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!

Saturday, October 29, 2011

More Ear Training Songs

I've been slow to post recently, but I've been trying to keep up with my teaching duties and my muse.

Lately, the latter has been urging me towards songs that help teach or reinforce concepts in ear training. This involves math and proportion, and thus is perhaps not entirely out of place on this site. I've already posted others of my music education songs.

So, here are a few of my more recent endeavors in that regard. The first came to me as I was studying an old ear training text, which asserted that one of the first things one ought to teach students was to hear intervals with their inversions. There are several good arguments for this, including the fact that if you can quickly identify the inversion of a larger interval, you essentially halve the number of intervals you need to be able to hear to transcribe them.

As I read through the list of intervals, I started singing them in my head. And I started with the minor third, which often implies to me, if heard out of context, the interval between "mi" and "so." And then I followed it with the leap from "so" up to "mi," and it immediately asserted itself as a song. It only took a few minutes to map out how the rest of the song should go. Sometimes what is obvious is also what is best:

I didn't imagine another song would come so soon on it's heels, but my ear training class reached the part of the course where they have to hear the V7 chord in harmonic progressions. For some students, picking out that added 7 is difficult, especially if they haven't already mastered hearing progressions of plain triads. And I had been kicking around a "hook" in my head without being sure how it would fit into a song: "Sol-ti-re-fa, it's a Dominant 7, and brings us home to I." As we started the new section, I played this snippet in class, and one student suggested that I make a deceptive cadence instead. (That's when V or V7 leads to vi instead of I.) That triggered a burst of creative energy, and this song was born, which delves into much more than the V7 chord, but hammers home that sol-ti-re-fa are the notes in a V7.

Note for the curious: "so" and "sol" are interchangeable in my lexicon. I actually prefer the former nomenclature, but many of my students use the latter. I used the latter in this song because we've come up with several mnemonic jokes that rely on the latter pronunciation. ie "How do you know it's a diminished 7 chord?" "It is sol-less." (A diminished 7 chord often sounds spooky.) And for the Dominant 7 chord, "sol-ti-re-fa" sounds a bit like it could be a fictional snack food.

There are still other ear training songs (and science songs) to share here, but I'll save them for another post.

Thursday, September 29, 2011

Erosion: A love song for soil

This was the third (and so far, final) song in the "soil cycle."

I intended this to be cheesier than it turned out. Judging from a few comments I received, I really needed to be a bit more over the top. It's on my agenda to redo this song at some point with drums and a string section, and really make it as sappy as possible. (And if I could find a great videographer to make an equally cheesy music video to accompany it, all the better!)

I was pleased with this one as an educational song. I like how it parodies a love song as it explains the ideas of erosion and conservation, and once again names the components of soil. And I still like the way the music and lyrics worked together. Nothing in this song felt forced.

Lyrics after the jump:

Wednesday, September 28, 2011

Scientific State of Mind

Almost all of the videos I've posted to my YouTube channels are ones I wrote and recorded myself, occasionally with help from my wife and kids.

This summer, however, I got an email from Greg Crowther, who is a scientist and songwriter who also maintains the website/database/blog Sing About Science. (Greg and I had communicated earlier in the year, and we were already familiar with each other's work.) He had a song which he wanted to record for a songwriting competition... could I help out?

I was busy, and away from home, and wouldn't be near my instruments for weeks, so naturally I said yes! (I love a challenge.) I realized that the only way I'd be able to do it justice would be to create an acapella arrangement of it. And though I was able to rerecord some of the vocals when I got home, most of it was just recorded through my macbook's built in mic into Garageband.

He had sent me the lyrics and the melody, which I liked right away. I could already envision the harmonic underpinning to the tune. As I began to put together the arrangement, we realized it needed an intro and a bridge, which I added, with some additional thematic elements that tied the opening of the song to the ending.

I'm mostly pleased with the result, although Garageband's autotune leaves much to be desired. (And it's a necessary effect for this style.)

