The Elemental Power of Songs About the Weather

Pop music might overuse sunny skies and rainy days. But it’s also the artform most suited for making the natural world seem alive.

Joel Ryan / AP

Perhaps it was a dark and stormy night when six academics set out to study weather’s role in pop music lyrics, or maybe it was one fine morning. It doesn’t really matter, does it? Someone using a Spotify account in an underground bunker free of barometric fluctuations could have come up with the same conclusion the Tyndall Centre for Climate Change Research team did: “There is a universal and strong effect of weather and climate in popular musical culture.”

To arrive at this idea, scientists analyzed the lyrics to more than 15,000 songs in a karaoke database and found that 419 tracks include words like “rain,” “sun,” “thunder,” “heat,” and “frost.” Researchers also threw in another 340 songs based on other databases and their own memory, giving them a bigger sample from which to study how weather tends to function in songs. One finding: Climate words are generally associated with major keys, “sunshine” even more so, and “rainbows” even more again. The study’s authors also think it’s possible that specific weather events lead to weather songs; they say the 1950s and 1960s were a time of unusually severe atmospheric conditions in the U.S., and the music of the time reflects that. (Or maybe, the paper doesn’t consider, the early rock lyricists had yet to tire of rhyming “rain” with “pain.”)

According to the researchers’ data set—again, the entries in a karaoke book plus other songs that occurred to them (they’re still soliciting suggestions)—the songwriters most likely to reference weather are Bob Dylan, John Lennon, and Paul McCartney. Which is a bit surprising for anyone who think of those folks as some of the truest geniuses to ever sing over guitar. After all, art about the weather is broadly seen as cheapo, lazy, and intolerably sentimental. Paintings of sunsets, stories that open with “it was a dark and stormy night” (ahem), movie kisses in downpours—these aren’t just clichés, they’re clichés used to illustrate the concept of cliché.

For a defense of our rock gods, it might help to turn to the foundational critic of weather imagery in art, the 19th-century writer John Ruskin. In an 1856 essay, he coined the term “pathetic fallacy” for when authors act as though the natural world reflects or possesses human traits. “Nature must be gladsome when I was so happy” from Jane Eyre is an example of pathetic fallacy; so are the words to the song featured in the title of the Southampton study, the Cascades song “Rhythm of the Rain”:

Listen to the rhythm of the falling rain
Telling me just what a fool I've been
I wish that it would go and let me cry in vain
And let me be alone again

Despite the connotations of the words “pathetic” and “fallacy” today, Ruskin didn’t fully condemn writing like this. “If we think over our favorite poetry, we shall find it full of this kind of fallacy, and that we like it all the more for being so,” he said.

As Ruskin saw it, the fundamental difference between hackwork and brilliance was the sincerity, or perceived sincerity, of the person comparing the inanimate to the animate. Pathetic fallacy is fallacy because it’s false; when Alton Locke wrote that “They rowed her in across the rolling foam—The cruel, crawling foam,” he was incorrect to describe the foam as cruel or crawling. However, Ruskin argued, “The state of mind which attributes to it these characters of a living creature is one in which the reason is unhinged by grief.” Readers know that they are reading an untrue description, but they believe the narrator to be so overcome by emotion that he misperceives the foam to be cruel. Which actually makes the description wonderful, evocative, moving.

The terrible flipside of this was authors who defaulted to melodramatic personification just for the sake of it. “An inspired writer, in full impetuosity of passion, may speak wisely and truly of ‘raging waves of the sea, foaming out their own shame,’” Ruskin wrote. “But it is only the basest writer who cannot speak of the sea without talking of ‘raging waves,’ ‘remorseless floods,’ ‘ravenous billows,’ etc.” There are four classes of creator, he continued:

The men who feel nothing, and therefore see truly; the men who feel strongly, think weakly, and see untruly (second order of poets); the men who feel strongly, think strongly, and see truly (first order of poets); and the men who, strong as human creatures can be, are yet submitted to influences stronger than they, and see in a sort untruly, because what they see is inconceivably above them. This last is the usual condition of prophetic inspiration.

That second order of poets isn’t hard to find in music; Hilary Duff asking, “let the rain fall down / and wake my dreams” represents metaphor mixing from a cynical songwriting team, no matter how cathartic it sounds blaring from car speakers. But what about Ruskin’s mention of “prophetic inspiration”? I’d put some of the most famous weather songs in that category. Unlike with other forms of art with words, music can convince the audience they’re witnessing a genuine outpouring of feeling via pure sound.

I think of Bill Withers’s “Ain’t No Sunshine” as the ultimate case for pathetic fallacy in music; listening, you know, you know, you know that the singer really does feel as though the sunshine’s left along with his lover. Similarly, “Here Comes the Sun,” written by George Harrison after a long winter filled with dreary business wrangling for the Beatles, uses its instrumentation, melody, and words to communicate the universal—and essentially fallacious—feeling that the world’s happier when the clouds break.

The unsurprising truth is that weather as a lyrical topic can be as inane or as profound as any other. Bob Dylan, who’s referenced the subject in 163 out of his 542 songs, can pull off convincing, sky-related allegory as well as anyone—see “A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall.” But his best weather lyrics are the ones that transcend the category altogether. “Blowin’ in the Wind,” is anything but pathetic fallacy; when he says the answers he seeks are in the wind, he’s speaking factually, or as factually as you can get when talking about the largest questions of human existence. And the ultimate lyric of the climate-obsessed song tradition might be in “Subterranean Homesick Blues,” which goes a long way toward explaining why so many people have participated in that tradition—“You don't need a weatherman to know which way the wind blows.”