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April 20, 2011

New Music: Songs from the Science Frontier

Tom Lehrer's occasional forays notwithstanding, I've never thought of science as particularly compelling musical subject matter. And when it's children's music we're talking about, the inevitable educational overlay would seem destined to make songs downright stultifying. Sure, They Might Be Giants tackled the topic a few years back on their typically brilliant Here Comes Science—but they can apparently write catchy songs about anything at all. I certainly wasn't expecting to hear any more decent kids' music about science anytime soon.

But Monty Harper, an Oklahoma-based artist I hadn't been familiar with, proved me wrong at one listen. (I really must remember not to underestimate the current crop of children's musicians.) His Songs from the Science Frontier, released late last year (and produced by Chris Wiser of Sugar Free Allstars fame), may not have TMBG's rep and Disney's marketing power behind it, but it's fun and smart and apparently irresistible to kids—our sons wouldn't stop asking to hear it again once they'd discovered it.

That's a testament to two things: First, Harper really knows his subject matter. Wanting to make science more interesting to kids than it often is in introductory textbooks, he started a musical educational program in 2007 in which scientists came to talk to kids about their work—and then he proceeded to write a song about it. So his topics aren't the mere generalities you might expect; he focuses on specifics of bacteriology, say, right down to the scientific names. (And while I wondered at first if that might put it beyond young kids, turns out it's precisely that aspect that both my sons have glommed onto.)

Second, and more important, this guy is a crack songwriter. It's not easy to write snappy songs about the intricate details of where wind energy comes from (starting, naturally, with the sun); Harper not only manages this, but makes it feel effortless. He seems to have an endless supply of infectious, surprising melody lines up his sleeve, incorporating influences that range from Justin Roberts to, well, Pink Floyd. And while his lyrical skill almost flies under the radar—a big part of writing good lyrics is making sure they don't stick out where they're not supposed to—once you notice that Harper is singing about some pretty complex subjects in rhymes that always fit together naturally, you grow more and more in awe of his talent.

The end result is just what the artist must have intended: learning that doesn't feel like learning, but like easygoing fun. If we end up with a scientist or two in the family (who knows?), we'll owe Harper a nod.

[Cover image courtesy of Monty Harper]

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