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Educational Jingles: Set your message to a familiar song

“Whilst snug in their Club-Room, they Jovially twine/ The Myrtle of VENUS with BACCHUS’S Vine.”

Recognize the meter? How about now:

“O! say does that star-spangled banner yet wave/ O’er the land of the free and the home of the brave?”

That’s right. Our national anthem is set to another tune.

When Americans wanted to remember and convey Francis Scott Key’s poem, “The Star-Spangled Banner,” they coupled it with a tune that many people already knew. It’s “To Anacreon in Heaven” by John Stafford Smith, and it was a popular song in nineteenth century taverns.

The Library of Congress digitized an 1804 publication of the tune:

To Anacreon in heaven / John Stafford Smith [print material]

Of course, advertisers have been employing this method for decades.  I think I was fifteen before I realized that “Good Vibrations” wasn’t just a jingle for Sunkist.

Many individuals have used familiar songs to convey educational information–especially when it’s scientific. I am forever grateful to Tom Lehrer for setting the names of the elements to the tune of  “The Major-General’s Song” from The Pirates of Penzance.

I wondered how history is getting the jingle treatment, and I discovered something wonderful. After a little digging, I found a group of history teachers in Hawaii who feature historical events and figures in YouTube parodies of popular songs.

Here’s my favorite. It’s the story of Joan of Arc set to “Seven Nation Army” by the White Stripes. They mimicked the great visuals in the original video, and it’s so much fun!

I know that relying upon the humor of parodies to convey information has its limitations. The medium requires a very simplified account of the material.  It also almost always comes off with a silly tone, which can be lead to challenges with conveying sensitive subjects. Finally, after a few interactions with any mode of information delivery, viewers get fatigued.

That being said, I think that song parodies would work well as a concluding piece to an in-depth discussion of a topic, and they would firmly embed the basics of the subject into participants heads as they walk away from a session.

Do you know of any educational programs at museums that utilize song parodies for students or community sessions? I would love to see this technique in practice with public programming.

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