Science songster interview #12: Monty Harper

Monty Harper’s 2010 album Songs From the Science Frontier is, in my opinion, one of the best science-themed albums of all time. I greatly enjoyed meeting Monty last month at his Stillwater, Oklahoma residence, but we had so much to talk about that I never got to the in-person interview that I had planned, and we had to conduct it via email. Read on to find out why Monty started writing songs about science, which science communicators he admires most, what a backwards cumulative song is, and much more.

Monty Harper, Citizen Scientist

SAS&M: YOU ARE A CHILDREN’S MUSICIAN WHO FOCUSES ON SCIENCE, THOUGH NOT EXCLUSIVELY. WHY HAVE SCIENTIFIC TOPICS BECOME SUCH A BIG PART OF YOUR REPERTOIRE?

MH: About five years ago, soon after podcasting became a thing and just before “STEM” [Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math] became a thing, I was listening to a lot of science-related podcasts, as I still do, because that’s the kind of stuff I like, and I began hearing a lot of talk about how the schools are failing in science education, and the public doesn’t understand science the way it needs to, and getting kids excited about science is key. It sounded to me like they were calling my name!

So I started trying to figure out how to write science songs for kids — songs that would show that science is cool, science is how we figure out what’s true, science is our best chance at saving the world!

SAS&M: HOW DID YOUR “BORN TO DO SCIENCE” LIBRARY PROGRAMS COME INTO EXISTENCE, AND WHAT MAKES THEM SUCCESSFUL?

MH: On one of those aforementioned podcasts I heard about a thing called a “science café.” This is where scientists speak to the public about their research. Very cool. We didn’t have anything like that around Stillwater, where I live, but maybe I could get one going. And of course if I did it it would have to be for kids!

Meanwhile, my science songwriting wasn’t working all that well. As far as I could see, most science songs were parodies of existing songs and/or songs designed to help you memorize facts. (This was before They Might Be Giants put out Here Comes Science.) Neither of these approaches satisfied me as a songwriter. I wanted to write “real” songs, that just happened to be about science.

But I hadn’t figured out how to forge ahead yet; my efforts felt kind of hollow and unmotivated. I was trying to write songs based on articles I read, and there wasn’t much depth to them. I thought maybe if I got to talk to some actual scientists about their work, it would inspire me.

So I brought my crazy “café for kids” idea to the various science departments here at Oklahoma State University and eventually found a handful of scientists willing to give it a try. Thus “Born to Do Science” was born.

I think at the root of it, these programs are successful because having scientists talk with kids about what they do is a great idea! The kids and parents and scientists all love it!

But you can’t just throw a scientist in a room with some kids and expect the magic to happen on its own, so I do spend a lot of time preparing each program. First I talk with my guest scientist about his or her research. I ask lots of probing questions and really try to understand as much as I can for myself. Then I outline the program, deciding how best to arrange the flow of information. We include images, hands-on elements, and “think like a scientist” moments where we can ask the kids what they would do next if they were the scientist. This kind of interaction is key to engaging the kids.

During the program I act as interpreter, often rephrasing my guest scientist’s words or asking for clarification. I try to keep an eye on the kids’ reactions and pace things so they don’t get lost or bored.

And yes, speaking with the scientists about their work does breathe life into my songwriting! I write and perform a song for each program, based on my guest scientist’s research. Writing a song helps me synthesize the information and identify the main idea or hook. I also use the song as a fun way to loosen things up and introduce the topic at the start of each program.

But sadly, I must admit that while the songs are fun, they are not at all essential to the success of the programs! A friend of mine, Laurie Tarr, has started her own Born to Do Science series in Louisville, Kentucky, and she is not a songwriter. Her programs are doing just fine without songs, thank you very much!

I think all that is really necessary is a program director who understands how to talk to scientists and how to talk to kids (neither is that hard to figure out) and is willing to put some effort into the planning and execution of a good program.

SAS&M: WHAT ADVICE DO YOU HAVE FOR SCIENTISTS AND OTHERS ON HOW TO MAKE SCIENCE INTERESTING AND ACCESSIBLE TO STUDENTS AND THE GENERAL PUBLIC?

MH: I think scientists definitely should be out there talking about their own research more. At the most basic level scientists try to figure out how the world works. This is fantastically interesting and important! Yet ask the average person what a scientist does, and they have no idea. If we want the public to support science, and if we want to motivate students to learn science, this has to change.

What I observe is that scientific research IS interesting and accessible to students and the public. You don’t have to do anything to make it so. But putting the public in contact with the science still takes effort. And then I think having them react well is largely a matter of presenting the material without getting in the way!

