"What Do We Want the Future to Sound Like?"

The ClimateMusic Project uses the emotional power of music to show the frightening reality of climate change.

by Brooke Berglund

How can we stir urgency in the public about climate change? How can we inspire the public to not only acknowledge scientific data about climate change but embody it? Climate change is a critical issue for everyone, yet only a small fraction of people take action against it. A study published in late 2018 reported that the highest number of Americans-72%- now believe climate change is happening. But even as climate change is accepted in the majority opinion, there is yet to be significant change in the way we use our planet’s resources. The ClimateMusic Project was created to reckon with these problems. The organization, founded by Stephan Crawford, believes that music has a part to play in the fight against climate change.

Music is a universal language that can affect people at an emotional level, unlike scientific data which needs to be read and understood. The project creates science-guided music, aiming to spark urgency in everyone that hears their call to action.


The piece Climate (shown to the left) is an original composition by Erik Ian Walker in collaboration with the ClimateMusic project. Listening to the piece is a journey through historic and projected variations in the climate over 450 years, from 1800-2250. It transports the audience into two possible futures, one where nothing is done to change humanity’s footprint and a more hopeful alternative where humanity limits their carbon emissions. Climate tracks four key indicators throughout time, assigning each a musical quality. From ClimateMusic Project’s website:

Carbon dioxide concentration is reflected in the tempo of the composition, with increasing amounts of CO2 accumulating in the atmosphere causing the tempo to speed up.
Near Earth atmospheric temperature is represented by pitch, where a rise in temperature translates to detuning, increased dissonance, harmonic complexity and/or simple rise in pitch.
Earth energy balance (the balance between incoming energy from the sun and outgoing heat from the Earth) changes are audible as distortion, ring modulation (a wobbly metallic sound), volume, and a general “unhealthy” unevenness of the atmospheric tone. The greater the imbalance, the greater the distortion and loss of natural harmonics.
Ocean pH is represented by compositional form. As the pH in the ocean becomes more acidic, the compositional form degrades.”

The music created by the ClimateMusic project is not simply data sonification, the translation of data into sound, but an emotional experience that brings scientific data to life. The organization is determined to develop methodology to make sure they are conceiving music that is faithful to the science.

Ultimately, action limiting climate change is the goal for the organization. They aim not only to generate the emotional atmosphere, but to connect their audience with environmental resources such as the Global Footprint Network. The ClimateMusic project directs people affected by the concerts to their resource partners, so when people feel the urgency about our changing planet, they can get information on how they can change the environmental impact of themselves, their community and the world.

The idea to use art to communicate science came from an underlying frustration that Stephan Crawford held onto throughout his career. His interest in the environment and the natural world permeated throughout his work in the Department of Commerce, where he worked with corporations in the fields of solar power generation and water resources. All the while he was creating music and visual art, much of which was inspired by the natural world, eventually opening a studio in downtown San Francisco. Two years after opening the studio, his deep frustration drove Crawford to return to school and dive into his passion for the global environment. His experiences, passion for music and scientific knowledge about the environment inspired Crawford to test out conceiving art that rested on climate science.

To start his experiment, Stephan created some models in the music program GarageBand. He came up with a simple algorithm correlating America the Beautiful deconstructed to scientific data. The results excited Crawford and those he shared his work with, even though Stephan admits the music was “pretty crude” in the beginning. This was an idea worth exploring further.

In 2014, Crawford reached out scientists and composers, inviting them to a type of “hack-day”, where the team could experiment with creating climate music. Before this day, the team had never met. The climate scientists brought data, the composer brought musicians. They only had eight hours to collaborate on a piece of music which would be performed in front of a test audience that evening. There was a real risk that the event could end in failure. Fortunately, as Stephan recalls, “the scientists that came had the souls of artists, the composer analytical in thinking”. The assembled group worked intensely throughout the day, producing a musical piece that was crude compared to what ClimateMusic is doing today, but was enough to move the audience to tears. Crawford saw his idea had real power to move people and communicate the urgency that the issue of climate change needed.

Stephan Crawford established the non-profit organization the following year in the San Francisco Bay Area. Now the project has grown to about 30 people affiliated across the arts, sciences, technology, and public policy. Their range of music has expanded to include chamber music, jazz, and Pink Floyd-esque experimental rock. The project recognizes that to reach more people, they must speak many dialects of music. What may appeal to one audience might not appeal to another.

On the right is the project's second piece, Icarus in Flight by composer Richard Festinger. This piece tracks population growth, carbon emissions and land-use in three distinct eras in human history.

One of Crawford’s goals is to take the project’s music on the road. The organization seeks to touch people no matter the community they are a part of, or what country they are from. They are seeking to work with artists in the South, the Midwest and internationally. In 2018, they held their first international performance in Mexico City. Crawford sees that the audience that desperately needs to experience his music most likely will not voluntarily attend a “climate concert”. Therefore ClimateMusic is seeking to collaborate with popular artists that have expressed interest in climate activism. The idea is that A-list artists with a following could drop the project’s work into a concert, bringing light to the issue and reaching a broad range of people. This audience could then be channeled to organizations focused on environmental action.

Recently, the project has began a collaboration with a Grammy award-winning composer. Together they are creating a work following the impact of climate change on biodiversity.

To learn more about the ClimateMusic Project, visit: www.climatemusic.org