The Elements: Tom Lehrer Recites Chemical Elements to the Tune of Gilbert & Sullivan

Tom Lehrer earned a BA and MA in mathematics from Harvard during the late 1940s, then taught math courses at MIT, Harvard, Wellesley, and UC-Santa Cruz. Math was his vocation. But, all along, Lehrer nurtured an interest in music. And, by the mid 1950s, he became best known for his satirical songs that touched on sometimes political, sometimes academic themes.

Today we’re presenting one of his classics: “The Elements.” Recorded in 1959, the song features Lehrer reciting the names of the 102 chemical elements known at the time (we now have 118), and it’s all sung to the tune of Major-General’s Song from The Pirates of Penzance by Gilbert and Sullivan. Decades later, this piece of “Tomfoolery” stays with us, popping up here and there in popular culture. Above, we present Lehrer’s original tune set to some animation created in 2007. And here Daniel Radcliffe, of Harry Potter fame, performs Lehrer’s song on the BBC’s Graham Norton Show in 2010.

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  • Mark Lint

    Looks like Radcliffe is auditioning here to be the next incarnation of Dr. Who.

  • Barb Drummond

    I’m not sure what impresses me more about the Daniel Radcliffe version – the fact that he knows about Tom Lehrer or that he can sing the song.

  • Becky

    But as a 17 year old, I know about Tom Lehrer, know some of the elements song off my heart and know New Math off by heart. The kids know about him too, you know!

  • Jen

    This song recently showed up on an episode of The Big Bang Theory – “The Pants Alternative” S3EP18 – hillarious!