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The sound of science

This former zoology professor
uses a quick wit and familiar
music to teach about science
Sunday, September 26, 2004 | 12:00 a.m. CDT; updated 3:24 p.m. CDT, Friday, July 18, 2008

If there’s one thing people in the music business need, it’s backbone.

Fortunately, Jeff Moran has one.

Moran is a singer/songwriter whose stage name is “Dr. Chordate,” a play on the phylum chordate, which refers to animals that have backbones.

As his name suggests, Moran is not your typical songwriter. A former zoology professor, Moran writes songs that combine humorous lyrics and catchy tunes to help kids master the concepts of biology and basic science.

“Some children learn so easily through the songs on the radio that they like,” Moran says. “Some of the songs are so antisocial and ‘life sucks and I’m going to go out and kill myself.’ It got me thinking about writing songs about science.”

Moran has been writing tunes with a science theme for 10 years. He has about 50 in his repertoire. Some of the songs come to him in as little as 15 minutes. Others are several years in the making. His music spans a wide range of genres, including country-western, pop, folk and show tunes.

Need a song to demystify Groundhog Day? Try Dr. Chordate’s Elvis-infused version of “You Ain’t Nothin’ But A Groundhog.”

Likewise, Moran transforms a Paul Simon classic to promote the virtues of healthy living in “Fifty Ways To Love Your Liver”:

“Cut out the brew, Sue …

Don’t want to be yellow, fellow..

Eat your protein Gene … and let your liver be.”

But Moran’s approach to songwriting is no joke. Songs are effective teaching aids, he says, because listening to them involves both sides of the brain. While the “logical” left brain makes sense of the lyrics, the creative and emotional right brain engages the music.

If movies can have soundtracks, why not science class?

Moran’s passion for songs and lyrics doesn’t pay the bills. A science and math editor for MU’s Assessment Resource Center by day, Moran fits in songwriting and occasional performances when he can. He has performed at the downtown Twilight Festival and often takes the stage at science education conventions, where he receives a lot of exposure.

“This, of course, doesn’t replace my day job,” Moran says. “There’s a remote possibility that if I devoted full time to this that I’d make money.”

Moran admits he has only sold about 150 of each of his two CDs, “Dr. Chordate Sings: Ain’t Nothing But A Groundhog” and “Parts is Parts: More Songs of Science,” mostly to middle and high school science teachers. Sales cover the cost of production.

Moran is a member of the Nashville Songwriters Association International, the world’s largest not-for-profit songwriters trade group. John Lofton, who heads the Columbia chapter of the association, says he appreciates independent artists like Dr. Chordate because they manage all the functions normally assumed by the large record labels — from songwriting and editing to recording and marketing their own CDs.

Lofton says that songwriters for major artists such as Tim McGraw have met Moran at workshops and expressed interest in what he’s doing.

“I better get his autograph now,” Lofton says, “before I can’t afford to see him.”

As a youngster, Moran, 53, sang in church choirs and played trumpet in the school band. He got his first guitar when he was a teenager, but it wasn’t until he was a graduate student at the University of Arkansas that he learned to play it.

An accomplished writer, Moran has published papers on the utility of humor and music in science education, as well as short stories and plays. He served two terms as president of the Columbia chapter of the Missouri Writer’s Guild.

Moran adheres to the adage, “write what you know.” Moran holds master’s and doctoral degrees in zoology. His post-doctoral training was in biochemistry and pharmacology. He chooses to write science-themed music because, although they may not be inclined to study science, people — kids especially — need a greater understanding of it.

“A lot of students have a natural aversion to science, as they do to snakes,” Moran says. “A lot of this is sociological. Parents are either not scientists or the kids are around people who say they don’t like science.”

He suggests that scientists themselves are often a barrier to the educational process.

“A lot of scientists are notoriously bad communicators and may be doing a lot of wonderful things in science, but cannot or are or unlikely to communicate that to the public,” Moran says.

For Dr. Chordate, putting phenomena to music sometimes comes as easy as a chance encounter with potential roadkill. One afternoon, while returning home from a family trip to Tennessee, a squirrel darted across the highway in front of Moran’s car at the same time that the song, “A Girl’s Got to Do What a Girl’s Got to Do,” was playing on the radio. For Moran, it was a solid gold moment of inspiration. Although the squirrel came away unharmed, he did become the centerpiece of one of Dr. Chordate’s latest parodies, “A Squirrel’s Got to Do What a Squirrel’s Got to Do.”

His tunes may seem campy or even silly, but Moran is convinced of the power of humor with young students.

“In education, a good joke is worth 1,000 words and a bad joke is worth 10,000 words,” says Moran, “because that is what they remember.”

And what better way to get students to remember the mating rituals of a particular species of fish than to parody Madonna:

“Hey! Like a sturgeon

Spawning for the very first time.

Like a Stur-ur-ur-urgeon.

Making caviar is my line.”


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