Archive for the ‘Music’ Category

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Greg’s crackpot theories, #2: your favorite songs really DO sound better on the radio

January 12, 2012

My musical tastes are not that sophisticated. Above all else, I love catchy pop songs — the kind cranked out by They Might Be Giants, Stephin Merritt (of The Magnetic Fields), and Fountains of Wayne. I agree with Alex Fletcher, Hugh Grant’s character in Words and Music, who says of pop music, “Nothing can make you feel as good as fast.”

Some music-induced buzzes are better than others, though. The highest highs come when I’m listening to something that is NOT a catchy song — a less accessible song, a weather report, whatever — before the catchy song washes over me in a wave of pleasure. The non-catchy “baseline” makes the arrival of the catchy song that much better. Thus, I especially enjoy favorite songs when I hear them on the radio because they often follow, say, commercials for The Shane Company.

This thought about non-catchy baselines was inspired by repeated listening to John Linnell’s 1999 album State Songs (a favorite of my 5-year-old son, who refers to it as “the Green Music” because the CD is green). It includes a very catchy project overture, “The Songs of the 50 States,” which many artists would have used as the opening track. But Linnell leads off with a willfully unhip instrumental, “Illinois,” before plunging into “The Songs of the 50 States.” Why? I think he realized that the perceived catchiness of “The Songs of the 50 States” would be enhanced by preceding it with a much less catchy ditty.

Right or wrong, that’s my story and I’m sticking to it.

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End-of-year notes

December 30, 2011

1. I’ll be singing at UW’s Mini-Medical School on February 7!

2. Of all the things I meant to blog about this year, one of the most glaring omissions was my non-coverage of the United States men’s first-ever team gold medals at the IAU 100K World Championship in September. The American women took home silver. Belated congrats to all.

3. Below: the year in (selected) tweets.

@grmeyer Yes, it’s true – I am the preeminent science songs scholar among @williamscollege alums. Do they give Bicentennial Medals for that? [Feb. 9]

I’m not in the habit of following hashtags, but #sciencemusicals (Broadway shows retitled to be science-centric) was a lot of fun this week. [Mar. 25]

Saturday Night Hyperthermia #sciencemusicals [Mar. 25]

The Little Ichthyoid-Human Chimera #sciencemusicals [Mar. 25]

Annie Get Your Grant #sciencemusicals [Mar. 27]

Bring Down ‘Da Noise, Bring Up ‘Da Signal #sciencemusicals [Mar. 27]

101 Citations #sciencemusicals [Mar. 27]

Side-splittingly funny video from today’s @nwabr student #bioexpo: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=XcpWJhKTQN4 [May 24]

Had to leave a 5-5 #Mariners game in the 8th inning because my 4.5-year-old son was bored. Apparently the bottom of the 8th was exciting. [June 5]

Cool t-shirt worn by Sonrisa customer at U. Village: “Avoid cliches like the plague.” [June 25]

@brianglanz Do people tell you you resemble Anderson Cooper but with much less gray/white hair? Am in Phoenix airport surrounded by CNN… [Aug. 31]

I’m now being followed by a scientist whose handle is “sh*tmyratsays.” LOL! [Oct. 10]

Today I met Stan Wentzel (@WilliamsCollege Class of ’74), who wrote the “Sleep Country USA” jingle — 20 years ago! [Nov. 12]

This AM my son hid my keys just as I was leaving. I hope my calm rxn gave him so little satisfaction that he’ll NEVER EVER DO THAT AGAIN. [Nov. 30]

My son just referred to jumping high with a “poke-poke stick.” Took me a second to realize he was talking about a pogo stick. [Dec. 6]

Now working on a song about HIV transmission — loosely based on Aerosmith’s “Walk This Way.” It’s more tasteful than it sounds. #Heathers [Dec. 18]

You know you’re a dad when you’re at a fantastically close basketball game (#Virginia 83, #Redhawks 77)…
…and all you can think about is how much the announcer reminds you of the guy who voices Skipper in “The Penguins of Madagascar.” [Dec. 21]

Just went kayaking in a SC lagoon populated with alligators. Probably good that my 5-year-old wasn’t with me. [Dec. 24]

Just met a guy who took accordion lessons from Gordon Lightfoot at a camp in upstate NY in the early ’60s. Yes, THE Gordon Lightfoot. [Dec. 26]

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Liner notes for my awesome Glee mix

November 28, 2011

(1) “Leaving On A Jet Plane.” This song was cut from the pilot episode that aired on TV, but is included in the “Director’s Cut.” The plot up to this point: Will Schuester, now a Spanish teacher at his old high school, takes over the school’s glee club, renames it New Directions, and hopes to return it to the glory it enjoyed when he was a student. However, his wife Terri has just announced that she’s pregnant, and he decides that he needs a better job with better benefits. He sings this John Denver song in an empty auditorium as a farewell to William McKinley High….

