Music provides ways for composers, performers, and audiences to respond emotionally to global change and environmental destruction, as well as to the beauty and wonder of natural and cultural systems. The lyrics, stories, and magic of songs, musical theater, film musicals, and operas, and the expressiveness of music can become very explicit in addressing both the stresses and the wonder. Music can express emotions, emotions can drive people, and people can drive change.

The Grove Dictionary of American Music (Oxford University Press, 2014) defines “ecomusicology” (or “ecocritical musicology”) as: ‘… the study of music, culture, and nature in all the complexities of those terms. Ecomusicology considers musical and sonic issues, both textual and performative, related to ecology and the natural environment.’

Music has also has a long history in connection with activism. There were the songs of Woody Guthrie in the 1930s and of the civil rights movement in the 1960s. Here are two quotes from folk singer and activist Pete Seeger:

“A good song reminds us what we’re fighting for.” – Pete Seeger

“Songs are funny things. They can slip across borders. Proliferate in prisons. Penetrate hard shells. I always believed that the right song at the right moment could change history.” –  Pete Seeger 

The following are a few sample areas that could help initiate or deepen discussion in your classes – 

  • How has music been used to elicit or express emotional reactions to the stresses and the wonder in social, political, and environmental arenas?
    • Examples: Benjamin Britten’s “War Requiem,” Olivier Messiaen’s “Quartet for the End of Time,” Claude Debussy’s “La Mer,” John Adams’ “Nixon in China,” Sergei Prokofiev’s “Peter and the Wolf,” various works by Dmitri Shostakovich. 
  • How is music affected by cultural and other conditions?
  • Will global warming, climate change, and extreme weather affect how musical instruments are made and played?
  • Can music, like other arts, open new ways of thinking about things, help us find solutions?

While researching this area, we came across a new study on the use of music to represent scientific data; special software transforms the data into melodies that enhance people’s recognition of patterns. (Study listed in the resource section below.)

Big Ideas

  • Music provides ways to respond emotionally to global change and environmental destruction—and to the beauty and wonder of threatened natural and cultural systems
  • The emotions evoked by music can be powerful inducements to efforts for change
  • Art, music, and drama are powerful ways to see things from new perspectives as well as ways to raise people’s awareness.

Additional Resources for Music

Also see Art, Resources That Apply to Many Subject Areas, and Teacher-Recommended Readings for Students.