Friday, August 8, 2014

Planet Rock!

I had the good fortune to run into Shanil Virani at a party earlier this summer, and I was able to talk to him about some of the educational songs I had written. Dr. Virani is the director of the John C. Wells Planetarium at JMU. He told me about the Space Explorers Camp they run each summer, and suggested that there were some facts and concepts that students at the previous year's camp had difficulty grasping or retaining. He was excited about the thought of using music as part of the instruction for the camp.

One of the problem areas was remembering the order of the planets in our solar system from the innermost to the outermost, and knowing basic facts about them, such as their relative sizes and basic composition.

I set out to write a song that would teach it in a memorable way, and sent him a few early drafts, but I still didn't know where it would lead.

So, I was pleased to get a call on the second day of camp, asking if I could come in later in the week and teach the song to the kids. The only problem was that I hadn't finished the song yet! I tinkered with a number of ideas, and this was the end result:




As you can see, there's a kinesthetic aspect to the song, which goes a long way towards reinforcing concepts of the planets' relative sizes, helps give students a way to interact with the song, and serves as an additional mnemonic device. I'm grateful for the assistance of some of the counselors in refining the kinesthetic movements before I taught it to the kids. And a few of the motions were decided on by kids during the session. This aspect was inspired by the work of Dr. Lodge McCammon, who also writes some wonderful songs.

The song continued to be refined in the next few days. When I taught it to the kids, I mentioned "Pluto and Charon." It was suggested, then, that I replace Charon with Ceres, which, like Pluto, has the status of a dwarf planet, since it is massive enough to shape itself into a sphere, but not massive enough to clear its orbit. When we recorded the video, there was a bit of each, but the official line in the song is now "Pluto and Ceres."

I also was unhappy with the grammar of "the reason they are planets is..." I had tried several lines here, and it wasn't until I slept on it that I came up with "They qualify as planets with their orbit and their mass." So, the older lyric is in the video above, but the newer lyric is the one I used for the recording on iTunes and the various other outlets where one can buy the track.

Scientific side note: There are three qualifications a body in our solar system must meet to be a planet in the eyes of the IAU by the current standard. The first is that it must orbit The Sun. The second is that it must be massive enough to pull itself into a spherical shape. The third (and newest qualification) is that it must "clear its neighborhood." The work of Stern and Levison suggests that this third qualification is also a function of mass and orbit, and thus I feel comfortable making the statement that "They qualify as planets with their orbit and their mass."

Dr. Virani was also pleased that I mentioned that "those are the planets in order, at least the way they're currently defined." The current definition was arrived at in 2006, but for many years we were taught that Pluto was the 9th planet, and it's entirely possible that at some point in the future, the definition will change again.

I will be making a few more videos for this song, including a lyric video and some videos to help explain the lyrics and to teach the movements, to be used in the classroom.

One last thought about this song: I was initially planning to have my daughter sing it, but she got strep throat just as I needed to record it. But as a result, I made very sure that the song was in a singable range for elementary and middle school kids. That makes it awfully high for me, but I'm willing to suffer a little for music and education!

Tuesday, October 1, 2013

Distance, Midpoint and Slope Formulas in Song

I have been very recalcitrant in keeping this blog updated, and it's been many months since I wrote another educational song. I had reasons, some good, some bad.

But another request from my sister kicked me into high gear last week, and this was the result:





I'm rather happy with this one, despite the fact that it fails one of my tests for an ideal educational song, that there be at least a modicum of humor.

Furthermore, I would understand if Geometry teachers chose not to use or share a song like this. It's important to know how these formulas are derived, and what they mean. Just memorizing them may help you to do better on a test, but not help you understand the subject. When I took Geometry, I never memorized them, I would just re-derive the formulas.

But some students may benefit from a reminder. I was proud that I got the entire formula for each into the verses and that the song is catchy and compact... And that my elementary school aged daughters can already both sing it from memory.

Friday, April 6, 2012

Periodic Symbols Song goes viral

My songwriting energies have been directed much more to my ear training students this semester, so I haven't written any new science songs. But the ones I have written continue to attract more attention.

I'm honored that the producers of the Periodic Table of Videos chose to use one of my songs as a basis for a recent video of their own:





Thanks to the publicity they gave to this song, many more people have heard it. The original video, which had about 5,000 views a few weeks ago (after being on YouTube for months) now has over 30,000. This came in two surges. The first was from the video above. The second surge in popularity included mentions on Metafilter, Neatorama, and Yahoo News Canada, as well as a small flurry of referrals on twitter.

So, with all this interest in my science songs, I'm planning to use my summer months to record an album that I could actually sell. What shall I add to it? What should I write next?

