• mattbonnan

Once Upon Deep Time: The scientist as singer/songwriter

Updated: Jun 22


Once Upon Deep Time tells a musical story about the evolution of hearing (how we came to have the ability to hear and appreciate the music that inspires us) and our connection to the tree of life (evolution). It is my attempt to reach beyond the lab and classroom to share this remarkable story of our connection to each other and life past and present through song. But it's also about showing the human side of being a scientist - that the data tell a story that puts you, as a scientist, in touch with our collective natural history. It's an exhilarating feeling, a gift only we humans possess: to know all of our ancestors long gone.


Background and musical influences

I grew up in a household where pop and rock music played a central role in our time together as a family.

For almost as long as I've been fascinated with dinosaurs and paleontology, I have been equally passionate about music. I grew up in a household where pop and rock music played a central role in our time together as a family. As a child I was exposed to all of my parents favorite artists which included the Beatles, Billy Joel, John Denver, and Blood, Sweat & Tears among many, many others. However, as the 1980s dawned and my family began to watch music videos, my parents, my siblings, and I brought home 45s, LPs, and eventually CDs of everything from A-ha to Culture Club, Lionel Richie to Prince. I was also fascinated by the Chicago House music scene and the creative mixes local DJs aired on the radio. When I discovered the world of so-called progressive rock in high school (Pink Floyd, Yes, Genesis, Rush), I could put my headphones on in our crowded and often noisy household and get lost in another musical world complete with fantastical stories and sound effects. The sound of Once Upon Deep Time is in a sense a blend of all of these influences.

As for playing music, I was a child when the original Star Wars trilogy was in theaters, and I collected the soundtracks to these movies on LPs which I would play into the ground, memorizing every passage and pause. I became enamored with the sound of the trumpet, fantasized about playing in the London Symphony Orchestra for science fiction movie soundtracks, and ended up playing that brass instrument up through high school. Half-way through high school, the need for more baritones in the band saw me switching to bass clef. I loved the freedom and improvisation of jazz band, but although I participated in marching band for all four years of high school, its rigid music and choreography were not for me. Eventually, I became convinced that music was something for me to enjoy but not create, and after high school I stopped playing music.



During my early studies in college, I became a radio DJ for a time (WDCB, College of DuPage). There I learned how to speak to an audience and how to arrange the songs I was playing into a cohesive whole, telling a story of sorts through my song choices and the order in which they were presented. I also learned a lot about sound quality and producing professional audio. As fascinated as I was with radio and music recording, the pull of paleontology eventually eclipsed any serious thoughts I had for sound production.


I became convinced that music was something for me to enjoy but not create.

As my adult life took shape and I pursued a career as a paleontologist and became a father, pop and rock music provided my life's soundtrack. Music has always inspired me when I needed it, lifted my spirits when I was depressed, and helped me celebrate life's good times with family and friends. Occasionally I would dream about writing my own songs, but I always told myself I wasn't a musician and that what I had to say about love, politics, or people (the typical themes of most pop and rock songs) was done much better by the talented performers and artists I admired.

I have always loved the sound of the piano in pop and rock songs. Although I was briefly given "boring" piano lessons as a kid, as an adult I began to want to play the piano. Additionally, being a child of the 1970s and 1980s, I loved the sound of other keyboard instruments such as synthesizers and organs. Sitting in on my son's guitar lessons and watching him take joy from mastering an instrument, I began to reconnect with the part of me that wanted to create music, but this time on my own terms as an adult. After purchasing a Yamaha digital piano, I realized the power of chords and scales in learning to play the songs I loved to listen to. It was like magic! In the back of mind since my high school days, I had a fantasy of making a concept album centered around our connection as humans to the tree of life. I jokingly said to myself that maybe I could write that album someday.


Inspiration for the project


If my job as a scientist is to investigate and inform others about nature, how can I do my job if the very foundation of it can be ignored?

