Episode 01: Children's Songwriter Monty Harper
Originally published at SingAboutScience.org by Greg Crowther on Dec. 5, 2013, the day after the actual interview; thanks to interviewee Monty Harper for help with processing of the audio files and to David Newman for the Sing About Science theme song.
Greg Crowther and award-winning children's artist Monty Harper talk about the distillation of science into song, possible uses of non-"litany-of-facts" songs in the classroom, and more!
Visit Monty's website at:
Greg Crowther: Hello, everyone! This is Greg Crowther of SingAboutScience.org, talking today with children's songwriter Monty Harper.
Monty Harper: Hello!
Greg Crowther: Monty is based in Stillwater. Is that right, Monty?
Monty Harper: Stillwater, Oklahoma, yes.
Greg Crowther: And it's always fun to talk to Monty Harper, in general, about science music, but we're doing it now because Monty has a Kickstarter campaign going on that we want to draw your attention to. And that is for financing the recording of a new album of science songs. By way of background, we should say that this is Monty's second Kickstarter campaign. The original one was, what, three or four years ago?
Monty Harper: About three years ago.
Greg Crowther: So that was a Kickstarter campaign to finance the album that was called Songs from the Science Frontier, which in turn was based on a program that Monty did at — was it the Stillwater Public Library? — called "Born to Do Science." So for those who don't recall what that is, or maybe have forgotten, can you briefly recap "Born to Do Science" for us and how that led to Songs from the Science Frontier?
Monty Harper: Sure. So "Born to Do Science" is a live program where I talk to a scientist and find out about their research, and then I help that scientist present their research to a group of kids and parents, and I will write a song based on what I learned, and use that song to introduce the scientist's work. And usually it also helps motivate some questions from the audience. And we do hands-on components and visual components and the music and everything, and also a lot of interaction, so the kids get to have points in the program where they can imagine themselves as the scientist. And you say, "Well, what would you do to try to answer this question? What kind of experiment would you set up?" And then compare their answers to what the scientist actually did. So each of those programs generated a song, and after the first couple of seasons of "Born to Do Science," I had enough songs for the first CD, and then I've done, I think, three seasons since then, so I have enough songs for another CD.
Greg Crowther: Right. And so the songs were written, as you've said, because they were used in these programs. So now what exactly would the Kickstarter funds be used for?
Monty Harper: The money I raise with Kickstarter would be used to record the songs in a professional recording studio with professional musicians so that we can make them sound really awesome with all the different instruments, drums and bass and electric guitars and everything. These are pretty rockin' songs, and I want to record them to their greatest potential because I think that helps make them something that people would really want to hear over and over again, and let the science content sort of soak in over time.
Greg Crowther: Right. So you yourself, as I know you, you're basically a singer-songwriter working with acoustic guitar and voice. But you're saying that not all of these songs need to sound like "folkie guy with guitar" in the final recording.
Monty Harper: Absolutely right. When I write, it's not the way I hear the songs. [Laughs.] I perform them with acoustic guitar because that's what I'm capable of doing on my own, but in my head I hear a rock band, so that's how I want to hear it on the recording, and I think, judging from the first CD, a lot of people enjoy the music just as much as the content of the song, so that's what I want to try to create: something great.
Greg Crowther: All right — terrific! Let's talk a little more about the writing of some of these songs that would be on the new CD. It's interesting to me, in general, the vast majority of science songs that are out there are, more or less, recitations of facts. And some of your songs are kind of like that, where you're providing some general information about the subject of that scientist's work. But there are other songs of yours that go much further into the actual research that the scientist is doing — what are the experiments, what do the data look like, what are the experimental techniques. So perhaps we could hear from you just a bit from you about an example of a song from each category. Kind of how you went from talking with the scientist about their work to, oh, here's what could be the nucleus of a song, and here's how I started to build that song. So could you maybe give us an example of a "researchy" song and how that got written and maybe an example of a less researchy, more fact-based song and how that came into existence?