A few things I’ve observed scientists do to get in the way of explaining their work: focusing too much on details, focusing too much on results, not really knowing your own story, using jargon, trying to lower expectations or apologizing for what you have to present, deflecting attention to something else you think will interest your audience more, over-explaining, oversimplifying.

So, you’re a scientist. How DO you talk to people about that? How do you avoid getting in your own way?

First, understand that even though it may be hard for you to see it, your story is golden! You probably keep a few astounding facts on file that you can wow people with as needed. That’s fine, but I can almost guarantee those tidbits are not the most compelling thing you have to offer. You are hot on the trail of new information about our universe! I feel privileged every time I speak with a scientist because I get the inside scoop on some corner of the world that very few other people have peeked at! That’s awesome! Don’t sell yourself short! Know that your story, when presented even half-way well, will wow the people more than you imagine.

Next, understand that most laypeople are intimidated to speak to scientists, and this doesn’t help. They’re afraid of feeling dumb when they don’t understand. People are afraid to ask questions, ask for clarification, or admit they don’t know the meaning of a word. This leads to that glassy-eyed stare scientists are so familiar with at parties. And it leaves scientists with very little feedback for improving their approach!

So here’s what you do. If someone asks about your work, rather than deflecting their question, put them at ease by asking for their help: “I tend to use a lot of jargon that only a whatever-ologist would understand, so please stop me if I use an unfamiliar word.” Or, “What I do is really exciting, but hard for me to explain. You can help me get better at it by interrupting me with questions.”

This way you show the listener that you don’t expect them to do all the work; you will help with their understanding. Not only that, you are offering them control over the conversation. By inviting them to interrupt if they start to feel lost, you’ll give your listener the confidence to engage with you!

Now that you have a willing listener, what will you hit them with? Not history, not details, not jargon. Know that 90% of what’s interesting about your work to the uninitiated is the “why,” not the “how.” Details can come later, once they are hooked and asking questions.

Use your passion first to draw them in. Why are you doing this work? What is fascinating about it to you? What are your goals? Don’t be timid here. If you are hoping to save lives, it’s okay to say that! If you are hoping to rid the world of fossil fuels, shout it out! You may be trained to speak conservatively in many professional settings, but when talking informally to the public, let it all hang out. Even if you aren’t trying to save the world, there’s a reason you chose the path you did. Show your passion; this is something people can relate to!

Here are three key questions I think every scientists should be able to clearly and concisely answer in thirty seconds:
• What’s the main question you’re pursuing in your research?
• Why is it important to know the answer?
• Why is it non-trivial to find the answer?

Take some time right now to think about these. Write down your answers, one sentence each. This will require you to strip away many nuances and details. For example, you may tell me there are many questions you’re pursuing. But for this exercise you only get to write down one question, one reason it’s important, and one reason it’s non-trivial. Go with your most compelling material, the answers that excite you the most.

Now re-write each sentence, removing all the jargon. Put them into language a fifth grader can understand. Now you have a starting point with which to engage any listener about your work. Go volunteer to speak at a science café near you!

For further study, watch Melissa Marshall’s TED talk or read Don’t be Such a Scientist by Randy Olson.

SAS&M: WHOSE WORK IN COMMUNICATING SCIENCE DO YOU MOST ADMIRE, AND WHY?

MH: Neil deGrasse Tyson. Who wouldn’t put him at the top of any list of science communicators? The man talks and you just gotta listen.

Carl Sagan for the same reason. And he was the pioneer. He understood how important it was to speak to the public about science, and did so even though his colleagues punished him for it.

Bill Nye. There’s a whole generation who caught the love of science watching Bill Nye as kids. And now he’s telling it like it is — “global heating!” You go, Bill!

SAS&M: SONGS FROM THE SCIENCE FRONTIER WAS YOUR FIRST ALBUM DEVOTED ENTIRELY TO SCIENCE. WHAT LESSONS DID YOU LEARN FROM MAKING THAT ALBUM THAT MIGHT BE USEFUL FOR YOU AND/OR OTHER MAKERS OF SCIENCE-THEMED MUSIC?

MH: I like to think I learned how to write a good science song. Speaking to scientists helped because I got to ask lots of questions and really explore each topic well with the help of an expert. With each song I was able to find some sort of emotional core or story to work from, and I think this is what was missing from my earlier efforts.

For example, Volcanic Rock, one of my first attempts, anthropomorphizes the planets and is full of clever word play, but lacks an emotional connection with the listener. That one didn’t make it onto the CD.

Some examples that worked out well: In Super Scientist, the singer roots for the scientist, comparing her efforts to those of a superhero. In It’s Not Fair, the child of a developmental psychologist complains about having a mom that analyzes her. These songs have a strong human connection, and that’s what makes them compelling. I can hang a lot of cool science content from that framework without making the song tedious or difficult, because no matter whether the listener picks up on all the science or not, that emotional core is still something they can relate to.