(2) “Don’t Stop Believin’.” Emma, a guidance counselor at McKinley and friend of Will, urges him to stay at McKinley. Then Will overhears New Directions rehearsing Journey’s “Don’t Stop Believin’” in the still-empty auditorium and decides to stay after all. This song kind of sets the tone for the series, which spotlights plucky underdogs who rise to musical greatness in part because they “don’t stop believing.”

(3) “Alone.” This Heart song is performed on the show as a karaoke duet in a bowling alley. It’s a good reminder of just how magical karaoke can be.

(4) “Sweet Caroline.” Neil Diamond never seemed so good!

(5) “Defying Gravity.” This song is taken from the musical Wicked by Stephen Schwartz. It was performed in Wicked by Idina Menzel (as Elphaba, the Wicked Witch of the West) with Kristin Chenoweth (as Glinda); both women have since guest-starred on Glee, Menzel as the coach of a rival glee club and Chenoweth as a talented but alcoholic singer. The Glee version of the song features the unusually high male voice of Chris Colfer.

(6) “I’ll Stand By You.” Finn, the quarterback of the football team and male lead of many New Directions songs, sings this to his daughter. Actually, the girl is not yet born and not really his, but the scene in which he serenades her sonogram was very poignant nonetheless.

(7) “Don’t Stand So Close To Me” / “Young Girl.” Glee’s music has included several “mashups.” This Police/Gary Puckett combo comes from the “Ballad” episode in which Rachel falls in love with Will, her teacher, and he sings this to her in an attempt to let her down easily.

(8) “(You’re) Having My Baby.” This 1974 hit for Paul Anka is widely hated for its perceived sappiness and chauvinism, according to Dave Barry’s Bad Song Survey and many other sources. Finn sings this at a dinner with his girlfriend’s parents to convey that they are, yes, having a baby. Her dad, not being a Paul Anka fan, kicks her out of the house.

(9) “True Colors.” Sometimes Glee dusts off songs you’ve forgotten about — this Cyndi Lauper hit from 1986, for example — and reminds you of how good they are.

(10) “Smile.” Here’s another one I hadn’t heard before but really like. The music was written by Charlie Chaplin as an instrumental theme for his 1936 movie Modern Times; the lyrics were added by John Turner and Geoffrey Parsons 18 years later, according to Wikipedia.

(11) “You Can’t Always Get What You Want.” Finn’s girlfriend Quinn finally confesses that the baby she’s carrying isn’t his. Finn, understandably upset by the betrayal, later brings sheet music for this Rolling Stones song to the group as a last-minute addition to its Sectionals set list.

(12) “Borderline” / “Open Your Heart.” Another mashup, this one from the all-Madonna episode.

(13) “Dream On.” Will’s old singing nemesis, played by Neil Patrick Harris of Doogie Howser fame, auditions against Will for the role of Jean Valjean in a community theatre production of Les Miserables; moreover, they have both prepared the same audition song (Aerosmith’s “Dream On”) and, due to time constraints, are forced to sing it as a duet. This use of completely implausible coincidences to justify the inclusion of a killer musical number is typical of Glee, and can be funny or annoying, depending on one’s perspective.

(14) “Safety Dance.” One advantage of using an able-bodied actor to portray a wheelchair-bound character is that the character can jump up and dance in fantasy sequences while covering Men Without Hats.

(15) “Dream A Little Dream Of Me.” This song, first recorded in 1931, eventually became a hit for Mama Cass Elliot of The Mamas & the Papas.

(16) “Poker Face.” This duet by Rachel and her mother Shelby (the coach of a rival glee club) was from a Lady Gaga-themed episode. Although I associate Lady Gaga with over-the-top spectacles, this stripped-down version of her song (with a piano providing the sole accompaniment) works really well.

