements of a design is pleasing or balanced or in proportion, and the content (the melody) is set off or conveyed well by or appropriate to the design.

We seem to know instinctively whether a layout is harmonious…

Screenshot of The Great Discontent website.In the design of The Great Discontent, the relationships between different elements combine to form a balanced whole.

…or not.

Screenshot of the UK government’s Department for Education website.There’s no harmony in the Department for Education’s website because the different parts of the content don’t feel related to one another.

What is it that makes one design harmonious and another dissonant? It’s not just whether things line up, though that’s a start. I believe there are much deeper aesthetic forces at work, forces we can tap into in our onscreen designs. Now, I’m not going start a difficult discussion about aesthetics. For our purposes, we just need to know that it’s the branch of philosophy dealing with the nature of beauty, and the creation and perception of beauty. And among the key components in the perception of beauty are harmony and proportion. These have been part of traditional western aesthetics since Plato (about 2,500 years).

One of the ways we appreciate the beauty of music is through the harmonic intervals we hear. A musical interval is a combination of two notes and it describes the distance between the two pitches. For example, the distance between C and the G above it (if we take C as the tonic or root) is called a perfect fifth.

On the left, a piano keyboard with middle C and the G above it highlighted; on the right, a computer keyboard with the C and G highlighted.Left: C to G, a perfect fifth. Right: C and G, not a perfect fifth.

And, to get superficially scientific for a moment, each musical interval can be expressed as a ratio of the wavelength frequencies of the notes; for our perfect fifth, with every two wavelengths of C, there are three of G. And what is a ratio, if not a proportion of one thing to another?

So, simple musical harmony (using what’s known as just intonation1) affords us a set of proportions, expressed as ratios. Where better to apply these ideas of harmony and proportion from music in web design, than grid systems?

A digression: whither φ?

Quite often in our discussions of pure design and aesthetics, we mention the golden ratio and regurgitate the same justifications for its use: roots in antiquity; embodied in classical and Renaissance architecture and art; occurrence in nature; the New Twitter, and so forth (oh, really?).

Yet the ratios of musical intervals from just intonation are equally venerable and much more widespread: described by Pythagorus; employed in Palladian architecture, and printing, books and art from the Renaissance onwards; in modern times, film and television dimensions; standard international paper sizes (ISO 216, the A and B series); and, again and again, screen dimensions – chances are that screen you’re probably looking at right now has the proportions 2:3 (iPhone and iPod Touch), 3:4 (iPad and Kindle), 3:5 (many smartphones), 5:8 or 16:9 (many widescreen monitors), all ratios of musical intervals.

Back to our theme…

Musical interval ratios

Let’s take a look at most of the ratios within a couple of octaves and crunch some numbers to generate some percentages and other values that we can use in our designs. First, the intervals and their ratios in just intonation and expressed as ratios of one:

Name Interval in C Ratio Ratio (1:x)
unison C→C 1:1 1:1
minor second C→D♭ 15:16 1:1.067
major second C→D 8:9 1:1.125
minor third C→E♭ 5:6 1:1.2
major third C→E 4:5 1:1.25
perfect fourth C→F 3:4 1:1.333
augmented fourth
or diminished fifth
C→F♯/G♭ 1:√2 1:1.414
perfect fifth C→G 2:3 1:1.5
minor sixth C→A♭ 5:8 1:1.6
major sixth C→A 3:5 1:1.667
minor seventh C→B♭ 9:16 1:1.778
major seventh C→B 8:15 1:1.875
octave C→C 1:2 1:2
major tenth C→E 2:5 1:2.5
major eleventh C→F 3:8 1:2.667
major twelfth C→G 1:3 1:3
double octave C→C 1:4 1:4
Name Interval in C Ratio Ratio (1:x)

And now as percentages, of both the larger and smaller values in the ratios:

Name Ratio % of larger value % of smaller value
unison 1:1 100% 100%
minor second 15:16 93.75% 106.667%
major second 8:9 88.889% 112.5%
minor third 5:6 83.333% 120%
major third 4:5 80% 125%
perfect fourth 3:4 75% 133.333%
augmented fourth
or diminished fifth
1:√2 70.711% 141.421%
perfect fifth 2:3 66.667% 150%
minor sixth 5:8 62.5% 160%
major sixth 3:5 60% 166.667%
minor seventh 9:16 56.25% 177.778%
major seventh 8:15 53.333% 187.5%
octave 1:2 50% 200%
major tenth 2:5 40% 250%
major eleventh 3:8 37.5% 266.667%
major twelfth 1:3 33.333% 300%
double octave 1:4 25% 400%
Name Ratio % of larger value % of smaller value

As you can see, the simple musical intervals are expressed as ratios of small whole numbers (integers). We can then normalize them as ratios of one, as well as derive percentage values, both in terms of the smaller value to the larger, and vice versa. These are the numbers we can incorporate into our designs. If you’ve ever written something like body { font: 100%/1.5 "Museo Sans", Helvetica, sans-serif; } in your CSS, you’re already using a musical ratio: the perfect fifth.