Monty Harper: OK. Well, it's never my intention when I write a song to use the song to teach facts. As a songwriter, what I'm looking for is an emotional connection to the subject matter, and something that lets the listener know why the subject is cool or exciting or interesting or intriguing. And then if they want to find out the facts, those are available to look up. So I'm not personally interested in communicating facts through the song as the primary purpose. But I will use science words and facts and ideas to support my main thesis in the song, whatever that is. Let's see. One of the more researchy songs is called "Left Brain." This was based on research by Dr. Shelia Kennison, and she studies language. She studies how we translate the written word inside our heads into some kind of meaning. It was long thought that the left brain had that job all to itself, but she suspected that the right brain had an equally important role to play, and she did a very clever bit of research to show that that's the case. The two halves of the brain are connected by a thing called the corpus callosum, which all the signals have to go through. And you can actually measure your personal speed — the speed of the signal through your corpus callosum. And so she measured a bunch of people's brain speed that way, and then actually correlated that to a delay. She measured how people read as they were reading, one word at a time, and she threw in words that didn't belong in the sentence in particular ways, and those weird words would slow the person down just a little bit. And she actually correlated the amount that that slowed them with the speed of their corpus callosum to show evidence that, perhaps, that slowdown is due to the left brain talking to the right brain, consulting the right brain, during the reading process, to try to figure out what's going on with that word that's out of place. And I thought that was very clever. But how do you turn that into a song? Well, I'm fascinated by all those details, and so is the scientist, of course, but most people aren't. And so, to bring people into the fold, like I said, I'm looking for some sort of emotional connection or story to tell. So what I did in this song is, I was kind of intrigued by the idea that people thought the left brain did this on its own, and the right brain got left out of the picture, and that her research is showing that the right brain does have a role to play. So what I did was I personified the two halves of the brain, and I kind of gave them personalities based on what the two halves of the brain actually do — what their jobs are.... I'll sing a little bit of it, and you'll get the idea. Left brain works out letters, words, and grammar. Left brain acts as if he reads alone. He would have us think That he could see those marks of ink And spin them into stories on his own. Dr. Shelia studies human language; To learn how we make meaning is her goal. Does left brain reign supreme, Transforming words to waking dreams, Or can she show that right brain plays a role? Right brain soars; He sees the big picture. Right brain pours Meaning into form. Dr. Shelia plays a trick on left brain.... And so it talks about her process there, and when we get to the bridge, that sort of clinches the deal. It goes: And the time that it takes The whole brain to calculate Corresponds to the speed of the corpus callosum — A fact that leads Mr. Left Brain to concede That assistance just might Be delivered in a signal from the right. So that's kind of how I encapsulated her research into a song.
Greg Crowther: Yeah! Very cool. So what we were hearing there was probably fairly similar to how the people experienced it at the live presentation at the library, where you were playing by yourself. And that is a very pleasant experience. But now, thinking ahead to a professional recording, I'm wondering what additional things might get thrown in. As you were saying earlier, this one sounds like [it has the potential to be] a fairly rockin' song, so I'm imagining drums and bass, certainly. Can you say anything else about how that might evolve into its final form?
Monty Harper: Well, what I can say is that I have a producer who's agreed to work with me on making the recording. His name is Chris Wiser, and he is one half of the Sugar Free AllStars. And he and his drummer will go in the studio with me, so usually what we do, or what we did last time was, we had some rehearsals, and we played through the songs, and started working out arrangements, and I discussed with him. And he's the guy that's got all the connections to all the musicians in the Oklahoma City area, and he's a great keyboardist, and he'll have ideas. And so, sometimes I have a thing or two in my head about how it should sound, but if not, Chris will fill in those details. So it's really a collaboration to take it from the version you just heard to something more produced and, to my mind, more interesting and fun to listen to. Does that answer your question? [Laughs.]
Greg Crowther: Right. So a lot of decisions have not yet been made, but you'll start rehearsing with Chris and go from there. And I guess that way, if you're tackling all the songs somewhat simultaneously, then you can make sure the group of songs has some variety, with different genres and different instruments and so forth.
Monty Harper: Yeah. I like to strike a good balance between having the songs all sound like they belong together on an album, and giving each one a unique treatment. And I don't always think "genre" when I go to give a song a unique treatment; I like to see what's special musically about that song, and bring that out with the instrumentation. And we'll end up with a really good variety of sounds on the CD, but also a group of songs that sound like they belong together. So that's what I'm going for. I think we managed that pretty well with the first CD.
