Name that tune in three elements

Best song of the 80s? Gold by Spandau Ballet. But it seems that the frilly-collared Spandau boys were far from original in their lyrical choice. According to a survey undertaken by Santiago Alvarez, in the department of Inorganic Chemistry at the University of Barcelona, the most popular elements referred to in music are, from the top; silver, gold, tin and oxygen.

I was amazed to hear that tin was so high in the elemental hit parade, until a quick survey of the Nature News team opened my eyes to its prevalence elsewhere than in the Wizard of Oz (incidentally the tin man’s song never mentions his eponymous metal).

How could I have forgotten the brilliant And the band played Waltzing Matilda, by Eric Bogle (and also performed by the ever-slurry Pogues), with the line “They gave me a tin hat and they gave me a gun”. And a quick google search shows that even soft-focussed Katie Melua mentions tin in her song What it says on the tin. I’m not sure that the suggestion that tin’s ranking was due to the Belgian cartoon character Tintin is right, though.

Other gems plucked from the minds of the Nature News team include: platinum wheels in Minnie The Moocher; lithium in Nirvana’s Lithium; silicon in the Boomtown Rats’ I don’t like Mondays; hydrogen and helium in They might be giantsWhy does the sun shine? and almost every single element there is in the genius elements song by Tom Lehrer.

Iron has to be way up there too, what with all those rockers – "Iron man, by Ozzie and friends,” one Japan-based member of the team enthused when asked what element-containing song sprang to mind.

I’m very impressed that the New Journal of Chemistry published this comprehensive opinion piece, which goes much further than simply being a survey of a “musical cyberstore”, as suggested in the press release.

Alvarez goes to great lengths to discuss the history of scientific elements in music – from the original earth, fire, water and air, to Mendeleev and the periodic table. It’s well worth a look (although you might need a subscription) to learn about elements mentioned by some of the world’s greatest composers – Bach, Beethoven, Brahms, Handel to name a few. Here’s factoid from the paper: Edgard Varese wrote a piece dedicated to platinum, called Density 21.5 – it was a solo piece for the flute, and the performer Georges Barres was trying out his new platinum flute – platinum has a density of 21.5 grams per cubic centimeter.

If you can think of any other element containing songs (Pocket full of kryptonite doesn’t count) let us know. Here’s a selection of songs to inspire you, written by school kids, set with the task of composing a song that mentions 80 elements. As expected, this is pretty difficult unless you just list the elements. Still, some imagination has gone into an elemental version of an Eminem song.

Of course, music is an element in its own right, according to the periodic table produced by the BBC’s Look around you team; symbol Mu, atomic number 4, atomic weight, 4.