Inspired by recent Beyonce song “1+1,” I wondered what other kinds of math-based lyrics I could find in pop music.
Beyonce’s tune sticks to pretty basic arithmetic, as a result of her limited math knowledge:
If I aint got nothing, I got you
If I aint got something I don’t give a damn, cause I got it with you
I don’t know much about algebra, but I know one plus one equals two
And it’s me and you, thats all we’ll have when the world is through
Still, even the most basic math can perplex musicians; Radiohead’s “2+2=5” certainly illustrates that arithmetic is hard. (OK, there might be some sort of deeper philosophical point being made here along the lines of 1984.)
Furthermore, algebra, even when referenced in pop songs, does not result in many solved equations. (See, e.g., Jason Derulo – “Algebra”: “I’ve got more problems than an algebra equation.” Besides, does an algebra equation really have many problems? I’ll assume that Jason Derulo has a lot of variables in his algebra equation(s).) So maybe it’s best that Beyonce stuck to addition.
Kate Bush does OK with her ode to irrational numbers on “Pi,” but she does get some digits wrong. The lyrics about the “great circle of infinity” don’t quite cut it either, but hearing Kate Bush sing the digits of pi almost correctly is interesting in its own way.
Most pop music references to math tend to be oblique or metaphorical. That makes sense; one hardly wants to spend one’s mindless pop song thinking about math.
The oblique reference usually takes the form of a non sequitur, like Drake’s random verse in “What’s My Name?”
I heard you good with them soft lips
Yeah you know word of mouth
the square root of 69 is 8 something
cuz I’ve been trying to work it out
Presumably Drake means that 69 implies that the participants “ate” something. Plus, he gets bonus points for being technically correct, in that the square root of 69 is indeed ~8.307. Still, the use of a square root seems wholly unnecessary, a tacked-on bit to show off how smart he can be.
Bobby Darin’s “Multiplication” is more biologically based than mathematical, but his fun with numbers is again little more than cursory:
Multiplication… that’s the name of the game!
And each generation… they play the same!
Let me tell ya now: I say one and one is five,
You can call me a silly goat!
But, ya take two minks, add two winks,
Ah… ya got one mink coat!
Similarly, Ace of Base uses the Golden Ratio as a metaphor for a perfect significant other (“The Golden Ratio“), although I wonder how far that metaphor can go. Would you really want to say you found the perfect guy and that the ratio of him:you is ~1:1.618?
So, do any songs actually get math right? Even gifted musicians, when using the math metaphor, either stick to mere counting (Mos Def – “Mathematics”) or the basic one and one is two addition (Brad Paisley – “You Do The Math”).
Unfortunately, the best math songs are necessarily novelty songs. Tom Lehrer writes fun tunes, but they’re never going to hit the big time.
Similarly, Bo Burnham has a nerdy novelty song (also called “New Math”) which combines his typical wordplay with legitimate math concepts:
and if you made a factor tree of the factors that caused my girl to leave me youd have a tree…
full of asian porn.
C-A-L-C-U-LATOR (see you later) mathetmatical minds make industrial smog.
and whats the opposite of ln(x), duraflame the unnatural log.
Maybe the best odes to math in pop music are math-rock songs, using complicated math to push the boundaries of what music can sound like, mostly with ridiculous time signatures and syncopation. The best math in music isn’t in the lyrics; it’s in the songs themselves.
Bonus video: (Because it has to be here)