Greg Crowther: Right. Yeah, I certainly thought so. So let's maybe move on to another song that is possibly on the forthcoming CD. I should say that you have more songs than you can use, so you'll be choosing something like ten of the 17 or 18, so the final list is not finalized either, but maybe tell us about a more fact-based song from this pool and how that evolved from a conversation with a scientist.
Monty Harper: Another fact-based song. Let's see. I'll share this one.... I do hear a lot of songs — a lot of times, the approach is, "I'm going to put everything I know about X into a song." And it's really impressive — we hear a lot of impressive rhymes and a lot of information go by really fast — that's just not my approach. So, for example, here's a song called "Quarks and Electrons." And the scientist I worked with on this, her research actually had to do with discovering the Higgs Boson. There were thousands and thousands of people all collaborating on that project, and she had her contribution. But the song doesn't really touch on that. Part of her presentation was just on particle physics in general, because we have to give enough background for the kids to understand the questions she's working on. And so, for this song, I focused on some of the background. And the thing that really intrigued me — the thing that I learned, that I didn't know — was that everything we know in the universe is made out of just two particles: quarks and electrons. And that really intrigued me, so I put that sort of history of the universe into a song.... The main fact you're going to get out of the song is just that: everything we know of is made out of quarks and electrons. But why does that sort of blow my mind? Well, I'll play a little bit of the song, and you'll see. So it goes like this. Every chunk of matter can be broken into parts, But there are no smaller pieces than quarks and electrons. Everything we touch, everything we see, Is different combinations of quarks and electrons Formed by the Big Bang, Cooled into atoms of hydrogen and helium. Forged by stars into carbon and oxygen, Blown away by supernovas strewn across the universe, Coalesced again into bodies like Planet Earth, Forming into patterns that can run around and replicate, Evolving into thinking things that know themselves and contemplate. Fourteen billion years they've been coming along; Now quarks and electrons wrote this song! Quarks and electrons! So that's the first verse. I guess there are more facts in there than I thought, but they all sort of support the main idea that everything is made out of quarks and electrons, including my brain, and those quarks and electrons in my brain got together and created this song. And I just think that's sort of a mind-blowing concept, so I really enjoyed putting that one together.
Greg Crowther: OK! Yes, thanks for that! I recall a somewhat analogous moment for me, when I heard from an astronomer that "we are stardust." You know, after the Big Bang, I'm not a physics or astronomy guy, but everything that exists in the universe today was present in this super-concentrated mass of stuff that ultimately settled out into the discrete beings that we are today. So that idea that we're all made out of stardust — it sounded poetic, but it's actually true as well — which I thought, "Whoa! Trippy!"
Monty Harper: Right. I think that Carl Sagan did a really good job of describing that, and that's probably why I had that in the back of my head, that whole stardust story, when I wrote this. To me, that puts wonder in my mind. It's amazing! It's wondrous to think that those quarks and electrons were created at the beginning of the universe and they have this long history and now they make up my brain and they're doing things — creative things. You know? It's just really mind-blowing. So I could have taken the approach with this song to try to teach particle physics and list all the different particles — you know, all the different types of quarks — there's up quarks and down quarks, and how they combine to make protons and electrons and things. But to me, that's interesting because of this idea: that once you think about quarks and electrons and they've been around since the beginning of the universe, you know, that whole story, then you get interested and maybe want to know more about it. But if you start with, you know, just listing all the different particles and their names, to me that's not going to grab your audience unless they're already interested in that. So I'm trying to do something that's going to grab their interest and then let them do the more detailed learning on their own.
