A string quartet from the University of Minnesota’s School of Music that performed “Planetary Bands, Warming World” to convey how climate in the Northern Hemisphere has changed over time. Credit: Ensia, University of Minnesota

Using a cello, a viola, and two violins, four musicians play the music of climate change through time.

University of Minnesota undergraduate student Daniel Crawford invited these musicians to play his composition entitled “Planetary Bands, Warming World.” Each performer represents one of four zones in the Northern Hemisphere: near the equator (cello), the midlatitudes (viola), the upper latitudes (violin), and the Arctic (violin). High notes correspond to high temperatures and vice versa.

Crawford hopes that the music will foster an understanding of climate change where graphs and charts might fail.

Translating Climate Change into Music

To get the range of musical notes, Crawford turned to a data set created by the NASA Goddard Institute for Space Studies of average temperature changes in the Arctic since 1880, the year when temperature observations started to be reliably gathered. He then translated the pitch range of a violin to the range of temperatures seen in the Arctic over the past 135 years.

To match musical notes to temperature, Crawford mapped the lowest annual temperature recorded in the Arctic since 1880 to the lowest note a violin can play and the highest annual temperature to around the highest note a violin can play. Given those bounds, he then calculated the exact pitch corresponding to different temperatures in the data set.

Because Arctic temperatures shift the most rapidly, Crawford used the relative temperature change represented between, say, an A and a B on the musical scale as a baseline shift between pitches for all the other instruments. Then, using similar data from NASA for the other zones in the Northern Hemisphere, he created his musical score. Thus, each shift in pitch for all four instruments represents the same shift in temperature in the data set.

As time progresses in the climate change data set, so too does time progress in the song. As temperatures in the data set rise or fall, each instrument’s pitch follows along. By the last few measures of the piece, each instrument’s pitch rises considerably, conveying an average rise in temperature across the Northern Hemisphere.

This composition is Crawford’s second musical endeavor in climate change communication. In his first, he used his own cello and a set of global average temperatures from 1880 to 2012. This time, Crawford wanted to zoom into a particular region to illustrate how dramatically temperatures have changed across latitudes.

Music and Emotion

Using music to convey the temperature changes in the past century “can elicit a more visceral response,” Crawford said. “It can hit people on an emotional level.”

Triggering an emotional response is the key to inciting action, said Sabine Marx, managing director of Columbia University’s Center for Research on Environmental Decisions, who was not involved in the project.

Climate scientists face a unique communication problem—they must convince audiences that action is required immediately, even though many people may think of climate change as a future problem. To spur action, or even just a reaction, scientists must tap into the general public’s emotional core, Marx said.

Elicited responses can vary. “It could be a very subtle whisper of an emotion or it can be a very vicarious response,” she continued. However, she explained, “if there is no emotional response, the willingness to take action is very low.”

“Music is something we experience as almost having a movement quality to it. It actually allows us to use sound to explore concepts of space and time.”

Music has often been associated with emotional reactions. Numerous studies demonstrate that all types of music can elicit an acute emotional response in the listener, whether it’s Mozart or Metallica.

For a complex issue like climate change, which happens over vast periods of time, music could be an effective way to help people understand, said Steven Morrison, director of the Laboratory for Music Cognition, Culture and Learning at the University of Washington, who also was not involved in the project.

“Music is something we experience as almost having a movement quality to it,” Morrison said. “It actually allows us to use sound to explore concepts of space and time.”

Crawford hopes to reach a broader audience by offering a new way to absorb the data through music, which Morrison said could be effective. An audience can process the pitch of notes and how they change “in the fraction of the time it takes someone to say something,” he said.

“Being able to convey that pure data in a different form and converting it to sound I think can have a big effect” on audiences, Crawford said. “When we treat art and science as two separate things, we’re really just lying to ourselves in a way because rationality and how we feel emotionally are part of what it means to be a human.”

—JoAnna Wendel, Staff Writer

Citation: Wendel, J. (2015), Musical composition conveys climate change data, Eos, 96, doi:10.1029/2015EO029967. Published on 21 May 2015

Text © 2015. The authors. CC BY-NC 3.0
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