The Elements (song)

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The periodic table of the chemical elements

"The Elements" is a song by musical humorist and lecturer Tom Lehrer, which recites the names of all the chemical elements known at the time of writing, up to number 102, nobelium. It was written in 1959 and can be found on his albums Tom Lehrer in Concert, More of Tom Lehrer and An Evening Wasted with Tom Lehrer. The song is sung to the tune of the Major-General's Song from The Pirates of Penzance by Gilbert and Sullivan.[1]

The song is also included in the musical revue Tom Foolery, along with many of Lehrer's other songs.

Description of the song[edit]

The ordering of elements in the lyrics fits the meter of the song, and includes much alliteration, and thus has little or no relation to the ordering in the periodic table. This can be seen for example in the opening and closing lines:

There's antimony, arsenic, aluminum, selenium,
And hydrogen and oxygen and nitrogen and rhenium,
And argon, krypton, neon, radon, xenon, zinc, and rhodium,
And chlorine, carbon, cobalt, copper, tungsten, tin, and sodium.
These are the only ones of which the news has come to Harvard,
And there may be many others, but they haven't been discovered.

Lehrer was a Harvard Mathematics lecturer, and the final rhyme of "Harvard" and "discovered" is delivered in a parody of a Boston accent—a non-rhotic manner—so that the two words rhyme. Lehrer did not normally speak with that accent. Lehrer accompanied himself on the piano while singing the song.


Lehrer drew the inspiration for "The Elements" from the song "Tchaikovsky and Other Russians", written by Ira Gershwin, which listed fifty Russian composers in a similar manner.[2]

"The Elements" differs from the "Major-General's Song" in that:

  • On some of the live recordings, Lehrer pauses in the middle for spoken interludes, in which he talks to the audience (e.g., "I hope you're all taking notes, because there's going to be a short quiz next period!") while vamping on the piano.
  • The verse structure is altered, omitting the third verse of the original as well as all of the "responses" from the play's chorus, and adding an extra two lines at the end of the last verse.
  • The song ends with a piano coda (Shave and a Haircut).
  • "The Elements" is in the key of C, while the "Major-General's Song" is in E-flat.
  • In some live versions, after the song is finished, he may tell the audience of an earlier version, from Aristotle's time, that consists of Air, Fire, Water and Earth, explaining that it was a much simpler time.

In popular culture[edit]

Although "The Elements" is a pastiche of the Major-General's song, it has itself been featured in popular culture. In the episode "Ex-File" of NCIS, Timothy McGee and Abby Sciuto hum the song, which forms a key clue in their case. In The Big Bang Theory episode "The Pants Alternative", a drunk Sheldon Cooper starts to sing the song during his acceptance of an award from his university. In the 2006 episode of Gilmore Girls called "The Real Paul Anka", Luke Danes's daughter April and her classmates sing the song on the bus.[3] Daniel Radcliffe sang "The Elements" on The Graham Norton Show in 2010.[4] Other pastiches of "The Major-General's song" in "The Elements" mode include the "Boy Scout Merit Badge Song," which lists all the merit badges of the Boy Scouts of America[5] and the 2012 webcomic xkcd pastiche "Every Major's Terrible", which lists the faults associated with various undergraduate majors.[6] The Jewish parody group Shlock Rock acknowledges Lehrer and "The Elements" as inspiration for "The Shabbat Song".[7]

Cover recordings include:


Further reading[edit]

  • Too Many Songs by Tom Lehrer, 1981, has sheet music for many of Lehrer's songs, including The Elements.

External links[edit]