Modular scales allow us to generate a set of numbers based on a musical interval that can be used for all kinds of typographic and layout decisions to create harmony in a visual design for the web. As Tim Brown said at the 2010 Build conference:

I think that from that most atomic unit – type – whole experiences can resonate, whole experiences can be harmonious. And whole experiences can have a purpose suited to our design intentions.

Once more, with feeling: connectedness

As well as modular scales, there are other methods of incorporating musical interval ratios into our work. Setting the ratio of font size to line height in CSS is one such example. We could also create a typographic hierarchy using the same principle and combining several ratios that we know harmonize well musically in a chord:

body { font-size: 75%; } /* =12px = base size or tonic */

h1 { font-size: 32px; font-size: 2.667rem; }
   /* =32px = 3:8 = major eleventh (C→F↑) */

h2 { font-size: 24px; font-size: 2rem; }
   /* =24px = 1:2 = octave (C→C↑) */

h3 { font-size: 20px; font-size: 1.667rem; }
   /* =20px = 3:5 = major sixth (C→A) */

figcaption, small { font-size: 9px; font-size : 0.75rem }
   /* =9px = 3:4 = perfect fourth (C→F) */

Whoa! Hold your reindeer, Santa! How can we know what interval combinations work well together to form chords? Well, I’m a classically trained musician, so perhaps I have an advantage. To avoid a long, technically complex digression into musical harmony, here are a few basic combinations of intervals that are harmonious in one way or another:

  • unison; major third; perfect fifth; octave
  • unison; perfect fourth; major sixth; octave
  • unison; minor third; minor sixth; octave
  • unison; minor third; diminished fifth; major sixth; octave

This isn’t to say that other combinations can’t be used to interesting effect and particular purpose – they surely can – but I have to make sure there’s something left for you to experiment with in the wee small hours over the holiday. Bear in mind, though, were I to play you two notes from the same scale to form a minor second, for example, you’d probably say it was dissonant and maybe that quality of the 15:16 ratio would be translated to the design.

In the typographic hierarchy above, you’ll notice I used an interval in the higher octave, which affords a broader range of ratios while retaining the harmony. Thus, a perfect fifth (2:3) becomes a major twelfth (1:3), or a major sixth (3:5) becomes a major thirteenth (3:10).

The harmonic ratios can obviously be used as proportions for layout as well, in several different ways:

  • image width and height (for example, 450×800px = 9:16 = minor seventh)
  • main content to page width (67%:100% = 2:3 = perfect fifth)
  • page width to viewport width (80%:100% = 4:5 = major third)

One great benefit of using such ratios in web design work is that they can be applied in responsive web design. Proportional values, based on percentages or equivalent em units, will scale with changing viewports, so your layout and image proportions can be maintained or deliberately changed, as we’re about to find out, across devices.

Small speakers, tall speakers: binding to the device

The musical interval ratios also provide an opportunity, not only to create connectedness between the parts of a layout, but to bind the content to a device – that elusive antiphonal geometry. Just as a textblock and page resonate together, so too can web content and the screen. Earlier, I mentioned that several common screen aspect ratios match musical interval ratios. It would seem, then, that we have a set of proportions that we can use in different ways to establish and retain a sense of harmony that can be based on and change with those contexts. Using musical interval ratios, we can bind the display of our content to the device it’s displayed on.

If you haven’t met already, let me introduce you to the device-aspect-ratio property of CSS media queries.

@media only screen and (device-aspect-ratio: 3/4) { }
@media only screen and (device-aspect-ratio: 480/640) { }
@media only screen and (device-aspect-ratio: 600/800) { }
@media only screen and (device-aspect-ratio: 768/1024) { }

Regardless of the precise pixel values, each of these media queries would apply to devices whose display area has an aspect ratio of 3:4. It works by comparing the device-width with the device-height. (It’s not to be confused with aspect-ratio, which is defined by the width and height of the browser within the device.) The values in the media query are always presented as width/height, with portrait being the default orientation for smartphones and tablets; that is, to match an iPhone screen, you’d use device-aspect-ratio: 2/3, not 3/2, which won’t work.

