Metabolic Melodies: Using Music to Teach Biochemistry

Presented by
Kevin Ahern, PhD, Oregon State University (OR)

The Metabolic Melodies are a collection of over 100 song lyrics set to tunes of popular music. Topics covered by the songs span a wide swath of biochemistry and are used to teach the subject to non-major students at Oregon State University. Discussion will focus on the genesis of the musical ideas and how the songs help to cut through barriers and facilitate student learning.


Kevin, thanks for this concise oral history! I know what you mean about needing a specific starting point for a song parody, as with your example "Those Were the Days, My Friend" ("Polymerase, My Friend"). My question for you is, once you have that starting point, how often (if ever) do you pull the plug later, if the song doesn't seem to be coming together? As lyricists, we can always find words to occupy the right number of syllables, and we can force rhymes if needed, but that doesn't mean the song is useful or compelling. Do you ever encounter those sorts of dead ends? --Greg

Sat, 09/23/2017 - 15:23 Permalink
Kevin Ahern

In reply to by crowther

Good question, Greg. I sometimes reach the point of no return. Most commonly this occurs as a "point of can't finish." I think one of the keys to writing good lyrics is having a filter that is pretty strong and only lets you release things you are happy with. The obvious limitation of that is that most of us tend to love our lyrics too much and as a consequence, there is a lot of bad stuff out there. As I noted in my presentation earlier today, having rules to follow helps a bit with that filtering and another big help is feedback from others. If the feedback I get from colleagues about a song I write is negative, I generally won't put it out. Over time, the more lyrics you write, the better the filter gets, ideally, so that hopefully what I'm showing to others is good to go.

Wed, 09/27/2017 - 14:39 Permalink
Lynda Blodgett

Dr. Ahern, What a wonderful poster! I also knew about Dr. Baum from England and his work putting biochemistry to music. You mentioned choosing the cadence in language to match the melody. I think that is extremely important in any songs used for learning. I write my own melodies to teach concepts in chemistry, but I create the music to match the cadence of the language. To me, there is a natural correlation and flow suggested between language and music. That is why I think that sometimes technical songs in one language cannot be effectively translated into another language while keeping the same melody. I think that music is very important in education and is still extremely undervalued.

Mon, 09/25/2017 - 11:45 Permalink
Kevin Ahern

In reply to by Lynda Blodgett

Yeah, I certainly agree. I don't really know anything about music, so cannot write my own tunes. This may be good for me, since having a known tune means that the student only needs to put the lyrics into something familiar instead of having to do both tune and lyrics. There are many, including yourself, however, who are successful at using original tunes.

Wed, 09/27/2017 - 14:42 Permalink

More than 100 songs - Wow!  Thanks for sharing your thoughts about the development of this amazing resource.  Parodies definitely have key advantages in memorability for students if they know the original song.  Have you done any formal data collection to show the benefits in anxiety, connectedness to instructor, or learning that are mentioned in the poster?

Tue, 09/26/2017 - 13:48 Permalink
Kevin Ahern

In reply to by dpearl

Thanks, dpearl. I have never made any effort to collect data such as you suggest. That's probably because I have never really taken what I write that seriously. They are fun to me and I hope to students and professors as well. Judging by numbers - well over half a million downloads, I'm guessing they are :-)

Wed, 09/27/2017 - 14:45 Permalink
Jennifer Breckler

Great to hear you talk about the importance of cadence. So right. Thank you for linking us up with the songs. Just listened to the song I Lost a Can't wait to hear more. These are priceless.

Wed, 09/27/2017 - 18:11 Permalink
Jeff "Dr Chord…

Yeah, if you go to YouTube and search for "biochemistry operetta", it should come up first . Or at least it did for me. Thanks.

Wed, 09/27/2017 - 18:40 Permalink