Greg Crowther: Right. So I wanted to talk a little about possible classroom uses of these songs, because one could imagine that science teachers could be very interested in your songs, and yet, because they aren't these litanies of facts, they don't necessarily align exactly with what the teachers are used to covering in their weekly/monthly curricula. So if they're teaching glycolysis this week — well, that's maybe a little advanced for, say middle school — but if they're teaching photosynthesis this week, you know, you have a song that touches on photosynthesis, but it's not necessarily exactly aligned with the facts that they're used to conveying. So I was thinking we would maybe just brainstorm a bit about how these songs could be used optimally. So what I'm hearing from you is that inspiring that emotional connection and telling stories is important to you, and so, trying to translate that into a teacher situation, I'm thinking that maybe these songs would best be used to try to get kids who aren't already fired up about science more interested and more engaged in science in general, which would then hopefully lead them to devote more attention to the specific topics being covered on a weekly basis in their textbook and so forth. How does that strike you? Is that a use of your songs that would make you happy, or do you think there are other ways of integrating them into the classroom?
Monty Harper: Well, any use of my songs will make me happy — almost. [Laughs.] Yeah, I think that even more specifically, if you're getting ready do to a unit on photosynthesis, I know that teachers have a prescribed list of content they have to cover and points that are going to be on the test and, you know, kids need to know this, this, this, this, and this about photosynthesis. Well, if you just take the approach of, "OK, kids, here's what we need to know about photosynthesis, blah blah blah blah blah," I imagine it's pretty hard to engage them that way, and that you need something at the beginning of the lesson plan to get them excited about photosynthesis and thinking, "Wow, this is a really cool thing to be learning about," and sort of open them up to the topic so that when you start feeding them the information, they are ready to receive it. So that's a role this song could play really well. Let me sing the first couple of verses here. It goes like this. If I knew how to do what the plants do, I'd be swimming in jewels. I'd make a gold mine turning sunshine Into liquid fuels. If I could exchange photons for protons, I'd be seeing green. I'll be so thrilled when I learn to build My own photosynthesis machine. Photosynthesis machine, photosynthesis machine, Made of super-giant molecules too tiny to be seen. Nature's complicated lever, Won't you teach me to be clever With my own photosynthesis machine?
Greg Crowther: Yeah, OK! I hadn't heard that one yet, so that was fun for me.
Monty Harper: Well, that's operating on a couple of levels. So the researcher who inspired this song, he's really looking in fine, fine detail at exactly how the molecule that does photosynthesis works — all the working parts, and how they're related, and how the energy flows, and physically how it's configured. And what it's basically doing is tearing water apart into hydrogen and oxygen, and then storing the hydrogen as chemical energy. And that's why plants breathe out oxygen: they don't need it, then. But if we could do that ourselves, we could create fuels just by a chemical process that's driven by sunshine. And so the first verse is, if I knew how to do what the plants do, I'd be swimming in jewels! I'd make a gold mine! So, appeal to the kids' sense of wealth and prosperity there, right?
Greg Crowther: Is that as close as you get to rapping, Monty?
Monty Harper: [Laughs.] Yeah, I've got to wear the gold necklace and everything. But, really, it's an incredible thing to be able to do, which we can't do, but we're on the trail of figuring it out, and so I think that thought should grab people's attention — kids' attention especially. And then the other aspect is just that it's so cool. It's a "super-giant molecule too tiny to be seen." I think those kinds of juxtapositions, sort of an ironic thing — what you're studying is a humongous molecule, but you can't observe it directly, so it's still hard to study. So that kind of contrast is also interesting to kids, and will get their attention. And once they know that about photosynthesis — that it's something we're trying to figure out, and how cool it is — they'll be open to learning some of the facts that they have to know. [Laughs.] Some of the facts that the curriculum calls for.
Greg Crowther: So this is an interesting twist on what we often say in the science music world. We — "we" meaning teachers who are aware of these fact-based songs — we say, well, we could play a song at the start of a new unit to arouse students' interest, but often those songs that we're talking about playing and using are just basically the material to be tested on in musical format. So it is maybe a low-stress lighthearted warmup to the material, but it's mostly about "here are the facts that you're going to know." I think the point you're making is that, maybe instead of simply previewing those facts, maybe we need to inspire curiosity, so that they then want to learn the facts. Not just "here are the facts set to music" but "here's why you should care."
