Structure and creativity may seem to be clashing concepts, but Baylor University associate psychology professor Keith Sanford embraces both as he indulges a passion and helps his students.
With a keyboard, drum set and loop station, Sanford created “Variance and Covariance,” a song about formulas in psychology. Sanford has shown the song to classes as a learning tool for about a year.
“They seemed to enjoy it,” he said. “My guess is that they’re not expecting their professor is going to do some kind of music video for them.”
“Divide that sum of squares you get by the sample minus one,” the song goes. “Now you’ve got a variance. That’s what you have done.”
Sanford’s music isn’t limited to psychology. He performs covers of classic rock and modern jazz songs while also writing originals. Many are posted on his website, sanfordspace.com. A cover of The Rolling Stones’ “Paint it Black” features the loop station, which allows Sanford to layer his vocal arrangements with sounds created on the drums and keyboards throughout the song.
Though he’s always looking for venues, Sanford said he prefers playing at retirement centers around Waco. He said the residents enjoy Frank Sinatra covers and other jazz stylings.
Sanford began playing piano and drums growing up in Colorado. After high school, he went to music school in Hollywood and studied drums under Ralph Humphrey, who played for legendary American musician Frank Zappa. He learned the intricacies of music theory.
“I think I take a very rule- focused approach when I do music,” Sanford said. “I’m often thinking about the theory behind it. When I play drums, I’m often thinking about the various types in terms of ways I can break time into different components and parts.”
As the drummer in a three-man group, he played various shows, and his first vocal experience came at a circus gig. When the singer suddenly stormed off, Sanford was left to sing the crowd favorite, “On the Road Again.” His career drifted into academia, but he continues exploring his musical passion.
Sanford said about half of his original songs feature historical references, including “Hope and Tears,” which focuses on the Trail of Tears. He said he practices about 10 hours a week.
“Variance and Covariance,” however, is more than entertainment.
“It’s a clever way to combine those interests in a class,” said Charles Weaver III, chair of Baylor’s Department of Psychology and Neuroscience. “Some of us find statistics very interesting, and a lot of the students don’t. So this would be a way to make the material accessible to a wider group of students. He’s really gifted at doing that, even in a traditional sense.”
Weaver said psychology studies show music and rhyme can help memory.
“You can hum along with that tune that will often help you remember things that otherwise you wouldn’t remember,” Weaver said. “Some of it is motivational. It’s hard for us to rehearse information that’s just dry and uninteresting, but if something is put with a catchy tune, we’ll find ourselves singing that catchy tune.”
The creative aspect of writing music, paired with presenting lectures and information in engaging ways makes it all worthwhile, Sanford said.
“There are a lot of rules in music theory, and there are a lot of rules in statistics,” he said. “But there’s a lot of creativity on both sides.”