Skip to main content

Thank you for visiting You are using a browser version with limited support for CSS. To obtain the best experience, we recommend you use a more up to date browser (or turn off compatibility mode in Internet Explorer). In the meantime, to ensure continued support, we are displaying the site without styles and JavaScript.

Perceptual thresholds

Music inspired Newton's rainbow

Isaac Newton was among the great scientists who took inspiration from music (see Nature 519, 262; 2015). In fact, music drove him to add two new colours to the rainbow.

The medieval rainbow had just five colours: red, yellow, green, blue and violet. Newton added two more — orange and indigo — so that the colours would be “divided after the manner of a Musical Chord” (I. Newton in Opticks 4th edn, 127 (William Innys, 1730); see also K. McLaren Color Res. Application 10, 225–229; 1985).

On a seemingly unrelated note, Ed Hawkins and colleagues make a plea to scrap rainbow colour scales in scientific graphics (Nature 519, 291; 2015). They warn that these palettes can “introduce false perceptual thresholds in the data”.

It was Newton's perception that first introduced new colour thresholds, although these were subjective rather than false. It gives the lie to the old saying that artists see what they believe, but scientists believe what they see.

Author information



Corresponding author

Correspondence to Len Fisher.

Rights and permissions

Reprints and Permissions

About this article

Verify currency and authenticity via CrossMark

Cite this article

Fisher, L. Music inspired Newton's rainbow. Nature 520, 436 (2015).

Download citation


By submitting a comment you agree to abide by our Terms and Community Guidelines. If you find something abusive or that does not comply with our terms or guidelines please flag it as inappropriate.


Quick links

Nature Briefing

Sign up for the Nature Briefing newsletter — what matters in science, free to your inbox daily.

Get the most important science stories of the day, free in your inbox. Sign up for Nature Briefing