Turning Climate Data Into Music

Climate Data Sonification

Did you know that you can turn climate data into music?

If you like the idea of making or listening to music based on climate data, you’ve come to the right place. Keep reading to learn more about climate data sonification and hear some examples of music made using climate data.

What is climate data sonification?
Why would you turn climate data into music?
How do you turn climate data into music?
Treesong’s Climate Music
Your Climate Music

What is climate data sonification?

Data sonification is the process of turning data into sound. It’s the auditory equivalent of data visualization, which turns data into images.

If you’ve ever looked at a chart, graph, or map, you’ve seen data visualization. Data sonification is a less common, but still important, way to convert scientific data into sensory input. This can help scientists and non-scientists alike deepen their understanding and appreciation of the significance of the data.

Climate data sonification takes climate data sets, such as global or local average temperatures recorded over the course of a period of time, and converts each data point into a sound. In the case of climate data music, each data point is converted into a musical note or chord.

Why would you turn climate data into music?

There are several reasons why climate data sonification is an important and underappreciated way of experiencing and interpreting climate data.

One obvious reason is that data visualizations aren’t accessible for the blind or visually impaired. I’ve seen many informative and moving climate data visualizations, but these visualizations aren’t accessible to everyone. Climate data sonification provides a new way for people to experience and interpret climate data. This has been beneficial in other scientific fields, including the somewhat famous case of audio astronomy. Climate communication and climate science itself may benefit from the increased use of climate data sonification.

My main interest in climate data sonification is as a climate communicator. Music is such a rich and emotionally compelling aspect of so many people’s lives. What would it be like if we had more music that contained explicit and implicit references to the climate crisis? Would it help people process their personal relationship with the climate crisis? Would it inspire people to take action in support of climate justice?

For professional musicians, there’s also the marketing angle. I’m not particularly adept at marketing, so I can’t give much advice about it. However, I do know that anything brand new that’s related to your target audience’s interests is likely to capture their attention. I know that I would love to listen to more music that incorporates climate themes in both subtle and in-your-face ways. Your target audience may feel the same way.

Of course, composing music about the climate crisis and climate justice doesn’t necessarily require any climate data sonification. Songwriters can just compose original music and lyrics that express their own thoughts and feelings about climate change. But incorporating climate data audio tracks into a song or album can enrich the artistic process. It can also get people thinking and talking about the climate data and its implications.

How do you turn climate data into music?

Turning climate data into music is shockingly simple. I honestly have very little experience performing or composing music. My singing voice is so-so and my knowlefge of music theory is limited. Even so, I’ve already created some simple instrumental songs that make for good ambient music.

The tools I use to create my climate music could do much more in the hands of an experienced musician. Even in the hands of a beginner such as myself, they produce some satisfying results.

Here’s the process I’ve used to create and publish my music so far. If you’re not interested in creating your own climate data audio tracks, you can skip ahead to my music.