I also learned how tough the market is for what I’m trying to do. I’m encouraged that I was able to raise the money for this recording through Kickstarter.com, thanks to the support of many strangers who just loved the concept of songs for kids inspired by scientific research. This and the feedback I’ve received from families who love the CD indicate that there is a market for this kind of thing.

However, connecting with that market is more challenging than I expected. Sales are not exactly overwhelming! Most of the gatekeepers — reviewers, podcasters, etc. — seem to have a tough time wrapping their heads around my approach. The children’s music world doesn’t see science as a popularly engaging topic, and the science education world maybe doesn’t see these songs as educational enough, since they don’t necessarily match the prescribed curriculum.

Meanwhile, I’m not sure how to describe what I’m doing in a way that draws an audience. So, I guess my takeaway is that next time around I will budget more time and money and creativity to the marketing effort.

The CD is available to hear on my Bandcamp site. And it’s on Spotify. Your comments are welcome!

SAS&M: YOU BELIEVE IN THE IMPORTANCE OF PROSODY — THAT IS, THE MATCHING OF MUSIC AND LYRICS. CAN YOU ILLUSTRATE THIS CONCEPT BY GIVING US AN EXAMPLE OF A SONG OF YOURS WHERE YOU THINK THE WORDS AND MUSIC WORK TOGETHER ESPECIALLY WELL? AND PERHAPS ANOTHER SONG WHERE THE VOCABULARY OR CONTENT MADE IT HARD TO ACHIEVE GOOD PROSODY?

MH: Yes, prosody! My favorite subject to harp about. A song is made of music and lyrics, so matching them well is rather essential to great songwriting!

It’s true when writing science songs you can end up dealing with some unwieldy words. Acrocanthosaurus is a good example. With a crazy big word like that to deal with, I just give it space and build the song around the word.

The first step of course is to make sure I know how to pronounce it properly. “Acrocanthosaurus” has strong accents on the first three syllables, and a weak accent on the last. Forcing it into a common meter would be awkward (“da DUH da DUH da DUH da”). And it would not work well as a line ender, falling off as it does on that last weak syllable.

But it makes a great line opener, with three strong beats forming an energetic, declarative rhythmic statement. Here I am, the mighty dinosaur! So I started each verse with that strong bold rhythm — “A – CRO – CAN – tho – SAUR – us… !”

And that’s its place, the first word of each verse. The rest of the song is built around that word as an anchor.

When I started the Wind Energy song, I wanted to convey the way each part of a wind turbine is connected to the next in system that starts with the sun and delivers usable energy into a household. I had such a jumble of words on the page I really didn’t see how I was going to arrange them into something simple and musical, as I wanted. Words like “Electricity,” “generator,” and “rotor,” were all key, but didn’t suggest any good rhymes or rhythms to me.

I was struggling, so finally, just to do something, I threw away all my ideas about song structure — verses, chorus, etc. I just wrote down all the connected parts of the system in one long sentence. I simplified it down to the shortest sentence possible. Then I broke the sentence into phrases, one phrase on each line, each line representing a step in the process from the sun stirring up the wind, to the turning generator, to a light I could read by.

Each line had its own length and rhythm. There were no rhymes. It didn’t look or sound like a song. I briefly considered adding words back in to create a rhythmic and rhyming structure. But I wanted to avoid it getting wordy and weighty. Really any words added in would be superfluous to the content.

Then it hit me, the solution could be to make this into a cumulative song! The repetition provided by a cumulative song structure can have a similar effect to rhythm and rhyme in turning non-musical prose into musical lyrics.

Usually a cumulative song adds a new line to the end of the chorus with each repetition, which means you start with the first line, then sing the first and second, and build it like so: a, ab, abc, abcd, abcde… But I played around with the order of things and it seemed to work best to reveal the lines backwards. So I started with the last line, then added the next to last — like this: k, jk, ijk, hijk, ghijk, fghijk, efghijk, defghijk, cdefghijk, bcdefghijk, abcdefghijk!

I let prosody lead me, and I ended up with a song that has a unique structure — a backwards cumulative song. Each line gets the spotlight once, the growing sequence is repeated so that it really soaks in, the sequence of lines mimics the way the parts of the system are connected in real life, and they are revealed in a dramatic fashion that keeps you wondering what’s coming next. The melody matches and reinforces this same pattern. Each new melodic line is different, heightening the drama and eventually coming together to form a whole, which reflects the way the different parts of the wind turbine work together to form a whole system.

I was really surprised by this song, the way it turned out, and it has proven to be a favorite both in performance and with fans of the CD.

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