Debussy’s Clair de lune: The Classical Music Visualization with 21 Million Views

Not long ago, we fea­tured soft­ware engi­neer and mas­ter of music visu­al­iza­tion Stephen Mali­nows­ki’s graph­i­cal ren­di­tion of Igor Stravin­sky’s The Rite of Spring. Ear­li­er this year, we also offered up a video of the piano-roll record­ing that cap­tured not just the music but the play­ing of Claude Debussy. It so hap­pens that, if you peruse Malinkowski’s Youtube archive of music-visu­al­iza­tion videos, you’ll find more Debussy there­in: a graph­i­cal­ly scored ver­sion of Clair de lune. You see above a high-res­o­lu­tion remake, but do note that the orig­i­nal has by now racked up very near­ly 22 mil­lion views, which, even for such a well-known piece of music (not just the most famous move­ment of Debussy’s Suite berga­masque which con­tains it, but sure­ly one of the most famous works of 19th-cen­tu­ry French music in exis­tence) must count as some­thing of a high score.

You’ll almost cer­tain­ly rec­og­nize the piece itself. But what have we on the screen? Clear­ly each block rep­re­sents a sound from the piano, but what do their col­ors sig­ni­fy? “Each pitch class (C, C‑sharp, D, D‑sharp, etc.) has its own col­or, and the col­ors are cho­sen by map­ping the musi­cian’s ‘cir­cle of fifths’ to the artist’s ‘col­or wheel,’ ” Mali­nows­ki writes in the FAQ below the video, link­ing to a more detailed expla­na­tion of the process on his site. He also rec­om­mends watch­ing not just the Youtube ver­sion, improved its res­o­lu­tion though he has, but the new­er iPad ver­sion: “Because the iPad can sup­port 60 frames per sec­ond (instead of the usu­al 30), the scrolling is silky smooth (the way it’s sup­posed to be), and you can watch it at night, in the dark, in bed. You can get the video here.” The Music Ani­ma­tion Machine cre­ator also address­es per­haps the most impor­tant ques­tion about this piece, orig­i­nal­ly titled Prom­e­nade Sen­ti­men­tale, which has both sig­ni­fied and elicit­ed so much emo­tion over the past cen­tu­ry: “Is it just me, or does this piece make every­one cry?” Mali­nowski’s reply: “Maybe not every­one, but lots of peo­ple…”

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring, Visu­al­ized in a Com­put­er Ani­ma­tion for Its 100th Anniver­sary

Debussy Plays Debussy: The Great Composer’s Play­ing Returns to Life

Col­in Mar­shall hosts and pro­duces Note­book on Cities and Cul­ture and writes essays on lit­er­a­ture, film, cities, Asia, and aes­thet­ics. He’s at work on a book about Los Ange­lesA Los Ange­les Primer. Fol­low him on Twit­ter at @colinmarshall.

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