Inspired by Tom Lehrer’s The Elements, I wrote the Structural Elements Song to be an itinerary to an educational world tour of structural form. Like The Elements, it is set to the tune of a Modern Major General by Gilbert and Sullivan.

The idea came workshops I was doing with students back in 2012 in which I was trying to get them to identify the key structural systems in famous buildings. The question then popped into my mind, what if instead of going to structural engineering lectures, you could tour the world instead with a sketch book and try to figure out structural principles from observation?

The natural progression of the idea was to turn it into a song. First performed at Science Showoff in 2013, Susan Scurlock of Primary Engineer has been trying to get me to record the song for years. Well, Susan, today, a dreary February under lockdown, it felt like the best way to send the afternoon. Thanks Susan!

Writing the Structural Elements – Poetry with spreadsheets

My starting point was to analyse the chemical elements song and work out its rhyming structure. I then wrote down a long-list of all the interesting structures I could think of, and started trying to fit them into the song structure.

The first phrase I came up with was ‘Parthenon, Pantheon, van der Ruhr’s Pavilion’. I quickly I realised I would need to be more systematic if I was going to complete the song.

So next, I listed all the structures in a spreadsheet, with a separate column for each syllable, and written in a crude phonetic form. This meant I could sort for buildings with the write number of syllables and the write phonetic sounds to fit the meter of the song.

An algorithm to learn the song

To help me learn songs with lots of words (I do this a lot, mainly in French), I applied an algorithm I wrote a while back to help learn long strings of information. It helps me balance practicing newer parts while not forgetting the parts I learnt first.

Full list of entries in the Structural Elements song

Burj Khalifa
Tower of Pisa
Bridge Across the Firth of Forth
Taj Mahal
Grand Central
St Paul’s
The Angel of the North

The Rockafella Centre
Ekibastuz Power Station
Stone Henge
The United Nations

Crystal Palace
Beijing Bird Nest
Pont de Normandie
Imam Mosque of Isfahan
Viaduc du Garabit
The Millau Viaduct
Gare de Lyon St Exupery
St Basil’s Dome
The Velodrome
The Barlow Shed

London Eye
Blinking Eye
Bridge Across the River Kwai
Hoover Dam
Notre Damme
Big Ben
Palace of Versailles

Center Parcs
St Marks
Pleasure Dome of Xanadu
Shard of Glass
St Panceas
Centre Pompidou

Hagia Sophia
Dublin Spire
Munich Stadium
Thames Cable Car
Bridge of the Millennium

Falling Water
The Ritz
Sydney Opera House
Pont du Gard
Wembley Arch
Eiffel’s Tower

Hanging Gardens of Babylon
London Planetarium
International Space Station

Albert Hall
Berlin Wall
St Peter’s Dome
Tatlin Tower
Tower of Babel
Lighthouse of Alexandria

Van de Ruhr’s Pavilion
Taipei 101

Empire State
Golden Gate
Sears Tower
Chrysler Building
Sagrada Familia