You can read more about the creation of the song from Greg's point of view on his blog.

Here is a video of Scientific State of Mind:

Lyrics after the jump:

Tuesday, September 27, 2011

How to hear augmented six chords

In my "real" job, I teach, among other things, a subject called "ear training." Ear training, as I think I explained in a previous post, is meant to develop the skill of looking at music and knowing what it sounds like without having to play it on an instrument, with the complementary skill of being able to hear music and then write it down in various forms.

Though it is not science per se, I thought I'd take this opportunity to bring two of my YouTube channels together and share another side of my teaching through song. (I maintain a separate channel for my supplementary learning videos for my ear training class.)

Last spring, I wrote several songs for this class. Some were just silly. But I was really proud of my "International Chords Song," which was written to help understand and remember how to hear what we call German, French, and Neapolitan 6 chords. Sure enough, my class did better on the harmony section of that test than on any previous test, despite the fact that the material was more challenging.

So, unless you already have some training in music theory and know what these chords are, this song may make no sense to you, but please enjoy the International Chords Song:

Lyrics after the jump:

Monday, September 26, 2011

Memorizing the Periodic Table of Elements

I want to flash forward for a moment to more recent history:

One of the songs I wrote in the Spring of 2011 was a rap of the elements. My sister told me that was something the high school students really needed help memorizing. Apparently she was right, as it has been by far my most popular video so far.

As of this writing, it has over 22,000 views on YouTube, with 143 likes. And quite a few comments from students who said it helped them memorize the table.

So, not being one to rest on my laurels, I added two more videos to help the memorization process, and hopefully provide a little more enjoyment on the way. The first was just a karaoke version of the elements rap.

For the second, I tried to see if I could turn the actual symbols of the periodic table into a song. I was rather pleased with the result.

Here are all three videos:

Original version:

Karaoke version:

Periodic table SYMBOLS song:

Sunday, September 25, 2011

The Topsoil Dance

This was the second song in the "soil cycle."

Again the amount of information conveyed was intentionally limited. This song addresses the three layers of ground that third graders in Virginia are expected to know: Topsoil, Subsoil, and Bedrock. It describes each, and accentuates the importance of topsoil in providing nutrients for plants to grow.

Ideally, I would have made a video that showed people doing the actual dance as envisioned... I even tried filming some friends to see if I could make it work. What I've now decided is that making music videos is harder than it looks. I would love it if someone with better videography skills would take it on as a project!

When I posted this, I still thought of this as just a fun little lark. All the recording was done through the mic of my laptop, and I wasn't terribly concerned with recording quality. I have since envisioned a more elaborate arrangement, and may re-record it.

Lyrics after the jump:

Saturday, September 24, 2011


This was the song that got it all started. No it's not fancy. However, it met several goals that I feel are important elements of a good teaching song.

First, its main goal was to remind the student of the components of soil. Rock, clay, silt, sand, and humus. It was also meant to remind the student of the purpose of soil. These were things that were on the study guide for my daughter's test, and therefore deemed important knowledge.

Secondly, it doesn't talk down, and is not overly didactic. It uses a bit of whimsical humor to keep interest, and then slips in the required information.

Also, it doesn't try to pack too much information into one song. This is a very subjective thing, but the problem one encounters if a song is too densely packed with information is that the options for making things aesthetically pleasing become far fewer, and the information can also get lost in the clutter. One should not expect too much of a song, after all.

There are other things I could say about this video, but I'll let you judge for yourself. By a certain standard, this is the song that started it all:

Lyrics after the jump:

Historical Overview

Welcome to The Science Songbook, the blog where I feature songs I've written about science, and perhaps a few other subjects. I presume I'll add a bit of philosophy in as well, as music and education are both central to my life, and I have much to say about each and their intersection.

I make my living as a classical singer and university professor. I teach private voice lessons and a class in ear training (which involves learning to look at notated music and hear it in your head, as well as the reverse: hearing music and being able to write it down.)