Sunday, March 4, 2012

Follow me on Twitter

I am normally more inclined to be an early adopter, but it took me a long time to see the value of Twitter, especially when I already had other social media accounts. I had even asked some active Twitter users why it was worthwhile, and hadn't heard anything to tempt me.

Last Tuesday, however, one of my students sat down with me, and in a few short minutes he demonstrated to me how effectively one could use Twitter to reach an audience with similar interests. I recognized then that I needed to create an account for my science songbook project.

So, as you can see in the upper right corner of the blog, I now have an account. Please follow me, help shape my musical/educational agenda, and get informed about new things that I post!



Thanks,

David 

Monday, February 20, 2012

100K Views!

Sometime this afternoon, assuming that the Internet doesn't abruptly shut down, my Periodic Table Song is going to hit one hundred thousand views! I'm glad that so many people have discovered it, and I hope teachers and students continue to find it useful. For what it's worth, I have now posted a revised version that includes the "placeholder names" and shows each element's position in the table. (As I had with the karaoke version.)

I haven't figured out what to do about the two new elements that should be approved in a few months, though... it may require an addendum rather than a rewrite. In the meantime, they are mentioned in the video (but not the song) of the revised version:


For the original 100,000 views version, see Memorizing the Periodic Table of Elements, which also has a link to my Periodic Table Symbols Song. (I find the latter an invaluable help in remembering what comes next.)

Saturday, February 18, 2012

I Want to Sing About Science!

It's been awhile since I posted any new science songs. But they've been on my mind again and with good reason.

Back in the fall, I had written a song called "I want to sing about science." It was inspired by a conversation with Greg Crowther, who manages the website Sing About Science... and Math. I had just finished recording Greg's song "Scientific State of Mind" for the 2012 USA Science and Engineering Festival Song Contest. We spent about an hour on the phone talking about science and music and what we wanted out of educational songs. He told me he wished there were more songs about actual great discoveries and how they were made, presented in a way that made people want to make discoveries themselves, too. Songs that would be about the process of science, rather than just the data we've derived by using it.

As we hung up the phone, I resolved to rise to the challenge. I thought I'd see if I could write a "theme song" for his site, using these ideas. We had also just talked about how hard it would be to fit heliocentrism into a song, so that was where I started. Within a day or two, I had the basic ideas of the song, and I finally sent him a rough draft. I think he was pleased, but he also came back to me with some really helpful criticism, and suggestions for improvement. I took these into account, and it made a big difference in the quality of the song.

Though my usual practice with these songs has been to write and record them in a single evening, I took several weeks to "finish" the song, and paid more attention to the recording quality this time. When I presented Greg with the final result, he not only featured it on his blog, but suggested that I enter it into the aforementioned contest as well. With his blessing, I did so.

Months passed, but in early December, I was notified that my song was a finalist in the contest! I was pleased, and shared the news with my friends, not knowing what to expect next. Both of the other songs in the category were also really good.

I had plenty of things to distract me in the meantime, as I sang in a performance of Amahl and the Night Visitors with Opera Roanoke and prepared for my role in "Le Roi et Le Fermier" with Opera Lafayette that was presented in the Kennedy Center, Lincoln Center, and then for two performances at the Opera Royale in Versailles. It was a magical journey, and I brought my family along with me to France, staying in Paris for several days after the last performance.

It was on one of my last days in Paris that I received the email that my song had been named one of the winners of the contest!

I'm looking forward to attending the festival in April. Meanwhile, here is the song... I hope you enjoy it!



Lyrics after the jump...

Saturday, November 5, 2011

Demonstrating or just showing off?

I'm not entirely sure whether I did this video to demonstrate the value of the two elements songs I wrote, or just to show off that I can do it. Either way, here it is as a record that even a lowly musician who hasn't taken a science course in at least 20 years can use a pair of mnemonic songs to recreate a periodic table from memory. (And have some fun in the process.) Of course, the songs I used were my own, which I posted about last month.

To record the video, I just stayed after class one day and put my iPhone on a music stand. Since I teach in a school of music, the staff lines on the blackboard made it that much easier to draw the framework. After that, I just started the camera and went to work. In any case, you can see that the main time limiting factor in filling in the table is how long it takes to draw the letters.


All this leaves us with a question. Is it worthwhile to memorize the table, when we can easily pull one up anytime we need one? Perhaps not. But it is a fun exercise, a chance to practice one's memory skills, and a reason to spend a nice little chunk of time with the elements and how they relate to each other. It can also help to reinforce the connection between symbols and names.

And heck, sometimes it's just fun to show off!