The Sound of Science – Transforming Climate Change Data Into Music
Scientists often say that communicating the complex research behind climate change with the public is one of the most difficult challenges they face. The science behind the global issue is at times convoluted, intangible, and abstract. This can become a barrier in motivating people to take meaningful action.
But what if you could listen to the rise in global temperatures over the span of centuries? Some scientists are turning to a more accessible medium to tell the story of our changing planet. They are pairing up with musicians and transforming flat data into living, breathing melodies to communicate climate model results and scientific observations, ultimately showcasing how sound can play a valuable role in helping us better understand the world around us.
SYMPHONIES OF CHANGE
So, can music enhance climate literacy? The ClimateMusic project certainly thinks so. The project brings together scientists, musicians and sound technology experts that create “science-guided music”. The symphonies are then played alongside the language of science – line graphs and bar charts – at live concerts around the world.
The group’s Climate series tells the story of our changing planet over a 450-year period using historical and projected data. Composed by Erik Ian Walker, the universal truths revealed by science meet the emotive power of music in Climate as it illuminates two vasty different futures. Most of the track, dubbed “business as usual”, depicts what would happen if we were to do little or nothing to rein in carbon emissions. According to the group, this would result in an approximately 9-degree Celsius rise in global temperatures with catastrophic impact by the year 2250. The second scenario depicted in the music represents a more hopeful two-degree scenario.
The variation in the pitch, tempo and general composition in the piece is driven by four key factors: carbon dioxide concentration, atmospheric temperature, the Earth’s energy balance, and ocean pH levels.
The 25-minute track starts off as a harmonious piece of music that slowly begins to disintegrate into a disorienting, unrecognisable track. The music eventually becomes faster, the pitch higher, and the sound becomes more distorted – hinting at environmental chaos.
In the composer’s notes, Walker says the project was “very new and very interesting” for him.
“There were many revisions, including completely changing the original theme a few times, due to the ‘destructive’ nature of the data, and the music becoming unrecognizable too quickly. Working with inflexible data (CO2, temperature, ocean acidity, etc.) to drive a piece of music is not common. Something you like at a certain point will be “blown up” within 30 seconds! As a composer, one must ‘give over’ their ego in this situation,” he added in the notes.
TOO CLOSE TO THE SUN
Another project by the same group captures three different human drivers of climate change – population growth, fossil fuel use, and land-use change over the span of two centuries. The changes in the music convey the general trajectory of the different data sets.
Called “Icarus In Flight”, the title of the symphony alludes to the Greek myth of Daedalus and Icarus – the story of a brilliant Athenian inventor and his son who were both imprisoned at the top of the tallest tower on isle of Crete by King Minos. Being a master craftsman, Daedalus constructs wings using candle wax and the feathers of the birds that perched on the tower. While strapping the wings on his son, he gives him a warning: flying too low near the ocean would dampen the wings, while flying too high near the sun would melt them. Once he is in the air, Icarus is overwhelmed with the ecstasy of flight and ignores his father’s warning. He keeps flying higher, eventually falling to his death. The message here is clear: we should thrive within our limits.
Similar to Climate, the track becomes faster and more active as it churns on. Population growth is represented by the density of music events. As the population grows, the music becomes more rapid. Carbon emissions – which grow by a factor of 112 between the years 1880 and 2080 – are modelled by the ratio of low to high sounds in the piece.
Richard Festinger, the composer of the piece, said the goal of the music is to reach as many people as possible.
“I know how to read a scientific graph but it doesn’t necessarily speak to me with a kind of urgency, like an emotional or visceral component, which is something we often associate with musical experiences,” he said in an interview with posted on his YouTube channel. “I hope that the music will convey in a more compelling way the urgency of the situation and how extreme the growth in the different data sets is.”
Beyond the ClimateMusic project, other researchers have also leveraged the connection between math and music to turn lifeless data into elaborate soundscapes.
For two decades, the accelerated decline of yellow cedar trees in Alaska and British Columbia has perplexed scientists. The tree is considered to be one of the finest timber trees in the world and it has historically been used for a myriad of different purposes, ranging from flooring to boat building. Recently, the long-lived species has been overrun by invasive western hemlock, dramatically altering biodiversity in the forests.
According to Smithsonian Magazine, Stanford PhD student Lauren Oakes and her colleagues have been examining how climate change has affected the yellow cedar forests of Alaska. Warmer temperatures have made the roots of the cedar trees in Alaska more vulnerable to the cold as they become more exposed. Eventually, the roots freeze, causing the trees to die.
Oakes reached out to fellow student and amateur musician Nik Sawe to transform her insights about the changing ecology of the rainforests into a musical score. Sawe used a technique called data sonification to convert the data into sound. Scientists have turned to this process to convert a myriad of different data sets into music, ranging from seismic activity to the energy emitted by a neutron star. Listening to their data has also helped them identify patterns that would have taken much longer to deduce.
The five different conifer species measured by Oakes were represented through different instruments. According to The Atlantic, “The piano was used for yellow cedar, the flute for western hemlock, cello and bass for Sitka spruce, violin and viola for mountain hemlock, and clarinet for shore pine”. Characteristics of the trees, such as the number of trees, the species, the height, the diameter of the trunk determined the notes, composition and pitch in the music. The result is a symphony that charts the patterns of a dying native tree species, capturing the altered landscape of the forest.
On the surface, science and music might seem like two disciplines that are vastly different, but they’re actually intimately connected. Melodies created using scientific data reveal that the synergy between the two subjects goes much deeper than the aspect of pattern-decoding. When they work in tandem, they can help us better understand the world around us. Given that people are more likely to disregard information that is complex, scientists are hoping that the power of music can change how the public engages with the issue of climate change.
Cover Credit: ClimateMusic
Writer | Seher Asaf
Seher is a Hong Kong-based freelance journalist who writes about aviation, transportation and travel.