Over the past half-century, climate scientists have learned that the weather leaves behind a hidden history of itself. Through evidence preserved in tree rings, in the gunk at the bottom of lakes, and in towering stalagmites that rise from cave floors, researchers have learned how to read thousands of years of weather history, inferring the existence of long-forgotten rainstorms, hurricanes, and mega-droughts.
Recent research suggests that there may be a similar account hidden in popular music, too. Thursday, at the annual meeting of the American Geophysical Union, the meteorologist Paul Williams presented evidence that a spate of intense hurricanes imprinted themselves on the American songbook.
“In the same way that we have a climatological record of temperature from ice cores, it seems there’s also a kind of climate record in music as well,” said Williams, a professor of atmospheric science at the University of Reading.
His and his colleagues’ main finding turns on two spans of hurricane activity. In the 1950s and 1960s, many large and damaging hurricanes made landfall in the United States, including Hurricanes Dora, Donna, and Camille. Throughout the 1970s and 1980s, there were many fewer high-profile hurricanes, especially in the United States.
Drawing on a karaoke database, Williams and his colleagues found more than 750 pop songs with weather-related lyrics from those four decades.
When times were stormy in the real world, the weather in pop music was darker, too. Almost three-quarters of the weather-themed songs from the 1950s and 1960s had lyrics that emphasized storminess, with frequent use of words like rain, wind, and hurricane. But during the next two decades, only 46 percent of the weather-related songs featured stormy themes. The difference is pronounced enough to be statistically significant.
“That climatological difference over that four-decade period was represented in the songs that were being written,” said Williams. “It does seem to be the case that songwriters are writing about the weather that they’re experiencing on the day they write the song.”
That seems much too neat to me—Paul Jabara and Paul Shaffer didn’t compose “It’s Raining Men” when a cold-front squall line precipitating adult human males gusted into lower Manhattan—but it does point to how the cultural prominence of different weather patterns changes across time periods. Songwriters are just as likely to turn to weather metaphors that are in the news or the cultural conversation as they are to write about what they’re experiencing.
This kind of artistic discovery has informed climate science in the past. From about 1600 to 1850, a series of cold periods afflicted much of the world, including Western Europe. One of the worst winters occurred in 1665—the same year that a spate of winter scenes popped up across European art, including Bruegel the Elder’s The Hunters in the Snow. Indeed, a kind of “Little Ice Age” is captured in thousands of European paintings from the period.
Williams and his colleagues also conducted a very small unscientific survey of a smattering of classical works from across the years, and from around Europe, that feature explicit depictions of the weather. He found that British composers were much more likely to focus on the weather than composers of any other nationality. “The authors of the study are British, but I don’t think there’s a bias in the study from that,” he said. “I think it’s fitting the national stereotype of British people as being obsessed by the weather.”
Often, he found, composers used stormy weather as a musical stand-in for “emotional turbulence,” he said. In his better-known work, Williams is something of an expert on turbulence: Earlier this year, he published a study finding that climate change will increase the amount of turbulence experienced by air travelers.
But the feedback can work the other way too. Many classical musicians turn to climate science—and sometimes even climate data—as a direct inspiration for their work. Matthew Burtner, an Alaska-born composer who teaches music at the University of Virginia, also presented at the American Geophysical Union, describing his music written about—and sometimes with—glaciers.
Burtner is an “eco-acoustician,” meaning he brings both the sounds and the data signatures of the environment into his work. Sometimes, he’ll take climate data and convert it into musical sound, a process known as “sonification.” (Think of it as the aural equivalent of data visualization.)
His work also includes the sound of nature itself: Burtner has traveled to Matanuska Glacier, a 27-mile-long ice run near Anchorage, Alaska, to bring the object into his composition. In 2013, he scattered 19 microphones across the glacier: Some mics sat on top of the ice, listening for the wind; others were lowered into openings into its interior; and a few sat beneath the glacier’s melt pools, catching the drip-drip-drip of its lost mass.
The goal, Burthner says, is to create “a single audio representation of the glacier and bring that into the studio, the gallery, the concert hall.”
Burtner isn’t the only musician who has worked on environmental themes—or with environmental data specifically. He told me that Iannis Xenakis, the Greek-French composer, influenced his work; Xenakis once wrote a piece that represented certain statistical qualities of gases. But other composers—including Pauline Oliveros, R. Murray Schafer, and John Luther Adams—have written music about the environment, sometimes using environmental recordings.
Burtner’s work—and Williams’s discovery of the climatological pop record—suggests that music and science about the environment may share some deep connections. Both rely on qualitative experience quantified; both require patience and exhaustive focus. Recently, the literary critic Amitav Ghosh wondered why so few novelists today are writing fiction about climate change: “Why does climate change cast a much smaller shadow on literature than it does on the world?” Perhaps we can answer: People are writing music about it instead.