The bouba-kiki effect: connections between the auditory and visual senses in the musical appreciation

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BackgroundAs an experience of multisensory nature, music has drawn considerable attention in the cross-modal correspondences’ field of study, which comprises the perceptual processes that activate and integrate two or more sensory modalities (Spence, 2011). The bouba-kiki effect, as currently known (Ramachandran & Hubbard, 2001, 2003), is among the first tests involving cross-modal correspondences (Köhler, 1929, 1947). It highlights a connection between the auditory/linguistic and visual senses involving the association of the words “kiki” and “bouba” to abstract images showing angular patterns and rounded patterns, respectively. In musical experience, the kiki image has been associated with high-pitched, strong sounds, rapid movements, strident timbres, excerps from Bizet, Chopin and Vivaldi, and the bouba image with soft sounds, slower movements, fuller timbres and excerpts from Brahms, Mozart and Bach (Adeli, Rouat & Molotchnikoff, 2014; Blazhenkova & Kumar, 2018; Murari et al.,2017).AimsThis study aims to extend previous studies on auditory and visual senses connections in the musical appreciation experience. Specifically, it intends: (i) to verify if the bouba-kiki effect can be replicated when associating the images to complex musical contemporary excerpts; (ii) to provide more empirical data to understand more deeply how cross-modal correspondences occur in the musical experience.MethodA total of 155 participants (M = 36.1 years) predominantly from 2 nationalities (Brazilian and Portuguese) and different musical backgrounds, completed an online questionnaire, which consisted of 18 association tasks. For that purpose, 18 contemporary musical excerpts were previously selected and used as sound stimuli. The visual stimuli comprised the images of kiki and bouba. Participants were asked to listen to each musical excerpt and choose which image that could be associated with (a rounded or an angular image).ResultsBased on the frequency of association between each excerpt and image, three levels were defined: strong (above 90%), medium (between 70% and 89%) and weak (below 70%). Results reveal that, regardless of gender, nationality, or musical experience, 6 musical excerpts were strongly associated with the rounded image (e.g., The swan/ Saint-Saëns) and 1 excerpt with the angular image (Music of changes/ Cage). Also, medium associations occurred in 6 musical excerpts to angular image and 1 excerpt to rounded image. Weaker associations were verified with 4 musical excerpts (e.g., Kangaroo/ Saint-Saëns). A relationship was found between some musical properties and the type of association made. For example, slower excerpts are predominantly associated with the rounded image, and louder excerpts are predominantly associated with the angular image. This finding suggests that cross-modal correspondences involving musical excerpts and images are guided by hierarchical principles of musical organization, where tempo and intensity are the main factors, followed by articulation, timbre, and harmony.ConclusionsThis study extends previous research by offering a more integrated view of the musical experience in the light of cross-modal correspondences. It was possible to identify musical excerpts that are associated with the same two types of intersensory modalities found in the classic studies on bouba-kiki effect. In other words, the melted visual and auditory perception that was found by Kohler (1929; 1947) can be extended to certain contemporary musical excerpts. These findings suggest that the auditory and visual senses seem to be connected in the musical experience in a non-arbitrary way. The association’s type found between musical excerpts and visual shapes might be considered as evidence of an intersensory Gestalt. Future replications of this study are encouraged to broaden the understanding of the cross-cultural nature of audiovisual correspondences and their interaction with other senses. This knowledge could lead to more holistic pedagogies in music education, as well as interesting reflections in the field of musical psychology and cognition.ReferencesAdeli, M. Rouat, J., & Molotchnikoff, S. (2014). Audiovisual correspondence between musical timbres and visual shapes. Frontiers in Human Neuroscience, 8, 1–12.Blazhenkova, O., & Kumar, M. M. (2018). Angular versus curved shapes: Correspondences and emotional processing. Perception, 47(1), 67–89. Köhler, W. (1929). Gestalt Psychology. Liveright, New York, NY, USA.Köhler, W. (1947). Psicologia da Gestalt. (Itatiaia, Ed.). Belo Horizonte: Editora Itatiaia.Murari, M., Schubert, E., Rodà, A., Da Pos, O., & De Poli, G. (2017). How >:( is Bizet? Icon ratings of music. Psychology of Music, 1, 1–12. Ramachandran, V. S., & Hubbard, E. H. (2001). Synaesthesia: window into perception, thought and language. Journal of Consciousness Studies,8(12), 3–34.Ramachandran, V. S., & Hubbard, E. M. (2003). Hearing colors, tasting shapes. Scientific American Mind, 16(3), 16–23. Spence, C. (2011). Crossmodal correspondences: A tutorial review. Attention, Perception, & Psychophysics, 73, 971–995.
Original languageEnglish
Number of pages2
Publication statusPublished - Jul 2021
Event16th International Conference on Music Perception and Cognition: Connectivity and diversity in music cognition - Sheffield, United Kingdom
Duration: 28 Jul 202131 Oct 2021
Conference number: 16


Conference16th International Conference on Music Perception and Cognition
Abbreviated titleICMPC16-ESCOM11
Country/TerritoryUnited Kingdom
Internet address


  • Bouba-kiki effect
  • Multisensory
  • Cross-modal correspondences
  • Musical cognition
  • Musical appreciation


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