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June 2, 2011 / btcurrell

Just Can’t Get You Out Of My Head: Science in Song

When was the last time you heard a song based on science?

Was it when you watched that episode of Big Bang Theory, or perhaps when someone showed you the Lady Gaga parody Bad Project?

These kinds of parody and theme songs seem to represent the direction of science song writing currently, and while they are genuine science communication, they seem to be intended primarily as light entertainment rather than as a tool to promote understanding of, and enthusiasm in science.

Yet there is an underground side to science song writing which has a great deal of value. I am talking about the use of song as a learning tool.

If I asked you to repeat back to me word for word a short spoken passage, chances are you would get the general idea right but would not be able to recite the exact words you had heard, even after a few repetitions. If instead I was to write a song with rhymes, a catchy melody and consistent rhythm, with lyrics the same as the spoken passage, the recall would be greatly increased. This exact situation has been studied by Greg Crowther in his article “Learning to the Beat of a Different Drum“. He had one group of university students listen to Billy Joel’s “You’re my Home”, while another group listened to an unaccompanied male voice speaking the lyrics. After three listens the students who had listened to the song were recalling approximately double the amount of words than the students who had listened to the prose alone.

Recall of Song Lyrics by College Students

The complex words and concepts present in most science lend themselves especially well to representation by song. It allows ideas to be set out in a logical and straight forward way, and can return to and repeat important concepts if needed.

A particularly good example of this is “The Nano Song”. I am about to finish my undergraduate degree in nanotechnology, yet would have some trouble explaining exactly what nanotechnology is to most adults, let alone children. However this song manages to give a concise yet reasonably broad summary of nanotechnology as a whole, in a format understandable to children, which most people would want to listen to again.

When the power of learning through song is linked to the complex ideas and words inherent in most science, science song writing becomes a powerful pedagogic tool. Lynda Jones, president of the Science Songwriters Association, puts it better than I know how to;

“The brain learns best, regardless of age, with multi-sensory stimuli, and music is an important component of that. The ideal learning experience would include the stimulation of sight, sound, rhythm, touch, movement, taste, smell, emotion and intellect, followed by the opportunity to recite, review, reflect, discuss, and respond. TV advertisers, who must get their messages across in less than a minute, strive to appeal to as many of these as possible. Why should education do any less?

A catchy and carefully constructed academic song will address many of the above requirements for optimum learning, namely, sound, rhythm, emotion, and intellect, and leave an impression that invites recitation, review, and reflection. The power of teaching through music has only just begun to be tapped.”

If you are interested in learning more about science song writing check out to the Science Songwriters Association website, or if you want to listen to some science songs head over to the Sing About Science and Maths database.

Have you ever used music to aid in the retention of information?

Got any good science songs to share?

Do you think music is or could be an effective form of science communication?

Only one way to let me know… Comment!

References:

Crowther, G. (2006) Learning to the Beat of a Different Drum. Connect vol. Mar-Apr ’06 pp. 11-13.

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8 Comments

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  1. poonamrajmane88 / Jun 2 2011 4:19 pm

    Hello btcurell,
    To start with the title makes you notice and read, i guess it really worked in your favour. Secondly uploading a video to prove your point and explaining your perspective is lot more important and you have presented the best example. I agree with you even if you learn any field in depth its very hard to explain things in simple words to target audience ranging from age 5-70.
    Most of the people have the tendency to remember certain things when it has lyrics or tone to it. If you consider mnemonics, rhyming words are the most important way to remember difficult things such as periodic table or cranial nerves.
    Having said that most of the people remember things properly at a later stage if they have memorize it in song format, but nowadays nobody actually makes use of it. I myself as a student has tendency of remembering things if I have some tone to it. It is not possible to make high school or for that matter further level students to be taught scientific facts in song format. Although one can initiate this and make a difference to learning.
    The links that you have given are very much useful and interesting. In fact i went through most of them and found that the information it has is of high credibility. Overall good use of videos and sites for your blog.

    Regards,
    Poonam Rajmane

    • btcurrell / Jun 6 2011 2:07 pm

      Hi Poonam,

      Thanks for your comment.
      I was wondering why you thought that it is not possible to incorporate learning through song into higher levels of education?
      It seems to me that any technique which has the ability to engage us on a number of levels which current techniques ignore has plenty of potential. All it would require is some research into development of the technique.

      Cheers
      Ben

  2. Dorothy Yu / Jun 5 2011 4:41 am

    Our brain is very elastic. It can change and be altered by our experiences and exposure from our senses. Music makes it easier for us to learn, respond and remember the sounds we hear. Emotions evoke a response within us, especially as it triggers a memory. Recalling information brings up more conscious thoughts. Our conscious thoughts influence how and what we learn and help us retain data in our long term memory.

