Five Great Novelty Education Songs for When You’re Done With Word Crimes

As Ryan posted today, thanks to Weird Al, it’s been a great week for nerds lying at the intersection of music and education.  To commemorate, here are five of my favorite all time educational songs of a humorous bent:


5. Tom Lehrer: New Math.  Lehrer’s song mocking the difficulty of New Math’s approach towards subtraction in different base systems is itself actually a really great introduction to how to think and do math in base 8.  It was certainly my gateway to the topic as a kid, and I still use it in my classroom today.  (I’m afraid you’ll have to scroll down a ways to move past this lovely, hand-tooled ad to our left… )

4. They Might Be Giants: James K. Polk:  There are so many TMBG songs one could post, really.  The SunConifers.  Meet James Ensor.  The Edison Museum.  But this one is my favorite as it does what every great novelty educational song should do: takes a topic most are loathe to approach on their own (in this case presidential politics between the Jackson and Lincoln eras) and makes it something unforgettable.

3. The Klein Four: Finite Simple Group of Order Two: This isn’t so much a song to learn new things from as to enjoy once you have learned a good many things.  It is mainly a love song which pulls entirely yet amazingly aptly from the vocabulary of topology, set theory, and analysis.  Educationally, if you listen to it enough, you get comfortable with a good many terms that you’ll run into repeatedly in your prospective career as a mathematician.  “But lately our relation’s not so well defined,” is a line worthy of immortality.

2. Weird Al Yankovic: My Pancreas: A Beach Boys-style medley devoted to a really quite useful introduction to the structure, function, and primary hormones of the pancreas!

1. Flanders and Swann: The First and Second Law: For my students, the Second Law of Thermodynamics is an easy sell, but the First is one which they don’t quite believe says what it in fact says, so I often have recourse to this wonderful, wonderful song to lay it all out.

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  1. July 23, 2014 at 10:03 pm

    Thanks! #1 was the only new one for me, but I hadn’t heard FSG(OO2) for a while, good to listen to it again.

  2. July 24, 2014 at 3:47 am

    I’d like to add Jonathan Coulton’s Mandelbrot Set to the list, please.

  3. July 24, 2014 at 1:18 pm

    0. “The Elements” by Tom Lehrer.

    Even Daniel Radcliffe knows it.

    How could you have left this out?

  4. July 24, 2014 at 1:31 pm

    Two comments on Al’s “Pancreas”:

    1. Harlan Ellison’s story “Adrift Just Off the Islets of Langerhans”.

    2. The force is proportional to the inverse of the distance squared, not the inverse of the distance (the demon proofreader strikes again!).

  5. July 24, 2014 at 8:37 pm

    Sylvia! Nice addition – you totally Mandelbrought it! Martin! Yeah, I was going back and forth between Elements and New Math – as we’ve been chatting about over on Facebook, a massive amount of my youthful esoteric knowledge base was due to Tom Lehrer lyrics. I find I use New Math more often in my math class than I use The Elements in my AP Chem class, though, so that arbitrarily decided it for me. I was also thinking about the MLF Lullaby by way of mid-1960s European History or Lobachevsky by way of songs with Lobachevsky in them…. some day I’ll just have to do a whole How Tom Lehrer Songs Changed My Life post, I reckon…

  6. July 27, 2014 at 8:36 pm

    The Animaniacs song about Magellan. (Also their ‘Yakko sings all the words in the English Language’ sequence is worth listening to once for the final punchline. That it is relevant to this topic is all I can say without spoiling it.)

  7. July 28, 2014 at 3:09 am

    Now that I’m not at work, I can look up a link to Animaniacs Ballad of Magellan:

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