When the COVID-19 pandemic hit, like so many people I found the isolation and fear about the disease for me and my loved ones difficult to wrestle with. Perhaps most disheartening was seeing such fierce science denial in social media which made me feel hopeless in my ability as a scientist to reach people beyond my classroom. As a scientist, the data is your truth, your power. To see that the data did not matter to so many people felt devastating. If my job as a scientist is to investigate and inform others about nature, how can I do my job if the very foundation of it can be ignored?


Data are important to everyone, but data do not speak on their own - their importance has to be communicated in a way that resonates with people, and that is through the power of storytelling.

But this hopelessness reawakened something I've known for as long as I have taught my students and spoken to the public: the story, not the data, is the power. People love stories. When we're little, we love when our parents and relatives read to us and tell us stories. We make sense of our world and strengthen our connection with others through stories. Data are important to everyone, but data do not speak on their own - their importance has to be communicated in a way that resonates with people, and that is through the power of storytelling. We are all storytellers. And, as I know through my work as a paleontologist, we are all the story. The story of life on earth and our connection to the tree of life is not just my story or something that only belongs to scientists - it is our collective heritage, our collective story. There is hope in that story.


Hans Christian Andersen said, "Where words fail, music speaks." I have always felt that music can reach people in a way that few other art forms can. Many of the albums and songs that have reached me were a powerful combination of music and storytelling. Emerging from the pandemic, I decided that music and artistic expression were as much a part of me as being a scientist. I decided it was time to write my songs about evolution and our connection to the tree of life - it was time for the scientist to also be the singer/songwriter to communicate our evolutionary story. And that was the genesis of what became Once Upon Deep Time.


Many of the albums and songs that reached me were a powerful combination of music and storytelling: Once Upon Deep Time tells a musical story about the evolution of hearing and our connection to the tree of life.

Creating the songs ... and beyond


Having learned how to play the piano and living in the 21st century, I could now connect my digital piano to my computer and begin to compose and record songs. I could also connect my son's guitar to my computer and record his playing (his guitar playing is featured on three of the songs). I could also connect microphones to my computer and record my voice and those of others featured in the recordings, including my daughter, who makes two vocal appearances on the album. I could even have others record parts for the album remotely and seamlessly incorporate those elements into a song as if they were right there performing alongside me. And I could program drum beats and sound effects. In essence, I could create the music and song cycle I had always wanted to on my own terms and without needing a recording deal. Magic!


We love it when our fairy tales begin with "Once upon a time..." Why not "Once upon deep time"?

The title of the project and album were inspired by my son. When he was 7 years old, my son was fascinated with geography and became interested in the shapes of the continents. When I told him the story of the supercontinent Pangea and how its breakup millions of years ago influenced the outlines of the continents, he asked me, "Daddy, can you tell me another geology bedtime story?" Reflecting back on his request, I thought, we love it when our fairy tales begin with "Once upon a time..." For stories about our natural history, why not "Once upon deep time"? So, the song cycle begins and ends with a kind of lullaby to the curious child within each of us that wants to know where we came from. Along the way, we meet a cast of characters, living and extinct, that highlight how we came to hear sound, evolve a voice, and navigate the world. The songs also serve to highlight how the magic of the past is within us and all around us, if only we would occasionally lift up our eyes from our screens and find ourselves more in the moment of each day.


I have begun working with Stockton University students and faculty to help me develop visual materials to enhance the message of the music and story. I have also been creating visual art myself for this project. As the songs are released on all major streaming platforms, I will provide updates on the visual art, and for the first single, "Dinosaur Songs," an animated video created by me will be released on my YouTube channel when the song drops on all major streaming platforms on July 22, 2022. You can see a preview of the "Dinosaur Songs" music video now, as well as a short promotional video for the full album on my YouTube channel.

I sincerely hope you enjoy the music and the story... a story that belongs to all of us.


I am grateful to the Stockton University R&PD committee for recommending this project for a sabbatical award, and I thank Dean Peter Straub, Provost Leamor Kahanov, and President Harvey Kesselman for their support.


Image credits: Record Player (AM; http://www.inkcreations.com); Headphones (Daniel Reche), Keyboard, Earth (pixabay), toy dinosaurs and books (cottonbro).

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