  1. Download climate data.
    • There are many different types of climate data. So far, the only climate data I’ve played around with is global average temperature data.
    • There are multiple places online to look for such data. I’m a big fan of a climate data visualization project called showyourstripes.info, so I’m using the data sources they cited. For global average temperature data, they use the UK Met Office HadCRUT5.0 dataset.
    • Data can be recorded and shared in many formats. For the sake of this process, you’ll want climate data in the form of a spreadsheet in one of the following file formats: .xls, .xlsx, .csv, or .ods.
    • When making climate music, you should make sure that your climate data comes from a reliable source. If you publish or post about your climate music anywhere online, you should also review the license associated with the data and make sure to attribute the data to its source.
    • If you’re just doing this for fun, you can use any data source you want. Go ahead and make a song based on your favorite sports team’s scores, or your annual income and expenses, or how many songbirds you see in your yard each day, or really any set of numbers you’d like. Data sonification is fun, particularly when the sound created by the process is music. Play around and have fun with it!
  2. Sonify climate data.
    • I use a free, open source, web-based tool called TwoTone to turn climate data into music. This simple yet powerful web-based app lets you upload climate data sets (or any other data sets) and generate audio tracks based on those data sets. You select which column of the spreadsheet to use, what instrument to play, and musical settings such as the key, scale range, starting octave, track tempo, and arpeggio. You can make music using a single instrument or add additional instruments. You can even select a different data column for each instrument, allowing for the creation of complex compositions based on one or more data sets.
    • The web-based app lets you play the resulting song in your browser. When you’ve created an audio track or tracks that you’d like to download and use, you can either export the audio (MP3 or WAV/PCM) and save it to your device or use the MIDI feature to send the audio out via your MIDI port (if you have one).
  3. Incorporate climate data audio tracks into a song.
    • So far, in my published music, I’ve just used a climate data audio track as the entire song. I have two album concepts in the works that would go beyond this by incorporating non-data-sonification musical elements (first album concept) and spoken word vocals (second concept).
    • If you plan to do all of your composing in the web-based app, you may want to add one or more columns to the spreadsheet and fill these with alternating zeros and ones or other custom numbers. This will allow you to have one instrument play the actual climate data while another instrument plays a steady beat, a melody you composed, etc.
    • If you plan to combine these climate data audio tracks with other musical elements, you can just download them in MP3, WAV/PCM, or MIDI format and use them as you would use music from any other source.
  4. Publish your climate music.
    • This step is, of course, optional. If you’re just doing this for fun or for non-commercial climate communication purposes, there’s no need to publish your results. Since I’m trying to earn a full-time income from various forms of climate communication, I’ve decided to publish my climate music on streaming sites. Publishing climate music on streaming sites makes it easier for a broad audience to access. It also offers the potential for me to earn supplemental income if any of my climate music becomes popular.
    • I use a service called TuneCore to publish my climate music to many different streaming services at once. TuneCore’s basic plan currently costs $14.99 per year. If you’re doing this with the goal of earning money, be aware that you’ll need to get 1,000+ streams per year to break even.
    • Once your music is on streaming services, anyone will be able to find it using the search functions. But if you want to reach a broader audience, you may want to use social media, email lists, etc. to promote your new releases.

Treesong’s Climate Music

I’m in the early stages of developing my own body of music that incorporates climate data audio tracks. Here’s a description of what I have so far. You can find all of these songs on Spotify, Tidal, iTunes, Apple Music, and many other streaming services. You can find my artist profile, including a list of songs, on most streaming services by searching for “Treesong.”

  • Global Warming (Piano).
    • This is one of the simplest possible songs based on global average temperature anomaly data. All that I did was upload the spreadsheet, choose the instrument, and download the audio track. The resulting song is a simple but powerful exploration of the way that the global average temperature rises from 1850 through 2022. You can tell this simply by listening because the notes at the end are noticably higher pitched than the notes at the beginning. This effect can be heightened by increasing the number of octaves covered by the song.
  • Global Warming (Piano, Arpeggio).
    • This is almost as simple as the first song, but with one key difference. Instead of converting the data points into individual notes, TwoTone has converted each data point into an ascending arpeggio chord. This gives the resulting audio track a more musical quality while still basing it entirely on the data. This affect could also be heightened by increasing the number of octaves. The tone of the piece could also be affected significantly by changing the key, using descending rather than ascending arpeggio, etc.
    • HadCRUT. data were obtained from http://www.metoffice.gov.uk/hadobs/hadcrut5 on February 15, 2023 and are © British Crown Copyright, Met Office 2023, provided under an Open Government License, http://www.nationalarchives.gov.uk/doc/open-government-licence/version/3/

Some listeners (like me) will enjoy listening to these basic global warming singles as ambient music. I like them enough to include them in my personal playlist that I listen to while working. They’re also available as background music for TikToks. If you’re looking for simple ambient music to play in the background while you talk about climate change on TikTok, you can search for these songs and add them to your video.

I have plans to compose and publish more climate music in the near future as time permits. I’m working on two album concepts: one that is purely instrumental and one that includes spoken word vocals accompanied by climate data audio tracks. I’ll post updates on this page, on my blog, and in my newsletter when I publish more climate music.

Your Climate Music

Are you a musician or music lover who cares about the climate crisis and climate justice? Would you like to make your own music that incorporates climate data audio tracks?

I encourage you to give it a try!

The TwoTone tool that I use for my climate music is free for anyone to use. All that you need is a web browser and some data that you would like to sonify. The climate data sets I’ve looked at so far allow commercial use and adaptation of the data with appropriate attribution. I would love to see more music that incorporates climate references in the lyrics, audio, or all of the above.

If you compose or publish a song that uses climate data sonification for some of all of the audio tracks, please let me know. I’ll be happy to link to your song on my website and give you a shout out on my blog and social media. The more climate music we have available for our audiences, the better.