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Depicting weather in classical music

Lyndsay Morrison, staff writer
October 24, 2011 — Two scientists in the U.K. have catalogued and analyzed depictions of weather in classical music.

Many classical music pieces have been inspired by climate
Many classical music pieces have been inspired by climate

There's no denying that the weather can be inspirational to people. We've seen it portrayed in paintings, poems, art, mythology, theatre and dance.

Now, two scientists at universities in the U.K. say weather can also be found in classical music.

Dr. Karen Aplin works in the physics department at Oxford University, and Dr. Paul Williams is a research fellow in the department of meteorology at the University of Reading. They both combine careers as atmospheric scientists with a love of classical music and, recently, they studied, catalogued and analyzed depictions of weather in music.

“I play the double bass in an orchestra and I've done that for quite a long time, since I was quite young,” says Aplin. “And I realized that quite a lot of the pieces that we did seemed to represent the weather in that they had weather in the title, or the conductor would tell us, 'look you're supposed to be raindrops here, play like this!' So that got me thinking and it seems quite common for these weather pictures to pop up in music.”

Alpin and Williams were so convinced that classical music is influenced by climate that they pursued the pilot study in their own spare time. They began their study by writing down all the different types of weather that cropped up in music and different ways the weather was represented.

“We came up with 35 pieces,” Williams told The Weather Network. “I'm sure we've missed a few pieces but we did as good a job as we could with our friends and musicians.”

The types of weather represented in various classical pieces they found included storms, wind, rain and clouds.

“We found that storms were the most popular weather to represent ... probably because of the sort of drama you can get,” says Alpin.

“In the Pastoral symphony there's this storm movement, which is pretty exciting. It all starts to get going with some low instruments representing perhaps distant thunder and maybe some clouds rolling in. Then, the low instruments get louder and louder. And then they start to play scales, so notes going up and down very quickly. Then, the higher instruments go in. And then eventually we have really high instruments go in, like a high-pitched flute or a piccolo, and that plays lightning. It just gets louder and louder and closer and closer. So it's a very exciting picture storm in music.”

The 'storm' is often depicted in classical music
The 'storm' is often depicted in classical music

Williams adds that they noticed fewer pieces representing calm conditions.

“What we found much less of was representations of nice weather,” he says. “Vivaldi's 'Four Seasons: Summer' has a representation of sunshine in it, but that was rare compared to the representations of storms.”

The research showed British composers easily led the way with musical weather, living up to the 'national stereotype.'

“We found I think twice as many pieces of representations of storms by British composers than by composers of any other nationality,” explains Williams. “So they're sort of guilty as charged there on weather obsession!”

“I think the thing that surprised me that I hadn't been expecting was that composers tend to write about their home weather,” said Alpin. “They'll just think back to the type of storm they see most often outside their window and they'll picture that. I found that to be a really interesting conclusion.”

Williams and Alpin say they intended for the study to be a one-off, but the massive level of interest there has been has them thinking twice.

“It is quite tempting to try and look at it a bit more at different types of music and how they represent weather. Pop music being an obvious one,” says Alpin.

The researchers believe that climate change may eventually be represented in music, as well.

“I think if we looked in the future if climate is changing we might see a response, but I think possibly not in our lifetime,” Alpin says. “So I think in a hundred years you could look at the classical pieces that are being written and see what they pick up.”

With files from Natalie Thomas

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