Here’s a table of the musical intervals with their corresponding screens.

Name device-aspect-ratio Screens Common resolutions (pixels)
major third 5/4 TFT LCD computer screens 1,280×1,024
perfect fourth 3/4 or 4/3 iPad, Kindle and other tablets, PDAs 320×240, 768×1,024
perfect fifth 2/3 iPhone, iPod Touch 320×480, 640×960
minor sixth 8/5 (16/10) Many widescreens 1,152×720, 1,440×900, 1,920×1,200
major sixth 3/5 Many smartphones 240×400, 480×800
minor seventh 16/9 or 9/16 Many widescreens and some smartphones 720×1,280, 1,366×768, 1,920×1,080, 2,560×1,440

[You might argue that I’m playing fast and loose with the ratios. I suppose, mathematically speaking, 9:16 is not the same as 16:9: I’m no expert. But let’s not throw the baby out with the bath water, particularly at Christmas.]

With this in mind, we can begin to write media queries that will influence various typographic and layout values in line with the aspect ratios of specific screens and in combination with em-based min-width queries that work from smaller, mobile screens to larger, desktop screens.

Here’s a very simple demo page with only some text, an image with a caption and a little basic layout: no seasonal overindulgence here.

Demo: Sample page using device-aspect-ratio media queries based on musical interval ratios

Our initial styles for all devices are based on the perfect fifth, with the major third and octave rounding things out into a harmonious whole, whether or not media queries are supported. For example:

html { font-size: 100%; line-height: 1.5; }
   /* font-size:line-height = 16:24 = 2:3 = perfect fifth */

h1 { font-size: 32px; font-size: 2rem; line-height: 1.25; }
   /* font-size:line-height = 32:40 = 4:5 = major third
      body:h1 = 16:32 = 1:2 = octave */

While we should really consider methods of delivering images appropriate to the screen size, let’s just stick to a single image for all devices. But why don’t we change its aspect ratio from 4:3 to 3:2, to fit with our harmonic scheme? It’s easy enough to do with overflow:hidden on the <figure> element to hide a part of the image, and a negative margin fudge:

figure img { margin: -8.5% 0 0 0; width: 100%; max-width: 100%; }

Our first break point targets devices 320 pixels wide with an aspect ratio of 2:3, namely the iPhone and iPod Touch:

/* 320px = 20×16 */
@media only screen and (min-width: 20em) and (device-aspect-ratio: 2/3) { }

We’re actually already there, of course, as the intervals we’ve chosen resonate with this aspect ratio – the content is already bound to the device.

Our next media query, then, will make some changes to match a different ratio, the major sixth (3:5), which is same as that of many smartphones:

/* 480px = 30×16 */
@media only screen and (min-width: 30em) and (device-aspect-ratio: 3/5) { }

A different aspect ratio might require a change in harmony. For devices with these proportions, we’ll now use the perfect fourth (3:4) and the major sixth (3:5) along with the octave we already have to create a new resonating harmony. For instance, a slightly wider screen means we can increase the line-height to aid the legibility of longer lines:

html { line-height: 1.667; }
   /* font-size:line-height = 16:26.672 = 3:5 = major sixth */

h1 { font-size: 32px; font-size: 2rem; line-height: 1.667; }
   /* font-size:line-height = 32:53.333 = 3:5 = major sixth
      body:h1 = 16:32 = 1:2 = octave */

and we can remove the negative margin to display our 4:3 image in its entirety.

Mock-ups of the demo page on white iPhone 4 (left) and Samsung Nexus S (right).Each screen displays content styled using relationships related to its own proportions. On the left, an iPhone 4 (2:3); on the right, a Samsung Nexus S (3:5). Your mileage may vary.

Another device, another media query. At 768 pixels, screens are wide enough to add columns. The ratios we’ve used for the 3:5 screens include the perfect fourth (3:4) so we don’t need to change any of the font measurements, but we can base the proportions of the columns on the major sixth interval:

article { float: left; width: 56%; }
   /* width of main column 3:5 (60% of 100%, major sixth)
      incorporating gutter width */

aside { float : right; width : 36%; }

Mock-up of the demo page on an iPad in landscape orientation.On devices with a 3:4 aspect ratio, this works even better in landscape orientation.