(17) “Stronger.” With this track, we move to some highlights from Season 2. “Stronger” is taken from the episode featuring Britney Spears songs. Some decent self-empowerment sentiments here.

(18) “I Want To Hold Your Hand.” Here the Beatles song has been dramatically altered; Kurt sings it as a tribute to his father Burt, who has suffered a heart attack and is in a coma.

(19) “Teenage Dream.” One of New Directions’ opponents at Sectionals in Season 2 is the Dalton Academy Warblers. Unlike most groups on the show-choir circuit, who rely heavily on full bands for instrumental backup, the Warblers resemble a true a cappella group. The arrangement of this Katy Perry song was borrowed from the Tufts Beelzebubs.

(20) “Forget You.” Just when you thought life at McKinley High couldn’t get any wackier, Gwyneth Paltrow shows up as a substitute teacher who channels Cee Lo Green.

(21) “Landslide.” Gwyneth Paltrow, continuing her bid for the title of Best Substitute Teacher Ever, covers a Fleetwood Mac song that Stevie Nicks wrote about her challenging relationship with Lindsey Buckingham: “Well I’ve been afraid of changing because I’ve built my life around you. But time makes you bolder, children get older, and I’m getting older too.”

(22) “Loser Like Me.” A song written specifically for Glee, this rivals “Don’t Stop Believin’” as a pro-underdog anthem for the series. Even with an atrocious bridge (not heard during the telecast), it’s still irresistibly catchy.

(23) “Never Going Back Again.” From the episode devoted to Fleetwood Mac’s Rumours album (1977). The members of Fleetwood Mac overcame frequent and emotional conflicts to make a great record; similarly, Will urges the members of New Directions to channel their own problems into making compelling music.

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Mixing it up

November 25, 2011

Once upon a time, my friend Tanya and I made each other mix tapes accompanied by lengthy commentaries on the rationale for our selections, the relevance of the songs to our lives, etc. I possibly took these exercises a bit too seriously — e.g., were my misguided attempts to make sense of R.E.M. lyrics really necessary? — but it was rewarding to move beyond passive listening into the realm of really sharing and discussing the music.

Eventually Tanya and I left our 20s behind and got busy with other things and stopped making tapes for each other. But I miss those days…. And so tonight after Phil fell asleep I finally made the Glee (Seasons 1 and 2) mix that I’d been thinking about for six months: (1) Leaving On A Jet Plane; (2) Don’t Stop Believin’; (3) Alone; (4) Sweet Caroline; (5) Defying Gravity; (6) I’ll Stand By You; (7) Don’t Stand So Close To Me / Young Girl; (8) (You’re) Having My Baby; (9) True Colors; (10) Smile; (11) You Can’t Always Get What You Want; (12) Borderline / Open Your Heart; (13) Dream On; (14) Safety Dance; (15) Dream A Little Dream; (16) Poker Face; (17) Stronger; (18) I Want To Hold Your Hand; (19) Teenage Dream; (20) Forget You; (21) Landslide; (22) Loser Like Me; (23) Never Going Back Again.

Now if I can just find some time to write the liner notes….

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Is SingAboutScience.org a waste of taxpayer money?

May 26, 2011

Sen. Tom Coburn, M.D. of Oklahoma has released a 73-page critique of the National Science Foundation titled Under the Microscope. It includes descriptions of about 50 NSF-funded projects that Sen Coburn considers “questionable.” Among these is an undergraduate biology education project, known online as SingAboutScience.org, led by Wendy Silk of UC-Davis and me.

The report states:

…Using these funds, Drs. Silk and Crowther have produced and/or highlighted an entire database of online videos featuring songs about science. Dr. Crowther has personally wrote [sic], recorded, and uploaded dozens of songs, including the “Money 4 Drugz” rap video, a song more about getting funding than about science itself…. Other songs composed by Dr. Crowther found on the website include “Glucose, Glucose,” set to the tune of “Sugar, Sugar,” and “Myofibrils” sung to the beat of “My Sharona.” In total, Dr. Crowther has recorded more than 20 videos found on the website, which proudly proclaims it is funded by the National Science Foundation.

This section of the report concludes, “NSF should stick to science and leave music and rap to the recording industry.”

