Although the effectiveness of music as an educational device may depend on the musical background of the listener among other things, using songs to convey scientific concepts can be fun and educational for both the creators and the audience.
The effectiveness of science songs as educational devices could be a subject for more research and debate, though hopefully not on the scale of this Epic Rap Battle of History between Sir Isaac Newton (played by Weird Al Yankovic!) and Bill Nye.
Here’s our playlist of Kilogrammy*-winning science songs, gathered in an unscientific way through colleagues and personal interest, for each science category covered by the Science Borealis Blog. Some are for kids and others for rocket scientists. Some are wholly original while others are parodies of popular tunes. Click on the YouTube clip or the song title, and enjoy!
Biology and the Life Sciences
In this parody of a Kendrick Lamar song, biochemist Alex Lathbridge raps about Cancer Biology over microscopic footage of cancer cells for a specialized audience. Check out his Rapstract Youtube channel for more raps on various scientific subjects.
In this parody of Twist and Shout most famously covered by the Beatles, The Bungee Jumpin’ Cows sing about banana slugs for kids. They have produced other CDs of science songs.
In this famous parody of the Major General’s Song by Gilbert and Sullivan, mathematician, comedian, and piano player Tom Lehrer sings the elements of the periodic table in no particular order, for a general audience.
The Periodic Table Song
In this parody of Offenbach’s can-can music, Canadian Youtubers ASAP Science sing the elements of the periodic table in order with commentary for a general audience. They have made all kinds of science-related videos, including a few other science songs.
Environmental and Earth Sciences
In this parody of G-code by the Geto Boys, Antioch student science teachers Andy Patari and David McMeekin rap about forest ecology for a specialized audience.
The Big Bang Theory theme song
In this illustrated video of the original theme song for the popular TV show Big Bang Theory, Canadian rock band Barenaked Ladies sing about the history of the universe for the audience of the show.
In this original song, pop group They Might Be Giants sing about the value of science to kids. Here Comes Science is a whole album of original science songs for kids.
Health, Medicine and Veterinary Science
In this “nutritional parody” of Hotel California by the Eagles, Liam Styles Chang and Shae Scotten sing about dietary advice, as written by Dr. James McCormack from the University of British Columbia. McCormack is involved with the Therapeutics Education Collaboration, which provides videos, podcasts, and other forms of evidence-based health information for a general audience.
This song about the senses written by Randy Rogel and Tom Ruegger was part of an Animaniacs animated cartoon in the 1990s. The Animaniacs album featured songs from the TV show, including a few with scientific content.
Mathematics and Statistics
William Rowan Hamilton
In this parody of Hamilton: an American Musical by Lin-Manuel Miranda, Tim Blais, the Canadian mastermind behind A Capella Science, has worked with an ensemble of fellow science YouTubers to share the life of another Hamilton, mathematician William Rowan Hamilton, for a presumably geeky audience.
Vi Hart sings an original song and draws original pictures about tau, the other circle constant. She makes wonderfully idiosyncratic mathematical videos.
Physics and Astronomy
In this parody of the Wicked musical by Stephen Schwartz, science YouTubers Dianna Cowern and Malinda Kathleen Reese cross-dress as Newton and Einstein to sing about gravity, as imagined by Canadian science musician Tim Blais of A Capella Science, who seemed worth including twice.
In what might be an original song, Australian-Canadian Derek Muller sings a romantic ballad about atomic bonding with Christie Wykes. Muller has done a few science parody songs and many great science videos through Veritasium.
Technology and Engineering
This original song for kids about electricity by Bob Dorough was created as part of the animated Schoolhouse Rock! “interstitial” TV programming back in the 1970s.
Large Hadron Collider rap
This original rap with beats by Will Barras and lyrics by science journalist Kate McAlpine (aka AlpineCat) is a remarkable description of what is going on in the Large Hadron Collider for a general audience.
The general lack of science in regular songs seems to have driven these creative people to make their own. Indeed, science writer Simon Singh called out pop singer Katie Melua for describing the age of the universe as “just a guess” in her song, Nine Million Bicycles.
If you now feel the urge to write your own science song, here’s a pro tip from Don Enright, a Canadian visitor experience and interpretation expert who wrote many interpretive science songs for Alberta Parks, Evergreen Theatre, and the Calgary Zoo: “Understand what your message is—your main interpretive theme. Take your single main message and make it rhyme, and you’ve got your chorus.”
And if you are making a video of the song, include the words as subtitles and post them separately. Being able to see the words ensures the message is clear.
Many science songs seem to be parodies of popular tunes, which apparently makes them exempt from copyright law. But Enright says, “Everyone always tries to over-write an existing song. It’s a cop-out. Write your lyrics to an existing song, but then give those lyrics to a composer and let them come up with an original tune. Then you have something that is legally yours (and the composer’s) to use.”
The songs we chose all seemed to have communicating science as their intent. We weren’t sure how to categorize Canadian astronaut rock star Chris Hadfield’s rendition of Space Oddity, by David Bowie, while on the International Space Station, so we’ll just end with it in here.
Do you have a favourite from this playlist? What did we miss?
*Completely made-up award
Featured cartoon: Banting and Best sing Sarah MacLachlan’s Sweet Surrender to their diabetic lab dog. By Raymond Nakamura, Raymond’s Brain