While not every screen over 768 pixels wide will have 3:4 proportions, the range of intervals informing the design ensure harmonious relationships between the different parts of the layout.

For wide screens proper (break point at 1,280 pixels) we can employ a new set of harmonious intervals. Many laptop and desktop screens have a 16:10 aspect ratio, which boils down to 8:5, equivalent to the minor sixth (5:8). Combined with a minor third (5:6) and the octave (1:2), this creates a new harmony appropriate to these devices. Let’s increase the font size and change the image’s aspect ratio to match:

html { font-size: 120%; line-height: 1.6; }
   /* font-size increased for wider screens from 16px to 19.2px
      (5:6 = minor third)
      font-size:line-height = 19.2:30.72 = 5:8 = minor sixth */

figure img { margin: -12.5% 0 0 ; }	
   /* using -ve margin combined with overflow:hidden
      on the figure element
      to crop the image from 4:3 to 8:5 = minor sixth */

Mock-up of the demo page on a MacBook Pro.A wide screen with a 8:5 (16:10) aspect ratio and an image to match.

With more pixels at our disposal, we can also now use the musical interval ratios to determine the width of the layout, and change the column proportions as well:

section { margin: 0 auto; width: 83.333%; }
   /* content width:screen width = 5:6 = minor third */

article { width: 60%; }
   /* width of main column 5:8 (62.5% of 100%, minor sixth)
      incorporating gutter width */

aside { width: 35%; }

With some carefully targeted media queries, we can begin to reach towards fulfilling the second and third tenets of Boulton’s new canon for web design: connecting the parts of content through relationships embodied in the layout design; and binding the content to the devices people use to access it.

Coda

Musical interval ratios and screen aspect ratios reveal more than convenient correspondence. These proportions work on a deep aesthetic level. Much is claimed for the golden ratio φ, but none of the screens pervading our lives use it. Perhaps that’s an accident of technology, but can making screens to φ’s proportions be more difficult or expensive than 2:3 or 3:4 or 16:10? Here, then, is not just one but a set of proportions with a uniquely human focus, originating in nature, recognized in antiquity, fundamental still.

We find music to be an art steeped with meaning, yet, unlike literary and representational arts, purely instrumental music has no obvious semantic content. It boasts an ability to express emotions while remaining an abstract art in some sense, which makes it very like design. These days, we’re rightly encouraged to design for emotion, to make our users’ experience meaningful, seductive, delightful. Using musical ideas and principles in our designs can help achieve those ends.

Let’s not be naïve, of course; designing web pages is even less like composing music than it’s like designing for print. In visual design, the eye will always be sovereign to the ear; following these principles will only get us so far. We cannot truly claim that a carefully composed web page layout will have the same qualities and effect as any musical patterns that inform it. In music, a set of intervals is always harmonious in relation to other sets of intervals: music rarely stands still. What aspect ratios will future screens take? Already today there is great variation in devices and support for media queries (and within that, support for device-aspect-ratio). And what of non-western musical traditions? Or rhythm, form, tempo and dynamics? What I’ve demonstrated above is only a suggestion, a tentative exploration of one possible way forward.

But as our discipline matures and we become more articulate about what we do, we must look longer and deeper into areas of human endeavour already rich with value. Music is a fertile ground to explore and has the potential to yield up new approaches for web design.

Footnotes

  1. Just intonation is a system of tuning that uses small integers to describe the musical intervals, based initially on the perfect fifth, that most consonant of intervals. Simple instruments such as vibrating strings and natural horns, as well as unaccompanied voices, tend to fall into just intonation naturally.

About the author

Owen Gregory is an editor, website designer and musician living in Birmingham, UK. He started designing for the web in 1998 and established his small business Full Cream Milk in 2006. Prior to that, Owen studied English and writing to master’s level, and he now brings these two interests together for your friendly neighbourhood web book publishers, like Five Simple Steps. He tweets as @FullCreamMilk because FullCreamMilkMan is too long for Twitter.

Owen is what is sometimes called a classically trained musician, and he plays oboe and cor anglais (neither English nor a horn) in a number of non-professional orchestras.

Oh, and Andy Clarke once thanked Owen for “being Lewis to my Morse”. Which is better than being Robin to his Batman.

More articles by Owen

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