I feel compelled to address two distinct aspects of the report. First, its summary of our project is highly misleading. It states that (1) we have received NSF funding and (2) we have made a bunch of science song videos. These points are true, but the implication that the funding has primarily been used to create the songs and videos is false. In fact, upon awarding this grant, NSF specifically asked us not to focus on creating songs, and we have honored the request. Instead, Wendy and I have worked to build a network of interested educators, scientists, and musicians, and to develop online tools to support their activities. The merits of these efforts can be debated, but the dozens of emails I’ve received from K-16 teachers complimenting me on our online database suggest that we are doing something right.

(Also, to nitpick a bit, “Glucose, Glucose” and “Myofibrils” were written and recorded in 2004, six years before the start of the NSF grant, and I have uploaded a total of six science song videos, not more than 20, and these are hosted by YouTube, not SingAboutScience.org. But I digress.)

What’s most important here, however, is not the senator’s misconceptions about our particular project but rather his broader implication that music has no place in the realm of science. I emphatically disagree.

Sen. Coburn opens his report with a letter to taxpayers in which he says, “We are all concerned about America falling behind the rest of the world in math and science. ” This concern is completely appropriate. So what can we do to make America more scientifically literate? As a graduate of medical school and a practicing physician, Sen. Coburn presumably finds science both understandable and interesting. Sadly, this is not true of a majority of Americans. How can we engage these not-scientifically-inclined students and adults? How can we show them that a solid understanding of science is both within their reach and enriching to their lives?

There is no simple answer, but we’d be foolish not to consider music as a potential way of reaching these reluctant learners of science. Beyond its vital role in helping people memorize foundational facts, music can remove many barriers to learning, as detailed by Merryl Goldberg in her book “Arts integration: teaching subject matter through the arts in multicultural settings,” now in its 4th edition. In my own classroom teaching, I’ve received anonymous student comments such as, “The fact that you would do live performances personally showed me your dedication and enthusiasm for the class, which also helped encourage mine.” Songs won’t help EVERY student learn more science, but why not make them available to those who can benefit?

Wendy and I are by no means the first people to have stumbled upon the idea of teaching science and math through music. There are hundreds of commercially available CDs designed for this specific purpose (see SongsForTeaching.com for examples), and thousands if not millions of parents, teachers and students use such CDs. Doesn’t it seem worthwhile to figure out how to use these songs most effectively?

Sen. Coburn asks readers of his report to consider three questions in evaluating NSF projects: “Is this research potentially transformative? Does it represent an important scientific idea? Is it an appropriate expenditure of federal funds at a time when our national debt is over $14 trillion?”

These are reasonable questions. Based on my own experiences, I would answer: Yes, this work is transformative; I’ve personally seen science students transformed from bored onlookers into enthusiastic participants. That makes it potentially important as well. And spending $50,000 on such activities as maintaining the world’s best free online database of science and math songs, so that teachers and students (and others) can find songs relevant to scientific material they are covering? Sounds like a bargain to me.

[Related links: Scientists Cry Foul Over Report Criticizing National Science Foundation; Funny Science Sparks Serious Spat]

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Someday I’ll have time to write a real blog entry…

February 9, 2011

… but in the meantime you’re stuck with this.

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My new rap video: "Money 4 Drugz"

January 31, 2011

This was my entry into this year’s UW Pocketmedia Film Festival. You can vote for it (or any other entry) at the People’s Choice Gallery page.

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My beautiful cyberchild

December 13, 2010

Among my various achievements and creations over the years, MASSIVE is among those of which I am proudest. My Sing About Science blog and MASSIVE’s What’s New? page note recent improvements, with additional upgrades planned for the coming months.

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Live From The Kitchen!

September 14, 2010

Here’s a new video of Phil singing children’s songs.

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Another blog

May 31, 2010

As some of you know, I’ve been interested in educational science songs for many years. When Wendy Silk asked me to participate in her new pilot project on Undergraduate Biology Education — Songs for Teaching (UBEST), I was happy to say yes.

A major goal of the project is to build a network of teachers, students, musicians, and others who believe that music can be used to engage people who might otherwise be intimidated or bored by scientific content. In her quiet way, Wendy is a natural networker and has already talked to many people about this project. I have been slow to follow suit thus far, but I’d like to mention that we have a new blog devoted to science songs: http://singaboutscience.blogspot.com. If you share my interest in this topic, or if you just can’t get enough of my blogosphere blather, please check it out.