Valent Shell
copyright 2011 by Tim Griffin

Hydrogen only has one proton
That’s why it only gets the one electron
But the K shell wants to have two
To fill up the valent, one electron won’t do

(chorus) It wants to bond, it’s easy to tell
That every atom wants to fill the valent shell
Bond, it’s easy to tell
That it’s looking for electrons, filling the electron shell

Oxygen is number eight on the table,
Wants two more electrons just to make it stable
Two in the K shell, the L wants eight
But it only has six and the atom won’t wait

(repeat chorus)

(bridge) K is the name of the first shell you see
And the subsequent shells are L, M, N, O, P
Each can hold a set number of electrons
That’s what drives the chemical reactions

(verse) Oxygen and a hydrogen duo
Get all exothermic and make an H2O
Atoms fill their shells if they’re able
You can check the valence by the columns on the table

(repeat chorus)

(bridge) Some atoms got the right number of electrons
Like helium, neon, and argon
Any atom passing by just passes
That’s why those are called the noble gases

(verse) This is how Mendeleev was able
To place all the elements on a periodic table
If you study it vertically
You can tell which ones behave similarly

Bond, bond, it’s easy to tell
That every atom wants to fill the valent shell
Bond, bond, it’s easy to tell
They’re looking for reactions, getting satisfaction, filling the electron shell


Unless you’re going to major in chemistry in college, you really don’t need to memorize the periodic table of the elements. But you do need to be able to read it and understand why it’s arranged in that lovely castle-like configuration. It’s all about the valent shells, see? Look at the column on the left. Hydrogen and every element beneath hydrogen share an important property: each has exactly one electron in its outermost, or valent, shell. This is why lithium, sodium, etc. behave a lot like hydrogen in terms of which elements they “want” to bond with.

Now look at the column on the far right: each element there (helium, neon, argon, etc.) has exactly the correct number of electrons to max out its outermost shell, so those elements don’t “want” to bond with anything. Those are the “noble” gases because they don’t deign to mix with the common elements.

Each column in between? Well, you can count columns from the left to find out how many electrons are in the outer (valent) shell, or you can count from the right to find out how many openings it’s got. The columns are stacked unevenly because the different shells can hold different numbers of electrons: the first shell, named K, can hold a maximum of two electrons, the second and third can hold a maximum of eight each, and so on.

Like most of what I do, this explanation is very superficial. If you want to learn more about the table and the people behind it, I highly recommend the book The Disappearing Spoon by Sam Kean. Not only is it highly entertaining, but reading it was the first time I felt I truly understood the basics of chemistry.

About this recording: Devin’s studio production students from Pasadena City College got their hands on this one. Like most of my songs, it began with me and a guitar. What these teenagers did to it was so musically counter-intuitive, so totally against my personal aesthetic, so obviously contrary to the whole point of the song that I had to admit it was pretty cool. They made me sound like Cher! But I still intend to revisit it one day and do an acoustic version.

I should add that this song won the themed writing contest at OVFF in 2011. The assigned theme was “Ringmaster.” Of course there were songs about Tolkein and songs about the circus; many of them were quite good. I took a different tack and argued that electron shells could be interpreted as rings, which would make Mendeleev the ringmaster. The judges bought it; I won eternal glory plus a $15 (!!!) credit in the dealer’s room at the festival.

Here are some standards from the NGSS and the state of California addressed by this song:

Grade 5:

  • NGSS 5-PS1-1. Develop a model to describe that matter is made of particles too small to be seen.
  • NGSS 5-PS1-3. Make observations and measurements to identify materials based on their properties.
  • NGSS 5-PS1-4. Conduct an investigation to determine whether the mixing of two or more substances results in new substances.
  • RI.5.7 Draw on information from multiple print or digital sources, demonstrating the ability to locate an answer to a question quickly or to solve a problem efficiently.
  • W.5.9 Draw evidence from literary or informational texts to support analysis, reflection, and research.
  • CA.PS.5.1. Elements and their combinations account for all the varied types of matter in the world.
  • CA.PS.5.1a. Students know that during chemical reactions the atoms in the reactants rearrange to form products with different properties.
  • CA.PS.5.1b: all matter is made of atoms, which may combine to form molecules.
  • CA.PS.5.1d: all matter is made of atoms, which may combine to form molecules.

Middle School:

  • NGSS MS-PS1-1. Develop models to describe the atomic composition of simple molecules and extended structures.
  • NGSS MS-PS1-2. Analyze and interpret data on the properties of substances before and after the substances interact to determine if a chemical reaction has occurred.
  • NGSS MS-PS1-5. Develop and use a model to describe how the total number of atoms does not change in a chemical reaction and thus mass is conserved.
  • CA.PS.8.3: Each of the more than 100 elements of matter has distinct properties and a distinct atomic structure. All forms of matter are composed of one or more of the elements.
  • CA.PS.8.3a: Students know the structure of the atom and know it is composed of protons, neutrons, and electrons.
  • CA.PS.8.3b: Students know that compounds are formed by combining two or more different elements and that compounds have properties that are different from their constituent elements.
  • CA.PS.8.3f: Students know how to use the periodic table to identify elements in simple compounds.
  • CA.PS.8.5: Chemical reactions are processes in which atoms are rearranged into different combinations of molecules.
  • CA.PS.8.5a: Students know reactant atoms and molecules interact to form products with different chemical properties.
  • CA.PS.8.5b: Students know the idea of atoms explains the conservation of matter: In chemical reactions the number of atoms stays the same no matter how they are arranged, so their total mass stays the same.
  • CA.PS.8.5c: Students know chemical reactions usually liberate heat or absorb heat.
  • CA.PS.8.7: The organization of the periodic table is based on the properties of the elements and reflects the structure of atoms.
  • CA.PS.8.7a: Students know how to identify regions corresponding to metals, nonmetals, and inert gases.
  • CA.PS.8.7b: Students know each element has a specific number of protons in the nucleus (the atomic number) and each isotope of the element has a different but specific number of neutrons in the nucleus.

Guitar Chords:
A, E, F#m, and D. You can play all these chords the usual way or, if you want a bass line, you can use your index finger to bar the chords while your pinky moves on and off the 5th and 6th strings to get a cool “walking” bass groove.