Science songs – why so silly?

Why are songs about science often so silly?

You know what I mean. They try to fit long words in the lyrics for the sake of scientific accuracy, they’re reductionist and literal, and they’re often parodies of existing songs with the words changed to be about science.

Some of them are really popular. These days, Tom Lehrer’s Elements song is probably better known than the original words to Gilbert and Sullivan’s tune. Science comedy is gaining in popularity, and silly songs about science seem to have an audience on YouTube as well.

But why are they always silly? Or: Why are there so few serious songs about science?

One reason is that to many people, “science” is abstract and impersonal. It’s not considered a topic for an emotional song. There are far more songs about technology (like email or phones) because technology is integrated in people’s day-to-day lives. Arcade Fire’s We Used To Wait is a good example. Science, on the other hand, is seen as impersonal: it’s taught in school as discovery of facts that are completely independent of the person observing them.

When the topic of songs is “scientists” rather than “science”, the tone shifts to something less silly and less literal. Scientists in music are often symbolic for determination and stubbornness. In The Flaming Lips’ Race for the Prize, two scientists are “locked in heated battle”, “so determined” to find a cure “if it kills them”. In Coldplay’s The Scientist, probably the most well-known (but not the best) scientist song, the metaphorical scientist character understands science better than love. Here, science is the opposite of emotion.

Songs about science itself, rather than songs about fictional scientists, are often cheery folksy tunes or parodies of pop songs in which words like “photosynthesis” and “deoxyribose” have to be worked into the meter, and where scientific accuracy is more important than creating something that’s pleasant to listen to. Metaphors are rare. Everything is literal. In a science song you can’t just say things like “science is the opposite of emotion”, which I wrote in the paragraph above, and expect people to know that this is not really true, and that it was shorthand for “people sometimes use science as a metaphor to describe a lack of emotion”. People might misunderstand. Everything in a science song has to be accurate, and that’s what often makes it silly. It’s contrived.

Science songs have such a reputation for silliness that people joke about it. Country singer Brad Paisley quipped at A Prairie Home Companion that he wrote an album about geology. The audience immediately laughed. He then proceeded to sing about the geological features of Tennessee, still to a lot of laughter. When the song ends, host Garrison Keillor says “That’s about as good as a song about geology gets”. Music about science is inherently silly because who wants to listen to a bunch of facts set to music?

Some science songs are deliberate educational tools, where being factual is important, but many others are not. YouTube is full of science parodies. They’re not all trying to teach you something – they’re having fun. People watch the videos, because they know the original song and the scientific references, and they want to laugh along with the creators.

It’s basically fan art, and in that sense, it’s very similar to filk.

Probably the only music genre to have gotten its name through a typo, filk is music created by science fiction fans, about the science fiction universes and characters they love. It originated at sci-fi conventions where people brought instruments and sang songs based on known melodies.

Change the topic from science fiction to science, and you end up with songs like Lab Slave, Bad Project, Defining Gravity or The Element Song.  Some are recorded in a lab, others are professional productions, but all of these examples are songs by people who like science and sing about it.

Like filk, such science songs are meant to be shared among people who get it. It creates a sense of community to be able to share a song about a thing you know and like with other people who know what you’re singing about. We laugh in recognition because we know what it’s like to work in a lab, or how many long and difficult names are in the periodic table of elements.  There’s more about the social aspect of “filking” on Wikipedia, and you can easily see how a lot of the same community ideas apply to these sorts of science songs.

So, if you consider “science songs” to be these literal and factual songs that fit the filk phenotype, then they are indeed often humourous, parodying existing songs, and full of inside jokes and jargon. But there are other songs that allude to science. They aren’t always literal, they might be about people instead of facts, they only vaguely hint at scientific concepts, and they are original compositions rather than parodies.Nevertheless, they are inspired by science, but they aren’t meant to be funny.

A few months ago, The Guardian published a list of some great songs inspired by science. The list includes Joanna Newsom, Kate Bush, David Bowie, Ella Fitzgerald, The Cure, Josh Ritter, the aforementioned Flaming Lips, and many others. You might have heard some of these songs before, and just never considered that you were listening to a song about science.

So yes, lots of science songs are silly, but maybe that’s because we only consider the silly ones to be “science songs”, and we think of the others as just regular music.