Monty Harper: Exactly. That and the other aspect of what I'm hoping to do with these songs is to make kids aware that science is an ongoing process, and that they may have something to contribute. If you believe that you might grow up to be a scientist, and there's a reason that you should, then you're going to pay a lot more attention in class. Because that was the number one question asked [by] students to teachers: "Why do we need to know this?" [Laughs.] You know? And if you could possibly conceive of yourself becoming a scientist, or even being interested in the story of, "OK, scientists are trying to figure this out, and in my lifetime they might, and it's a story I want to follow, because it's important...." The rest of this song also makes a connection to global warming — that the fuels that we might be able to make using a photosynthesis-like process would be cleaner-burning fuels and would use carbon dioxide pulled out of the air instead of [carbon] pulled out of the ground, so that wouldn't add to global warming. So this scientist is working on a solution to one of the world's biggest problems right now. And I think kids need to know that this research is ongoing, that it isn't figured out yet, and that we need their brainpower to contribute to part of the solution. I never got that feeling in school. If we studied photosynthesis, I got the impression that we knew everything there was to know about it, because the teacher says, "here's photosynthesis, here's how it works, blah blah blah blah blah." We're not encouraged to ask questions or to examine the details too closely, and we're done, and the answers are all in the back of the book. So that aspect of, "Hey, there are open questions about photosynthesi, there are things we're trying to learn about it and things we're trying to accomplish with it, and scientists who are doing this, and they're normal people, they're smart but they're not super-geniuses or anything, you could do this too...." All those messages were just nowhere to be had when I was in school. So that's also what I'm trying to put across to kids with these songs.
Greg Crowther: Yeah, that strikes me as extremely important. Even as a professional scientist myself, I'm embarrassed to say that it wasn't really until college, when I was an undergraduate, that it really sunk in to me that, well, there's this scientific method that makes the sciences fairly different from other realms of learning. And, to me, that's what really got me interested in doing science. It wasn't the body of knowledge per se, because, as you're kind of getting at, if there's just a whole bunch of information that's been figured out, that's great that people have figured it out, but where is there room in that for me? What contribution can I make?
Monty Harper: Exactly.
Greg Crowther: And so, it's really when you look at it from the perspective of, "science is a process, it's ongoing, there are still unknowns" that then there's more of a place where I can say, "Maybe I'm not a genius, but I can step in and work on this little question over here and help drive things forward in some way. So I do think that's a really important message of these songs and of "Born to do Science" in general. I wanted to actually wrap up fairly soon, but, hearing you talk about these songs, as well-written as the songs are, having the context of you talking about them definitely adds a lot. Now the CD itself, of course, is just going to be the songs: "ten songs, here they are, enjoy them." But assuming that gets made, you have some other ideas about how to provide additional context for the songs that listeners wouldn't get from the CD alone. And I know those are very much in the very early brainstorming stages, but could you just speculate for us a little bit about where things could potentially lead, assuming that the CD gets recorded?
Monty Harper: Sure. So I'm thinking that once I have the songs recorded, I would love to create a podcast that would sort of recreate the "Born to do Science" experience for a much wider audience. So with "Born to do Science" we're live in a room with 20 or 30 kids and me and a scientist, exploring and explaining that scientist's work. And I use the song as a tool in that context. I'd love to figure out how to recreate that as a podcast so that hundreds of kids, maybe thousands of kids, could get that same experience. And getting the songs recorded well, I think, is one step in that process. And I've actually put together some pilot podcast episodes; they're up on BornToDoScience.com. I'm not quite happy with the format yet — it's a little bit long, maybe a little bit dry — but I have some ideas for improving on that, and when I can find the time [laughs], I will get back to that. There may be some other ways I can share the context for these songs, through YouTube, or.... I know when I put the CD out, I will have a text document that describes the context for each song that I'll include in the extras on the CD, so people can put it in their computer and pull that up and read about it. So there will be at least that. But I'd love to turn this into a full-time job at some point and really be able to focus on this idea. The core idea of "Born to Do Science" that got me started was just the thought of, "Can scientists speak to children and explain what they do? And would I be able to help that process and enable it somehow?" And I think I've done enough of the programs as a proof of concept that yes, this is something that works. When the information is presented in the proper way, kids really do respond to it and enjoy learning what scientists do, and scientists really respond well to it too! Usually they're a little hesitant at first because they're not sure that kids would understand or be interested in their work, but so far they have been — they are interested and they do understand. I've been working with kids for more than 20 years, so I know how to talk to them, and I also know how to talk to scientists, so I can be the go-between. And I'd love to just turn that idea into something bigger. So the songs are just part of the big picture here.
