Wednesday, April 15, 2015

Tom Lehrer: Mathematician and Musician

Born in 1928, Tom Lehrer went on from studying classical piano at a young age to earning his B.A. at Harvard University in mathematics. As a professor at MIT, Harvard, and Wellesey, Lehrer never shied away from issues of political incorrectness and since his days at university, continued to write satirical songs for fun.

Image result for Tom LehrerAfter being pushed to record his parodies by his friends, Lehrer released his first album Songs by Tom Lehrer under his own label, "Lehrer Records," in 1953. His dark, macabre sense of humor soon earned him a cult following. Lehrer continued to release albums throughout the 1950's and 1960's until he decided to focus on teaching in 1972. He has since retired in 2001 since teaching mathematics at the University of California.

Early in life, Lehrer skipped several grades and graduated from Horace Mann School at 15 years old, regarded as a child prodigy. His interest in pop music and parody culminated in his time at university as he wrote songs for his friends to help them study for classes. A famous example of these are his songs about calculus. One is shown here:
During his writing process, Lehrer would parody popular and recognizable song forms such as ragtime and tango. These musical themes would be overlain by original melodies and witty lyrics.
Later on, Lehrer's songs took a more political stance as his compositions purposefully confronted shocking topics. "Masochism Tango," (1959) a song about BDSM culture, was performed on live television, while "I Got it From Agnes" (1981) and "Who's Next," (1965) songs about sexually transmitted diseases and the atomic bomb respectively, also gained popularity. His song topics ranged from anti-war sentiment to topical critiques such as "The Vatican Rag," (1967) seen here:

This use of preexisting tunes and relevant topics is an example of innovation, as "the social environment can influence both the level and frequency of creative behavior." (McLean, 2005) Since creativity is not always recognized, innovation requires the "acceptance and implementation of new ideas." (McLean 2005) This is exemplified by Lehrer's rise in popularity despite his use of pop tunes and inappropriate lyrics. His particular perspective and musicality are responsible for his success and are proof of his creativity.

Here is "So Long Mom," (1967) an anti-war song:

Lehrer's poignant sense of humor and confrontation of social and political issues were especially powerful at their release, however, their continued relevance is haunting. While the lyrics caused his audience to laugh, there is a disturbing sense of reality to his music. Due to the politically incorrect nature of his songs, Lehrer never won any major music awards, but he was nominated for Grammy Award for Best Comedy Performance-Musical in 1961.

While he is well into his retirement, Lehrer's legacy continues on. After all, his political commentary and music career would not have been so popularized and relevant had there been a lack of content to write about. The proliferation of wars, discrimination, and "touchy" subjects provided him with plenty inspiration. The fact that his songs still can impact us fifty years later should make us question how much of society has changed. So if these lyrics get stuck in your head, (they definitely stay in mine) take a minute to think about their implications. Why are uncomfortable topics more easily discussed when covered up by show tunes and rhyming lyrics?

Works Cited:

McLean: L.D. (2005). Organizational culture’s influence on creativity and innovation: A review of the literature and implications for human resource development. Advances in Developing Human Resources, 7, 226- 246. DOI: 10.1177/1523422305274528

1 comment:

  1. Thank you for sharing this fascinating person and story with us! I really appreciate this because often times the deep connection between music and mathematics is not recognized. Music, however, relies on mathematics. I can understand how a profound appreciation for music can lead to heightened mathematical skills, but Lehrer is especially interesting because he expresses creativity in each domain, and in his ability to recognize and build upon the connection between them. He is simply an intelligent, wise and creative person who is able to incorporate his strengths in different domains.

    On a side note, Bo Burnham reminds me Lehrer with his witty, satirical lyrics that often include mathematical references too!


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