However, before I discovered my vocal talents, I was very interested in songwriting. I wrote my first song when I was 7 years old, and by the time I had applied for college, I had written about 50 songs. Sadly, they ranged in quality from utterly atrocious to mildly palatable. I continued to write in college, but eventually got fully sucked away into the world of opera and oratorio.

I started writing songs again after I got married, perhaps inspired by the fact that my wife's parents had been rock musicians in the 60's and 70's with a gold record to their credit. Years spent performing and teaching music had honed my skills to a much higher degree, and I found I was writing much better material. Most of it was still centered on the typical subjects of love and anguish.

When my kids were small, my wife and I became strong advocates for early childhood education, and we began performing occasional shows for the preschool crowd, mostly featuring folk songs that get kids moving. As we were affiliated early on with a mobile literacy program called the Gus Bus, we called ourselves the "book bus band." ("Gus bus band" was already taken.) I began writing songs for the preschool crowd to supplement our sets, and we were featured on a local telethon singing two of our originals, including one written specifically for that show.

Last year, my eldest daughter asked me to help her review some material for a test on Soil. As I looked at the study sheet, I thought "Hey, I bet I could write some of this material into a song." I sat down for a half hour with the guitar, and came up with the first song in what I contemplated calling "dirty songs for kids" but later decided would be better represented as "the soil cycle." I recorded it that evening in approximately one take, directly into the microphone of my macbook. I added a little extra vocal harmony, and it was satisfactorily saved for posterity. My daughter loved it, but I thought I should share it a bit more widely. Perhaps other people would find it useful.

The question was, how to share it? I had several websites I maintained, but none were really appropriate for this sort of music. But I recalled recently seeing some songs posted to YouTube with lyrics. That, I thought, I could probably do. So I did a little experimentation with iMovie, and discovered it was rather easy to produce a video of the song with just the lyrics. This had the dual benefit of being quick and easy to produce, and of making it easier to sing along.

I posted it to YouTube on the old "bookbusband" account I had reserved. (I now regret not choosing a new name at that point!) And then I posted a link to FaceBook. And about 42 of my friends went and listened. And a lot of them liked it!

I was so jazzed that they liked it that I wrote another song the next day, and again recorded it in one evening and had a video out that night. The next day, I actually had a day off, and spent the better part of the day writing and recording the third song in the cycle. And I wrote and recorded a fourth song the next day.

At which point I burnt out completely. I turned my attention to other things, including recording a local Christmas CD, for which I also wrote or arranged several pieces, and focusing on my professional duties as a singer and teacher.

By the Spring of 2011, my videos were getting a little more attention, and someone took my suggestion to make a request. (I love a challenge.) This quickly resulted in a new song, and I produced another four videos in rapid succession. By now, I knew more people were paying attention, so I put a little more care into the recording of the songs. I pulled some very long nights getting these songs finished.

Again, I burnt out for awhile. (It's hard to do all this while working full time!)

My interest was again piqued this summer when I was contacted by Greg Crowther, a scientist and songwriter, to see if I could help record a song he wrote for a contest. I was away for the summer, and had no instruments or equipment with me, so naturally, it was a challenge I couldn't refuse! I decided that I would have to make an acapella arrangement of the song. I added an intro and a bridge, and built up a somewhat elaborate arrangement using only my macbook (using garageband) and the built in microphone. (I did rerecord most of the parts using a better mic when I got home.)

I've slowed down my pace a bit now, which perhaps means I won't burn out so quickly. I've also realized that this is something I care passionately about, and therefore something I need to make room for in my life. (A story better saved for another post.) So I am starting this blog, and beginning a journey of taking these songs and my involvement with them seriously.

I will be posting songs individually here, with some commentary. If you'd just like to skip ahead and listen to most of what I've produced at one go, you'll find them on this YouTube channel:

I hope you enjoy!