Robert Morris University professor spins music lyrics into lessons

| Friday, May 2, 2014, 8:57 p.m.

Brian O'Roark doesn't have his head buried in a spreadsheet.

He knows what many people think about the subject for which he feels passion and to which he devoted his working life.

He sees the eyes rolling when he is asked his occupation.

He hears the mumbling about preferences to “rather watch paint dry” and the complaining about “ the hardest class I ever had.”

The professor of economics at Robert Morris University is sympathetic. And he prefers to take the high road, saying it's not so much that students aren't giving it a chance.

“It's just really hard,” he acknowledges, “and when it is difficult to see where it applies to your life, the normal reaction is to give up on it, hope for a ‘C' and then move on.”

As a teacher, O'Roark, 39, is always looking for new ways to make economics more accessible and relatable to students.

That is why he regularly invites the likes of the Beatles and the Rolling Stones, Macklemore and Ryan Lewis, Passion Pit and Queen, Rihanna and Jay-Z, Beyonce and Kanye West, U2 and Bob Dylan into the classroom. These “guest lectures” help teach lessons about the production, distribution and consumption of goods and services and material welfare.

They are among the artists represented on a list he maintains of the best economics songs of the past 50 years. He helped compile the list with economics-professor colleagues Dirk Mateer of the University of Kentucky and Kim Holder of the University of West Georgia.

“The choice is based on what song we think has the most and best economics content for a particular year,” O'Roark says. “We're looking for the song that has the best economics story to tell. In a lot of cases, it ends up reflecting a time period.”

Their “Music for Econ” project, designed as a resource for songs to consider for teaching about economics, can be found at and is a way to distribute the songs and their interpretations in a video to whoever might find them useful.

“I like to think of it as a project that helps economics teachers by offering them a way to show students the relevance of what they are teaching, the economics themes that show up in music,” O'Roark says.

He made his case at the Teaching Economics conference at Robert Morris University and at a convention of economists in Las Vegas in April. His work also is cited in two national economics textbooks.

Influential British economist Alfred Marshall famously remarked in the 1920s that “economics is a study of mankind in the ordinary business of life.” Many song lyrics capture Marshall's 1920s observation perfectly, O'Roark says.

Part of the benefit of using music as a teaching tool, O'Roark says, is that it can tell a story and communicate historical and sociological trends, as well as economics meaning, to students.

The Top 50 song compilation itself was an idea spawned from a series of “best of” lists that seemed to O'Roark ubiquitous. He and his friends reasoned that if you can do a “best of” list for college towns to retire to or worst television shows ever, why not a “best of” for econ music?

“It does provide an excellent avenue to talk about the project and get some discussion going. Not everyone will agree with the list, and that's a good thing,” O'Roark says. “It seems that music sticks with you more than most any other media. My kids memorize lyrics to songs so quickly. We're not trying to rewrite the words, but to show that what musicians are singing about is often tied to economics.”

For example:

• Before you might write off Madonna's 1984 hit “Material Girl” as fluff, consider that she was drawing from a checklist of key economics concepts such as utility and capital accumulation as she sang, “Only boys who save their pennies make my rainy day.”

• Utility (trying to find happiness) and unlimited wants are the econ thematic stars in the Rolling Stones' “Satisfaction” from 1965.

• Queen doesn't veil its desires in 1989's “I Want It All” “...and I want it now,” O'Roark points out, all the while nicely addressing, if unintentionally, such economic smatters as time preferences (intense preference to receive goods or services immediately) and inelastic demand (a situation in which the demand for a product does not increase or decrease correspondingly with a fall or rise in its price).

• Macklemore and Ryan Lewis' “Thrift Shop” (2013) explores marginal utility, subjective value, consumption, recession and more while entertaining the masses.

• Rihanna and Jay-Z got into investing and risk-aversion in 2007's “Umbrella” (“Comin' down like the Dow Jones”).

• When Beyonce strutted through “Irreplaceable” (2006), did you also notice her clear references to elasticity of demand and elasticity of supply as she sang, “You must not know 'bout me, I can have another you in a minute, matter fact, he'll be here in a minute”?

• Eminem's “Lose Yourself” (2002)? He's referencing a living wage and opportunity cost, says O'Roark, as he raps, “Look, if you had one shot, or one opportunity to seize everything you ever wanted, one moment, would you capture it or just let it slip?

Robert Morris freshman and major music fan Anastasia Novodran of Upper St. Clair appreciates her professor's approach.

“He's a great instructor that really helps his students understand the material. I think, by using music, he makes his class even more interesting and even more relatable to his students,” says Novodran who is working on a dual major in marketing and management.

O'Roark is well-respected, she says. He asks students to write their own interpretations of lyrics at the end of the term.

“They usually take to this project with much more gusto than they would to a normal homework assignment,” he says. “Their work reflects that they are learning something. Some of it is really good.”

Can a list like this be beneficial to a nonstudent, an average person struggling to understand finances?

“Ah that's a trick question,” O'Roark says. “My colleagues in finance would be quick to point out that economics and finance are two different things. While it won't help you to hit it big on the stock market, or even balance your checkbook, the songs do help to point out that basic economics shows up everywhere you look. If you want to understand something better, there is likely a song out there that will help you do this.”

While economics may be called “the dismal science,” he says, it really isn't dismal. “It can be an intimidating subject, but I think that when you see that economic thinking shows up in so many unexpected, yet familiar, places, it can take that mystique away,” he adds.

Rex Rutkoski is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 724-226-4664 or

Subscribe today! Click here for our subscription offers.


Show commenting policy