What Do ‘Hamilton’ And ‘School House Rock!’ Have in Common?
I recently picked up Thomas Fleming’s book Duel at a kiosk in Boston’s historic Fanueil Hall. As I read its account of the parallel lives of Alexander Hamilton and Aaron Burr, I found that I already knew many of the details of their lives and their relationship. That’s because my husband, daughter and I have been listening to the soundtrack of the smash Broadway production Hamilton (and also yearning to see it live). With its compelling rhythms, lush melodies and clever rhymes, Lin-Manuel Miranda’s musical makes the facts of Hamilton’s life easy to remember:
- That he was “a bastard, orphan, son of a whore and a Scotsman dropped in the middle of a forgotten spot in the Caribbean.”
- That the Federalist papers were a series of essays defending the new United States Constitution. And Hamilton wrote 51 of these 85 essays.
- That Hamilton’s wife Eliza raised money for the Washington monument and began the first private orphanage in New York City in her husband’s honor.
This reminds me of “School House Rock!,” the fabulous Saturday-morning television series of animated shorts that used music to help children remember lessons about grammar (“Conjunction Junction”), math (“Three is the Magic Number”) and social studies (“I’m Just a Bill”). The show aired on ABC-TV from 1973 to 1985 and again from 1993 to 1999.
Music has the ability to enhance memory for facts and figures. As linguists would say, rhythm and melody help to “chunk” information for recall. We learn our ABCs much younger than we learn our numbers because there is a song for one and not the other. The song helps us organize the letters in chunks of 3, 4 and 5: ABCD EFG HIJK LMNOP QRS TUV WXYZ.
Years ago, I did research for the Metropolitan Opera on the creation of original operas in schools. Children from kindergarten through high school collaborated on these productions based on their curriculum. In Brooklyn, I observed a fourth-grade production on “New York City Moments.” It imagined conversations about building and celebrating the Brooklyn Bridge. Facts and figures were embedded into songs and the dialogue that framed the songs. I would wager that if I could locate those children today, their recall of all this information would be just as their teachers hoped it would be: as solid as that bridge. They could engage in a discussion about it, answer questions about it in a trivia contest and consider its rightful place in the history of their city. If I were to interview those same students about other history lessons, not organized into original arts productions, I would further wager that those facts and figures would have waned with time – not because they were less interesting but because there was no music to facilitate its recall. I hypothesize this would be true even if the students had given equal study time to each topic.
Advertisers keenly understand the power of music and memory in promoting products. I have yet to meet someone who has bought products from the national Empire Carpet chain. And in New England – one region where the company advertises – I have yet to meet someone who does not know the company’s phone number, featured in its musical advertising tag: “800-588-2300, Empire!”
Music is a powerful asset in memory. In music therapy, we use music to promote healthy memory functioning. Children with Down’s syndrome might learn to tie their shoes because of a song that instructs them of the sequence. An adult with a brain injury might relearn biographical information in a song, such as address and phone number. And the act of singing may do more than enhance recall. It builds up brain structures related to the process of memory storage and retrieval. That can help a person learn both new and old information. Therapeutically, music is used as a brain-based treatment for a brain-based skill, such as memory, speech or language.
The next time you need to remember something important, take a cue from Hamilton and School House Rock: set it to a song and feel the power.
--Kathleen M. Howland
Kathleen M. Howland, Ph.D., is a certified music therapist (MT-BC, NMT/F) and speech therapist (CCC-SLP). She teaches undergraduate and graduate courses at Berklee College of Music.