Do Peterson was the founder and leader of the now-defunct band Science Groove. He has also been a close friend and collaborator of mine for over 15 years. It’s hard to summarize all that I’ve learned from him about music and its relationship to science, but the interview below is an attempt to capture some of his thinking on these topics.
SAS&M: MOST PEOPLE READING THIS INTERVIEW WON’T REALLY KNOW YOU. FOR THOSE PEOPLE, HOW WOULD YOU DESCRIBE YOURSELF?
DP: I’m a musician, a scientist and statistician, an African American man and a runner . . . I tend to befriend left-handed folks; those tend to be the most important people of my life. I was trying to think of why that might be. One reason could be that I find left handed folks seem to engage ways of thinking orthogonal to conventional ways of thinking more readily. By “orthogonality” I mean that the content is invisible unless you orient yourself to that kind of alternative universe. I’m interested in and inspired by that. . . . For full disclosure, I am mixed-handed, left-handed for some things, right-handed for others.
SAS&M: YOU’VE BEEN MAKING MUSIC FOR MOST OF YOUR LIFE, BUT IT WASN’T UNTIL YOU WERE A GRADUATE STUDENT IN BIOSTATISTICS AT THE UNIVERSITY OF WASHINGTON THAT YOU PUT TOGETHER AN ALBUM OF MUSIC FOCUSED ON MATH AND SCIENCE. WHAT’S THE STORY BEHIND THAT?
DP: I had been a part of a Ph.D. program in biostatistics for almost six years. I was in the process of dropping out. I had all this dissertation material. Along with that, I was starting to get back into music. . . . A friend of mine suggested, kind of as a joke, that I put my dissertation to music. And at the time she suggested this, I had a presentation prepared that was 15 minutes and 13 slides long. And I thought, “Maybe I could write a song for each slide.” This seemed to be the right idea for me at the right time. It took me about a year to write and record the album of 13 songs which I called “My Dissertation.”
. . . My point, if there was going to be one, was that nobody reads dissertations after they’re done, unless you work really hard and get them published. And even then, usually hardly anybody actually reads the published material. . . And I really felt like we ought to be able to do a whole lot better than that. And felt like music could help a lot. In that sense, I feel like my album was pretty successful. . . . The musical dissertation got performed in front of audiences, I sold more than 100 copies of the recording. Not a double platinum, Grammy-winning effort (Ha!), but people seemed to connect with the music and get excited about my dissertation work.
SAS&M: HOW WAS YOUR DISSERTATION ALBUM INTENDED TO BE DIFFERENT FROM MOST OTHER EDUCATIONAL AND QUASI-EDUCATIONAL MUSIC?
DP: At the time, my non-thorough “review” of the science music I heard was that the music seemed like an afterthought. The folks seemed all about the words. I felt I could do something that was new or fresh or different or innovative in that I wanted to put a lot of work into the music. And perhaps this could extend the audience a bit to folks who were about the music more than the words.
Part of the magic of music is that you can get people to listen to ideas or be open to ideas that they would not otherwise be interested in, just by the fact that there’s music there. If I’m at a party and I’m talking about my life to somebody I’ve just met, after about three minutes or five minutes, the interest can wane. But with music, I’m sitting there in front of people, and they’re still sitting there after an hour. That’s amazing! I’m singing about things in my life, and they’re enjoying themselves and engaged. And I wanted more of that magic happening for science – something that’s actually important!
SAS&M: YOU’VE BEEN TALKING ABOUT HOW YOUR ALBUM HELPED BRING YOUR SCIENTIFIC WORK TO A LARGER AUDIENCE. THIS AUDIENCE SEEMED TO INCLUDE A FAIR NUMBER OF YOUNG CHILDREN. IS THAT JUST A FUNNY COINCIDENCE, OR DOES IT TELL US SOMETHING IMPORTANT ABOUT THE USE OF MUSIC IN EDUCATION?
DP: There’s definitely a reason why music is used in education, typically of young children. I think it goes back to being able to keep folks’ attention.
To depart for a moment. . . Music has often been used to put forth outcomes of work by folks. Working on the dissertation, and me trying to be a scientist, or trying to figure out what I was as a scientist, I was discovering that the outcomes are pretty much a surface view of what it means to be a scientist, or to do the work, or to have ideas and to try and get those ideas out there. There’s much more to that. There are processes. There are emotions – the emotions that drive why you would want to go through this process with lots of critique and lots of work. . . . There’s competition to get your idea through. And there are winners and losers. All of this is to say that to be a scientist is first to be human.
Back to the kids. They understand what it means to be human. And ultimately this is what music or art does. It transmits the experience of being human, or humanizes the experience of what you are doing, and it brings it to another person. This is totally the point. My point in trying to make music with this stuff was to try to humanize the dissertation experience. That may be a reasonable explanation of why young children might have enjoyed some of the things that were done in that album.
SAS&M: AFTER “MY DISSERTATION,” WHICH CONSISTED ENTIRELY OF ORIGINAL MATERIAL, YOU WORKED ON ANOTHER ALBUM – WITH ME – WHICH WAS A MIX OF ORIGINALS, COVERS, AND PARODIES. WHAT ARE YOUR THOUGHTS ON CREATING, AND TEACHING WITH, SONG PARODIES?
DP: If you’re interested in teaching content or the outcomes of work, it’s helpful to have a structure that is familiar into which you can put the new, or the slightly new. That is what song parodies provide.
. . . I think original tunes speak to something different. Parodies are, I feel, part of an outcomes approach to trying to show people what science is or what the content is. My personal view is that I don’t think music is a good medium for transmitting content beyond a surface level. There’s just not enough time to properly present the info. A person needs to sit and read, consider and ask questions and all that stuff. I do believe music is a good way of transmitting the emotions existing in science and showing the connecting between the emotional and scientific processes. Originals do this best I think. …Not that parodies aren’t like that too, but when I hear a parody I think of the source song, and that kind of distracts me. And that is annoying sometimes. I want the original song and I’m distracted by this other thing that’s laid on top. But that’s just me, I’m pretty sure.
SAS&M: YOU ARE NO LONGER MAKING MUSIC THAT IS DIRECTLY RELATED TO SCIENCE AND MATH. WHY IS THAT?
DP: There’s only so much time in a lifetime. Science and music is cool, but, for me, the two album projects produced through Science Groove, “My Dissertation” and “Muscles and Magnets” (from Greg Crowther’s dissertation work) were enough. That was lots of time and effort. Did I lose interest? No, not exactly, but other things have become more interesting. Such is life!