Greg Crowther: Right. One of the things that I found interesting in a previous conversation with you is, if I recall this correctly, often the scientists themselves were very hesitant to get into their actual daily work — what questions they were asking, what tools they were using — because they, the scientists, thought, "Oh, the kids will never follow that, or they'll never care about that." But somehow you've been able to coax them into simplifying things without losing the spirit of what their daily work actually entails.
Monty Harper: Right. Sometimes they have something that they've prepared for kids. The scientists who volunteer for my program are self-selected and are probably more likely to be scientists who've done outreach with kids before, so a handful of them had, and some of them would say, "I have a program that I do for kids." And I'd say, "Is it about your research?" And they'll say, "No, no, no, that would never do." [Laughs.] "It's somewhat related. They like to learn all the facts about bats or birds," or whatever their research subject is. And I say, "OK, we could present that, but we also have the opportunity to do something a little different, and I'm interested in your research, and I'd like to hear about it, and then I can let you know what I think as far as if there's a way to present that to kids in a way that they'll understand it." And that usually gets them talking a little bit. And then once I start asking questions — because I really am interested; I would really just sit and talk a scientist's ear off about what they do, and that's just me — so I start asking pretty deep questions and interesting questions, and once they see that my interest is genuine, we get into a really great conversation. And I take notes and I record the conversation, and then I say, "Well, I'll get back to you," and I go home and type up an outline for the program. And I just organize that information in a way that I think kids will respond to. How can we get them to a place, quickly, where they can appreciate the question that's being asked, why it's important, why it's difficult. And once we get them there, the kids are hooked, because we've got an important, interesting, difficult question, and this guy is asking my opinion on how you would answer it! So, you know, that brings the kids in. And when I show that to the scientist, they're (so far) always on board, at that point, to give it a try. And then, to a person, they're really impressed with the questions the kids ask in the program, and the understanding that they demonstrate through those questions. So it's very doable, and very fun to do, also.
Greg Crowther: Monty, it's time to wrap up here, so: any final words? Answers to questions that I haven't asked you before we close?
Monty Harper: Well, I just hope that your listeners will support the Kickstarter campaign. And you go to Kickstarter.com and just search for "more songs from the science frontier" or even just "science songs" or "Monty Harper," you'll find it. And tell your friends! And I think that's all I really have to say.
Greg Crowther: We're recording this, at the moment, on Wednesday, December 4th. Hopefully we'll get it up on the website soon. When is the deadline for your Kickstarter campaign?
Monty Harper: Thank you for asking. That's important, isn't it? The deadline is December 13th — Friday the 13th.
Greg Crowther: OK. So if you want to support this, you should act now.
Monty Harper: Right away, please!
Greg Crowther: Right away. And there are all sorts of rewards, consistent with the usual Kickstarter model. And if you get to that Kickstarter page, you'll see that you can get all kinds of interesting combinations of Monty Harper recordings, or you can support him being smashed in the face with a pie if you're into that — all kinds of ways to sign onto this project.
Monty Harper: There's one I should mention. Maybe some of your listeners will have a particular interest in a particular scientific topic, so there is a reward where you can dedicate one of the songs, and that dedication would be printed in the CD cover, and that would guarantee that that particular song also ends up on the CD. So if you were like, "That photosynthesis song — that has to be on the CD because that's what I study!" then that reward might be of interest to you.
Greg Crowther: All right! Well, Monty, thanks a lot for joining me on this first-ever Sing About Science podcast. As our listeners have no doubt noticed, it was a little informal, but hopefully that's a good thing. I've enjoyed spending this 46 minutes and 48 seconds with you, and I hope everyone else has as well!
Monty Harper: Well, thank you, Greg. I hope so. I enjoyed it, and I really appreciate you having me on as your first guest!
Greg Crowther: All right — no problem! Take care, everyone.