Mystery Music March



The Elements – Tom Lehrer

“Now if I may digress momentarily digress from the mainstream of this evening’s symposium … I’d like to sing a song which is completely pointless but is something which I picked up during my career as a scientist. This may prove useful to some of you some day, perhaps, in a somewhat bizarre set of circumstances. It’s simply the names of the chemical elements set to a possibly recognisable tune.”


The possibly recognisable tune is The Major General's Song from The Pirates of Penzance by Gilbert and Sullivan (‘I am the very model of a modern general …’) and it’s with this quote that Tom Lehrer introduced his song, The Elements on the live album An Evening Wasted With.... Given Lehrer’s lyrical wit and musical ability it seems totally perverse to be recommending it over some of the other tracks, especially the far more famous Poisoning Pigeons In The Park which opens the long player, but for my money there’s just as much skill at work here as there.

The singer was generally unknown in this country until Princess Margaret of all people was asked during the award of an honorary degree what her favourite music was. She said it ran ‘from Mozart to Tom Lehrer’ and royal approval in those days was enough to set you up for life. So this Harvard Graduate’s work found greater popularity in the UK than anywhere and before long it was playlisted at the BBC and he was writing songs for the US edition of the satirical comedy tv show, That Was The Week That Was (TW3).

The Elements appeared simultaneously on the studio album More Songs by Tom Lehrer and An Evening Wasted, although for my money the latter is best since like the very best performers he’s playing off the audience and breaks off in the middle to suggest ‘I hope you’re all taking notes because there’ll be a short quiz next period’. As with the rest of the show, you’re very much aware that this is humour born of academia and appreciated best by those who’ve had the same experience.

Whilst lyrically it is indeed just the chemical elements, it probably took as much, if not more skill than the other songs because as well as deciding on a tune which would best fit the contents of the periodic table, he then had to not only make them all fit but also scan. Watching this animated version (the backing is the studio version) it becomes apparent very quickly that most of these syllable fests were not designed for popular music, however satirical.

It works mostly because of Lehrer’s performance in which he shows linguistic dexterity only matched by Michael Stipe during REM’s It’s The End Of The World As We Know It (and I feel fine). Tom’s able to annunciate a massive proportion of this jargon, only now and then surfing through the syntax when its absolutely necessary, and unlike Stipe whilst also running his fingers across a piano keyboard.

Only single syllable names such as lead seem to cause any problems and in many cases he has to run them into the next word – if you’re as bad at chemistry as I was at school you might actually think there is a substance called Gold Protactinium. One of his secret weapons would seem to be alliteration (‘And chlorine, carbon, cobalt, copper, tungsten, tin, and sodium.’) which allows his mouth to reset momentarily every second or so.

What makes this funny then is not the words themselves but how those words fit together. During the live performance Thalium, Barium, Curium, Sodium all provoke a reaction as the audience almost egg the performer on, willing him to get through all of the elements in one piece without exploding whilst simultaneously marveling at what they’re hearing. Even if the song is ‘completely pointless’ (and how many of them aren’t?) it’s also uniquely entertaining.

”And now may I have the next slide please…?”

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