When orchestras summon a storm

What do atmospheric scientists do for fun? They bring their work home with them. At least, they do if they're Paul Williams and Karen Aplin, whose paper, to be published in November in the Royal Meteorological Society's journal Weather, analyses depictions of everything from storms to sunshine in works of classical music.

Williams specializes in the impact of ocean and atmosphere on weather and climate at the University of Reading. Aplin is in experimental atmospheric physics at Oxford University. But outside the office, both are amateur classical musicians. "Karen plays in an orchestra, I play the piano and sing in a choir", Williams says. Drawing on their common interests, the two got to chatting one day about the way weather is portrayed in music. "It was Karen originally who had the idea to do a detailed study of representations of weather in classical music," he says. "It was a way of combining our day jobs with our hobby."

Aplin says it was something she'd been thinking about for some time. "I was interested in cultural responses to the environment. People have thought about this for paintings and [other art works], but they haven't really thought about it for music."

With input from friends, colleagues, professional musicians - and anyone else who wanted to weigh in - the pair compiled a database of 35 works of Western classical music from Baroque to contemporary, sometimes relying on clues left behind by the composers. "It might be that the title of the piece has an explicit reference to something meteorological. It might be that there's a marking in the musical score. It might even be something like a letter that the composer wrote to a friend, a lover, perhaps even years after the piece was written, remarking that he or she had been influenced by the storm."

Antonio Vivaldi's eighteenth century composition The Four Seasons might be the best known classical work exploring weather - and it certainly made the list - but Williams and Aplin found many other works featuring composers' meteorological musings. Most frequently they summoned up storms: Beethoven's Pastoral Symphony is a prime example. "The fourth movement is actually called Thunderstorm," Williams says. Aplin, who has played the piece with her orchestra, says Beethoven builds the tension of the storm: "He starts to make rumbling noises with the lower instruments, they get louder and louder, and then he brings in the high instruments to suggest the wind and the rain building up."

The pair found that the type of storm composers tended to conjure was related to where they were from. Though both Williams and Aplin stressed that they couldn't rule out sampling bias, because as Britons they might be more familiar with the work of British composers, they did note a trend in the works they included: while those writing music in continental Europe more often evoked convective storms, marked by thunder and lightning, UK composers tended to portray frontal storms, characterized by wind and rain. "Composers tend to depict the kind of storm that they've grown up with and that they are familiar with," Williams says.

They also found that, generally, UK composers were more likely to reflect on the weather than peers in continental Europe. "It could be because we experience very variable weather compared to certain European countries," Williams says. "It could, of course, be something more sociological to do with the British being obsessed by the weather."

There are many musical clichés that composers rely on to portray a storm: "you just turn the volume up and put it in a minor key, and have some racy passages and quite loud music," Williams points out. The timpani drum is often used for thunder, the high-pitched shriek of the piccolo for a flash of lightning, and plucked strings for raindrops.

But beginning in the nineteenth century, instruments designed expressly to mimic wind and thunder expanded the meteorological reach of compositions, Williams says. Among other things, the thunder sheet was introduced: a suspended metal sheet that resonates like thunder when struck. The wind machine was also invented, which Williams describes as "a cylindrical drum covered in silk that is rotated and produces a kind of howling sound that is just like the wind."

"In many ways these special bespoke instruments bring classical music a bit closer to other parts of the arts," Williams says. "Artists across all the arts seem to have been fascinated by meteorological phenomena. Think about Monet's and Constable's depictions of clouds and atmospheric waves. These special bespoke instruments allowed the orchestra much more explicitly to make the sound of wind or thunder. In that way I think the techniques of representing weather in music come a bit closer to paintings."

Exploring the cultural response to weather and climate through music will be an ongoing project, Williams and Aplin hope. "We would like our study to be a sort of base line and people in the future hopefully could start to understand how our culture is responding to climate change," Aplin says.

They also hope that exploration won't be limited to one particular genre of music. Judging by the emails they have already received since the paper was made available last week - including several that point out some works they may have missed - there is plenty of interest to keep the project going. Perhaps a next step could be into the territory of pop music. Williams says meteorologist John Knox at the University of Georgia got in touch to suggest a few songs that he uses to introduce lectures. Before discussing atmospheric structure, he plays Phil Collins' In the Air Tonight. For precipitation, It's Raining Men by The Weather Girls.

"There may be a case to make for repeating the analysis for popular music as well," Williams says. "I think it would be great to pursue this a bit more fully - in our spare time."

For more on music and meteorology check out Variable 4's weather-composed music and Nathalie Miebach's music and visual art installation A Duet of Blizzards and Hurricane Noel II

Image: Lee Frost/Robert Harding/Rex Features. This post originally appeared on New Scientist.