© 2023 KMUW
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
Available On Air Stations

Musical Space: Cold


Winter is dragging on, and I’m not a fan of the cold. Freezing weather brings pain, a lingering kind that you sit and ruminate over. Add to this the uncertainty. January temperatures in Wichita have ranged from -15 to 75. The weather might blow from the Texas Gulf or from North Dakota. The fickleness builds hope, only to destroy it. Songwriters agree: Winter is misery, which is probably why there is so much music about the cold.

Music: Iron and Wine, “Faded From Winter.” The Creek Drank the Cradle (2002) - From his first album

Songs can’t only be about happy things: Pain and hardship can drive the drama and structure of a piece of music the same way a tragedy will move the plot of a novel or film. Art comes from strife, and winter has that in spades. The cold is a perfect metaphor for joylessness, lost love, isolation, bitterness, old age and death. You can hear it in the words — frozen hearts and cold graves. It’s a well of metaphors that never seems to run dry. 

Instrumental music can be cold, too, in the form of tone painting. Quiet sounds and brittle timbres. Icy tremolo from the violins. Voices close and soft like the eerie echoless quiet of the woods in a snowstorm. Music can invoke the opposite, too, referencing the warm, sandy beaches we pine for on sunless, introspective days. California Dreamin’ indeed.

Let’s not delude ourselves with false Groundhog Day hope. There are no ski slopes in Kansas and summer vacation is many months away. Cold weather sucks, and the only solace is that there are songs about it.


Vivaldi, “Winter (1st movement),” The Four Seasons (1725). Giuliano Carmignola (Baroque Violin) Venice Baroque Orchestra, Andrea Marcon (conductor)
Program music, a poem written by Vivaldi himself.
Tone painting:
“To tremble from cold in the icy snow”
“In the harsh breath of a horrid wind,”
“To run, stamping our feet every moment”

Hank Williams, “Cold, Cold Heart” (1950). Cold equals lovelessness.

Irma Thomas, “Two Winters Long,”  (1962). A song about moving on from a lost love, from the "Soul Queen of New Orleans."


Muddy Waters, “Cold Weather Blues,” Folk Singer (1964). Buddy Guy on guitar.

Tom Waits, “Cold Cold Ground,” Frank’s Wild Years (1987). Commentary on death and southern poverty through a reimagining of Stephen Foster’s minstrel song, “Massa’s in de Cold, Cold Ground.”

Leonard Cohen, Famous Blue Raincoat,” Songs of Love and Hate (1971). From the point of view of the loser in a love triangle.


Pixies, “Winterlong” (b-side, 1989). Cover of a Neil Young song. About pining for someone.

Prince, “Sometimes it Snows in April,” Parade: Music From The Motion Picture “Under The Cherry Moon” (1986). Prince performed the song live fairly often over the years, sometimes using it as a final encore to wind down the show. "Sometimes it Snows in April" received significant attention after Prince's death on April 21, 2016, exactly 31 years after its recording date,[1] and it went on to re-enter several record charts worldwide.

Mark Foley is principal double bass of the Wichita Symphony Orchestra and professor of double bass and head of Jazz Studies at Wichita State University.