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Smartsongs: Refrains The Brain Retains

Now that Weird Al week is long past, we can mull over the merits — and demerits — of Al Yankovic's new mishmash of novelty music: Mandatory Fun.

For word nerds, there is no question that Word Crimes, a paean to punctuation and grammar sung to the tune of Robin Thicke's Blurred Lines, is verbally very clever — if at times insensitive and inappropriate.

The song — with lyrics like "You should know when / It's 'less' or it's 'fewer' / Like people who were / Never raised in a sewer" — joins the pantheon of punctuation-inspired (Punc Rock) tunes, such as Dan Baird's I Love You Period and Vampire Weekend's potty-mouthed Oxford Comma.

Carl Wilson writes in Slate that you will think Word Crimes is teriff "if, like many of his hard-core fans, you're as much of a grammar pedant as 'Finger-Wagging' Al."

But the pop parody is catchy. And it does remind us of a tried-and-truism: Educational material that is embedded in music is often easier to remember. "Now I've learned my ABC's / Next time won't you sing with me?"

Melissa K. Corbett, a 5th grade teacher at the Healthy Learning Academy in Newberry, Fla., writes songs to help her students learn their lessons. She posts them – and shares them with other educators, for a fee — on Grammar Songs. "I find music to be an amazing way to connect students with learning," Melissa says. "I write songs to cover grammar, figurative language, writing skills, reading comprehension skills, and math. Music seems to reach everybody in some way. "

For decades, educational television shows like Sesame Street and Mister Rogers have used music to teach young people about the world. For Melissa, Schoolhouse Rock! was the catalyst. "I've always loved music," says Melissa. "Although I am hearing impaired, most of my fondest memories revolve around music. I would have to say the Schoolhouse Rock! songs in the 70's and 80's influenced me heavily. I learned so many things through Schoolhouse Rock! that I can still apply to my life today."

For lifelearners, educational songs continue to teach and delight. Here is our incomplete list of educational (some more than others) ditties – in no particular order:

1) James K. Polk — They Might Be Giants

2) NaCl – Kate and Anna McGarrigle

3) Done with Bonaparte – Mark Knopfler

4) The Egg — 1776

5) Manhattan Project — Rush

6) Meet the Elements – They Might Be Giants

7) Why Does the Sun Shine? – They Might Be Giants

8) Pancreas – Weird Al Yankovic

9) Mandelbrot Set – Jonathan Coulton

The Protojournalist: Experimental storytelling for the LURVers – Listeners, Users, Readers, Viewers – of NPR. @NPRtpj

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Linton Weeks joined NPR in the summer of 2008, as its national correspondent for Digital News. He immediately hit the campaign trail, covering the Democratic and Republican National Conventions; fact-checking the debates; and exploring the candidates, the issues and the electorate.
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