In 2013, the composition “A Song of Our Warming Planet” transformed 133 years of global temperature measurements into a haunting melody for the cello. Following its release, A Song of Our Warming Planet was featured by The New York Times, Slate, the Weather Channel, National Public Radio, io9, The Huffington Post and many others on its way to becoming a viral sensation and reaching audiences around the globe.
Now the co-creators, University of Minnesota undergraduate Daniel Crawford and geography professor Scott St. George, are back with a new composition that uses music to highlight the places where climate is changing most rapidly.
Based on surface temperature analysis from NASA’s Goddard Institute for Space Studies, the composition "Planetary Bands, Warming World" uses music to create a visceral encounter with more than a century’s worth of weather data collected across the northern half of the planet. (The specific dataset used as the foundation of the composition was the Combined Land-Surface Air and Sea-Surface Water Temperature Anomalies Zonal annual means.)
Crawford composed the piece featuring performance by students Julian Maddox, Jason Shu, Alastair Witherspoon and Nygel Witherspoon from the University of Minnesota’s School of Music.
As Crawford explains in the video, “Each instrument represents a specific part of the Northern Hemisphere. The cello matches the temperature of the equatorial zone. The viola tracks the mid latitudes. The two violins separately follow temperatures in the high latitudes and in the arctic.” The pitch of each note is tuned to the average annual temperature in each region, so low notes represent cold years and high notes represent warm years.
Crawford and St. George decided to focus on northern latitudes to highlight the exceptional rate of change in the Arctic. St. George says the duo plans to write music representing the southern half of the planet, too, but haven’t done so yet.
Through music, the composition bridges the divide between logic and emotion, St. George says. “We often think of the sciences and the arts as completely separate — almost like opposites, but using music to share these data is just as scientifically valid as plotting lines on a graph,” he says. “Listening to the violin climb almost the entire range of the instrument is incredibly effective at illustrating the magnitude of change — particularly in the Arctic which has warmed more than any other part of the planet.”
Support for this video was provided by the University of Minnesota Institute on the Environment and the College of Liberal Arts.
Video production by Mighteor.
When faced with the challenge of sharing the latest climate change discoveries, scientists often rely on data graphics and technical illustrations. University of Minnesota undergrad Daniel Crawford came up with a completely different approach. He's using his cello to communicate the latest climate science through music.
Thermometer measurements show the average global temperature has risen about 1.4 °F (0.8 °C) since 1880. Typically, this warming is illustrated visually with line plots or maps showing year-by-year changes in annual temperatures. As an alternative, Crawford used an approach called data sonification to convert global temperature records into a series of musical notes.
The final result, "A Song of Our Warming Planet," came about following a conversation Crawford had with geography professor Scott St. George during an internship. St. George asked Crawford about the possibility of turning a set of data into music.
"Data visualizations are effective for some people, but they aren't the best way to reach everyone," says St. George. "Instead of giving people something to look at, Dan's performance gives them something they can feel."
Crawford based his composition on surface temperature data from NASA's Goddard Institute of Space Studies. The temperature data were mapped over a range of three octaves, with the coldest year on record (--0.47 °C in 1909) set to the lowest note on the cello (open C). Each ascending halftone is equal to roughly 0.03°C of planetary warming.
In Crawford's composition, each note represents a year, ordered from 1880 to 2012. The pitch reflects the average temperature of the planet relative to the 1951--80 base line. Low notes represent relatively cool years, while high notes signify relatively warm ones.
The result is a haunting sequence that traces the warming of our planet year by year since the late 19th century. During a run of cold years between the late 1800s and early 20th century, the cello is pushed towards the lower limit of its range. The piece moves into the mid-register to track the modest warming that occurred during the 1940s. As the sequence approaches the present, the cello reaches higher and higher notes, reflecting the string of warm years in the 1990s and 2000s.
Crawford hopes other researchers and artists will use or adapt his composition to support science outreach, and has released the score and sound files under a Creative Commons license.
"Climate scientists have a standard toolbox to communicate their data," says Crawford. "We're trying to add another tool to that toolbox, another way to communicate these ideas to people who might get more out of music than maps, graphs and numbers."
The video ends with a stark message: Scientists predict the planet will warm by another 1.8 degrees Celsius (3.2 degrees Fahrenheit) by the end of this century. This additional warming would produce a series of notes beyond the range of human hearing.
Support for this video was provided by the Institute on the Environment, the College of Liberal Arts, the Undergraduate Research Opportunity Program, and the School of Music at the University of Minnesota.
Video production by Elizabeth Giorgi.
Sound recording and engineering by Michael Duffy with the University of Minnesota's School of Music.
A fascinating musical journey to the bayous of Southwest Louisiana. Like its cousin, zydeco, Cajun music’s origins are in France and its motto is “laissez les bon temps roulez” (“let the good times roll”). Updated with 5 new tracks! Features a Cajun recipe.