Meaning in the music: when science songs are more than their words

Note from Jeremy: This is a guest post from Greg Crowther, who knows a lot about science songs and their use in education. Thanks Greg!


Hi there! How have you been?

It seems that, within the ecology blogosphere, a friendly music-sharing competition has emerged between Dynamic Ecology (in its Friday linkfests) and Scientist Sees Squirrel (in its Music Monday posts). As someone who writes educational music and studies its use in classrooms, I’ve been invited to join the fray. So here goes! 

When people think of “science songs,” they tend to think of songs whose lyrics present science-related facts and/or narratives. Think, for example, of Tim Blais’ overview of evolutionary developmental biology (evo-devo), or Tom McFadden’s middle school students’ depiction of the rivalry between Watson & Crick and Rosalind Franklin. I love that stuff! 

Amidst all of the jargon-rich lyrics, though — all of the heroic shoehorning of five-syllable words into singable rhyming phrases — I have a particular fondness for songs where scientific ideas are conveyed, or at least implied, by the music: the melody, tempo, instrumentation, etc. There are many ways of doing this, but they can be grouped into the three categories shown below.

Data Sonification

If you’ve ever listened to melodies based on DNA sequences, you’ve been exposed to data sonification, the conversion of data into sounds. To be honest, this isn’t exactly my thing; it feels a bit like looking for Shakespeare in the output of the proverbial monkey at a typewriter. However, I can admit to enjoying the sonification of atmospheric carbon dioxide concentrations, which nicely conveys how seasonal changes (increased CO2 levels in winter, decreased levels in summer) are superimposed on a longer-term trend toward increased CO2.

Prosody in Original Science Songs

Musical prosody is often defined as the relationship between a song’s lyrics and its melody; one can also consider connections between the lyrics and other aspects of the music, such as the instruments used. Instances of this may be found, for example, in the children’s album Here Comes Science by They Might Be Giants. The song Solid Liquid Gas opens by switching between different tempos, presumably to convey the different kinetic energies of molecules in their solid, liquid, and gaseous states. And in Why Does the Sun Really Shine?, the Giants introduce a fourth state of matter, in which John Flansburgh croons, “Electrons are FREEEE!” The ascent to the high note of “FREEEE!” adds considerably to the sense of freedom.

Meta-Prosody in Song Parodies

Ever since Tom Lehrer gave Gilbert & Sullivan’s “Major-General’s Song” a second life as The Elements, many science enthusiasts have taken pleasure in replacing previous song lyrics with new science-based ones. Often the original song is simply used as a convenient scaffold upon which to hang the new words; however, the best take-offs draw upon and reinforce musical aspects of the songs on which they are based. A personal favorite in this category is the conversion of Gotye’s hit “Somebody That I Used to Know” into Some Budding Yeast I Used To Grow. The original song’s plaintive musical tone — confused, despairing, bitter — is well-preserved in Nathaniel Krefman’s account of a once-promising symbiosis. Somewhat similarly, after hearing Third Eye Blind demand, “I want something else to get me through this semi-charmed kind of life,” I attempted to match that tone in the lament of a lipophobic molecule trying to get through a semi-permeable membrane.

Upon sampling the above songs, one might wonder whether this convergence of lyrics and music, while cool when it happens, is exceedingly rare. Personally, I’d guess that such convergences are rarely noticed by listeners, but are often attempted by musicians. This guess is rooted partly in a study of science songs created by high-school students for a science fair. Our analysis of 81 students’ “artist statements” about the songs revealed that, while science-laden lyrics were abundant, a majority of students also found non-lyrical ways to express scientific concepts. These non-lyrical approaches were seen to comprise three categories: Structure (a broad category covering melody, chords, and musical arrangement issues); Instruments; and Genre.

One exemplar of the Structure category was a wordless song designed to illustrate how a memory forms through repetition. “My composition starts with a simple phrase, symbolizing an idea or memory, as it travels through the neurons and synapses,” the student wrote in their artist statement. “The phrase repeats three times, each time getting louder and stronger… Then part B is a fast series of notes that symbolize Long-Term Potentiation, or the chemical process the memory goes through in order to solidify and become a long-term memory.”

Some students also used their choice of instruments and/or genre to express scientific thoughts. An artist statement that fit the Instruments category included the following: “For this project [a song about achondroplasia]… I wanted to work in a string ensemble that would have a richer and fuller sound to express the gravity of achondroplasia.” Genre-category statements included artist statements like this one, concerning a song about malaria: “The inspiration for this piece came from various styles of pop and reggae with African background from the Caribbean islands, northern Brazil and Africa. As malaria is a huge endemic concern in many areas of the African continent I thought I would try to capture some of the rich rhythmic texture and style of African music.”

Clearly, these artist statements give us insights into the student composers’ inspiration and creative process that we would not have had from simply listening to the songs. In any event, my colleagues and I were struck by the fact that, for so many of the students, writing a song about a scientific topic went well beyond the inclusion of science-y lyrics.

So, readers, now that I’ve highlighted some musical structures that effectively underscore scientific content, and made the claim that many additional examples are probably out there somewhere, can you offer your own favorite examples?

Finally, for anyone out there who is especially interested in educational uses of music, please note that a free online conference devoted to this topic is coming up next month, and that it’s not too late to register! VOICES 2021 will be held on Sunday, September 26 and will feature keynote speakers Raven Baxter and Lana Israel.

10 thoughts on “Meaning in the music: when science songs are more than their words

    • Umm… I have no real insight to offer here. It’s clearly a song about nature, which we often think of as placid and pleasant, but can also be very “red in tooth and claw,” which is what the singing and instruments remind me of. Since I have no idea what the artist was going for here, I can’t do much other than speculate idly.

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