Can we see patterns in light frequency?

We can hear patterns in sound frequency. If you were to hear a tone of 220hz, then 440hz, we would recognize their relationship. They are one octave apart. For one note to be an octave above another, it has to be double the original frequency. Thus, we can interpret certain patterns and relationships between different tones. My question is, can we do the same with light? Do we see different “notes”? Is that why certain colors go together (are complimentary… the equivilant to a musical chord?), or why we have the certain primary colors we do?

Not quite the same as the spectrum of visible light is less than a full “octave.” Wavelength ranges from about 400nm for violet to 700nm for red. The relationship between colors or the two different sets of primaries (red, green and blue for additive and cyan, magenta and yello for subtractive) isn’t the same as notes in a scale.

To elaborate we can see patterns in light frequency. See Cecil’s column on Blue Jay’s feathers or the multicolored film of oil on water.

People see in the light spectrum wavelengths of length ~400 nm to ~700 nm, therefore, we can’t see the “octave” effects as with sound.

Harmonies aren’t really noticable, either. The ear has thousands of cilia; hairs of many different lengths to pick up separate frequency ranges. We only have three color receptors (well, some women have four, but that’s a different subject) so, again, we can’t really notice any light “harmonies.”

As far as the primary colors we have, we have 3 kinds of cones in our eyes, the cells that help us distinguish colors. The “blue” receptors are relatively weak, and centered at ~430nm, the “green” receptors are centered at ~530nm, and the “red” receptors are centered at ~560nm. I put the names in quotes, because light of the three wavelengths above look violet, blue-green, and yellow-green, respectively. Signals from these three cell types are coupled together to generate three signals to the brain: a red-versus-green signal, a blue-versus-yellow signal, and a general-brightness signal. Based upon those signals, we see color.

The problem with comparing sight with hearing is that they operate in fundamentally different ways. In the ear we hve what is basically a long “resonance tube” filled with sensoty hairs. It’s coiled into a snail-like spiral (the cochlea), and each frequency/wavelength has its own sensory “signature”.

We sense light with a tri-stimulus response (although, as I’ve said elsewhere, it’s really a good deal more complcated than that. Look up Edwin Land’s “Land effect” and his Retinex theory of color. Guaranteed to screw up your preconceptions of color vision.). Among other things, this means that objects which have entirely different spectral curves can be perceived as the same color. In a way, his is good, because 3-color printing and color monitors with only three colors are a LOT easier to make than color systems that would have to respond uniquely to an entire spectrum of colors. On the downside, though, it means your sense of color is more easily fooled.

In other words, you only hear Middle C" o the piano as Middle C. I can’t hit two other notes and make them sound like Middle C. (And don’t go dragging “beating” into this – you can tell it’s not the same thing.)But I can come up with an infinite combination f colors that all loo like the same shade of violet.