    Many students listen to music while they are studying, and say that it helps them learn. Indeed music affects our moods and evokes emotions in us. Something within us synchronizes to the rhythm and sounds we hear.Emotions are connected to thought. Thoughts are connected to learning. For those who might be interested in the topic, here are the links to the websites.
    http://www.learninggamesforkids.com/science_songs.html
    http://www.songsforteaching.com/index.html

    Students remember major science terms by using easy to learn science songs. Songs can help with learning by repeating words and putting them into patterns, rhythms and catchy tunes. For example, photosynthesis song by Peter Weatherwall, mitosis song by Mr Parr and the elements. It is one of the most affective ways of improving the retention of complex information. The music boosted students’ knowledge as well as entertaining them.

  3. piyasd01 / Jun 5 2011 5:58 am

    Hi all,

    What an interesting topic to blog about! I have never thought of learning science through songs, but after reading your blog and watching the youtube video clip you provided, I’m convinced that it is possible.

    I agree with you that learning something by listening to a song will retain most of the information in your brain than listening to someone speak. The quote you provided by Lynda Jones sums it up very well. The article, ‘Learning to the beat of a different drum’ by Crowther says that regular music practises can improve mathematical abilities and increase personal IQ’s which I think is very interesting.

    I have limited knowledge about nanotechnology. Therefore “The Nano song” provided me with a simplistic overview of such a complex topic and I actually enjoyed it. I also like the simplistic graph you provided to prove your point that people can remember more information when it’s in a catchy song rather than simply listening to someone speak. With reference to the elements table, I recall in an episode of the Big Bang Theory, where Sheldon (one of the leading characters who is a physicist) reciting the whole periodic table in a melody which was very memorable.

    Primary school teachers can use this sort of technique to help explain complex scientific ideas in a simplistic manner to children so that they can retain that information. What do you think? Do you think that they already use music to enhance learning in primary schools today?

    Thanks for providing us with some good links to science song websites. I had a look at it and I really enjoyed the Maths and Environmental Science category songs on calculus and the water cycle respectively (http://www.singaboutscience.org/). Overall a very interesting topic to blog about!

    Regards,
    Devinka

    • btcurrell / Jun 6 2011 1:59 pm

      Thanks for the feedback, Devinka.

      I think that in primary schools, especially pre-primary, the technique has quite a large role in the classroom. But I also think that the method could quite easily be adapted to more advanced levels of education.
      High school and even university students could benifit greatly from the incorporation of music into their courses.

      By the way, the element song which Sheldon recites is by a guy called Tom Lehrer. Check him out.

      Ben

  4. sarbrown / Jun 10 2011 10:43 am

    I think you wrote that in a really engaging and captive manner. Particuarly your references to popular media as a catchy introduction.

    While it is true that songs can help short term memory better than prose, it doesn’t work as well as semantic encoding and it is also still shallow understanding and doesn’t convert into long term memory.

    I think music will be a good way of communicating science communication, or any communication at all, now all that needs to be is more semantic meaning applied to catchy rhyming tunes.

  5. yveee / Jun 11 2011 8:28 am

    As a lover of both science and music, I loved this post, Ben (and the nano song video clip!). Thank you.

    I actually tried my hand at writing a science song for another unit this semester (Science performance) with the intention of helping my lower primary/pre-primary audience remember the key messages of my performance on the solar system. I was pleasantly surprised at how well it worked, and I guess it is just an example to back up what you have said about the role of music in enhancing learning, information processing, long-term memory, and recall. I agree with Dorothy that the affective (emotional) component of music has a big part to play in this as well.

    Having said that, I feel like I agree with Poonam to a certain extent that it gets more difficult to write science songs for students at a higher education level. Not everyone in high school or university would have been able to appreciate something like the nano song. Some people might find it childish, over-simplified, or even condescending. It would be a challenge for science educators to find/write songs that strike a balance between educational value/content and student appeal (e.g. relating it to popular music genres of each age group). Parodies sometimes work since humour/entertainment may also be used to enhance learning.

    Yvette

  6. chadabbot / Mar 20 2012 2:46 pm

    btcurrell,
    I am going to talk further on Poonam’s point, about song not being as effective for learning in higher education.
    I appreciate that song can be quite effective in portraying key concepts, with your example of ‘the Nano Song’ proving just how easy it can be to teach the basics to people with no prior knowledge of a certain subject.
    However, I don’t believe that using song as a learning tool, especially in science, is as practical as you make it out to be. Tertiary and even late secondary schooling reaches a point where it is just too complex for this type of learning to remain practical. I am currently in my second year of Neuroscience and I can definitely see that in specific areas, a song could help in my learning of material. Having a tune to lyrics describing the layout of the brain could very well help me memorise what is what and where. However, a point would be reached where the song isn’t really a song but an essay with music behind it, compromising the main asset of the song in the first place, simplicity.
    It is the same I am sure for most if not all studies at tertiary level. Even though ‘the Nano Song’ may help those to whom nanotechnology is unknown, experts may struggle to utilise a song to the same extent.
    So I do believe the song as a learning tool does have some sort of place in higher education, but it certainly is limited. How much so? This would probably be determined by the individual. Perhaps someone could make it work?

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