The Sounds of Science

Jarvis Cocker in concert.

Jarvis Cocker, 2007.

A few weeks ago, I was faced with the task of picking the music for the Life Science Industry Awards. The job was simple—find music that everyone would like. Something situation-appropriate. Easy as pie, right?

Except it wasn’t. Polling pre-qualified scientists is what we do, but building a playlist for them was still challenging. Choosing music for high-level employees at their supplier companies? Near impossible.

As someone who grew up watching awards shows of every stripe—Oscar, Grammy, Video Music, all of them—my first instinct was to create the perfect playlist. Songs that fit both the tone of the moment sonically, but also hinted at its subject in some kind of higher-level metaphor. Something like scenes from Forrest Gump cut to Creedence Clearwater Revival‘s Fortunate Son.

But here’s the problem: you can easily find music for a wide variety of topics—love, war, letting the dogs out, so on—but finding music about science is…

Well, let’s look at the search results.

A 2007 New Scientist article talks about science references in pop songs by everyone from The Smiths to Jarvis Cocker, Cool Keith to someone called MC Hawking. And about 100,000 more suggestions in the comments, none of them situation-appropriate, at least without being too cheesy (Thomas Dolby’s She Blinded Me with Science), or outright strange (Kraftwerk’s Computer Love).

Then you have Greg’s Science Song Music, where you can download hits such as Hooray For NMR Spectroscopy!, Glucose, Glucose, The Nucleus I Like Best, and, on a slightly different note, Money 4 Drugz.

By the time I hit Coldplay’s The Scientist, I knew I had gone too far.

In past years the music had fit into one of two motifs. The goodtimes-ey, I’m at a wedding! ilk of KC and Sunshine Band, et al., and a high-brow, low-maintenance classical music theme. I ended up trying for an “awards-show classical” approach (think Magnificent 7Chariots of Fire) which seemed to work well enough, though not without a few oddballs thrown in. (The theme from Thunderball comes to mind. But if I had to do it again, I’d still include Indiana Jones.)

The takeaway from the whole experience, aside from a newfound admiration for those who score award ceremonies, is that there are no good songs about science that are also appropriate for a function where butlers are serving hors d’oeuvres.

What are a few songs you associate with science? What would you have done in my shoes? Gone Hollywood, like I did, or let your freak flag fly with the Siouxie and the Banshees‘ of the world? Let us know in the comments!