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.