Music Professor Takes a Shot on ‘Hamilton’

By Holly Habeck, February 9, 2017

Music Professor Takes a Shot on ‘Hamilton’

Timothy A. Johnson is a professor of music theory in the School of Music at Ithaca College who teaches introductory, upper-level and graduate courses on music theory and aural skills. Currently, he is teaching a capstone course called Senior Seminar in Music Liberal Arts and Outside Fields, which spends about five weeks analyzing the popular musical “Hamilton.”

We spoke with Johnson about what makes “Hamilton” such an asset in the classroom.

How did you start using “Hamilton” in the classroom?

It started this fall, in my form and analysis class. It’s the highest level of tonal theory for the core of music majors. [“Hamilton”] was a good example of what I was covering at the time, and the students also really loved it. In the course I’m teaching now, Senior Seminar in Music Liberal Arts and Outside Fields, the idea is to combine music with other fields. What I wanted to do was have case studies in the course where we talk about situations in which we might discuss music in a broader context. I wanted to use “Hamilton” because I could talk about music, politics and history.

What do the class discussions look like?

I ask questions such as, “What is the historical significance of the opening line of the musical?” Also, how does [Lin-Manuel] Miranda display a command of understanding of the relationships between music and other fields in “Hamilton?” Students prepare these questions either for discussion, for presentation or for papers. We are having lively discussions that involve music in relation to other fields while examining the music from a specialized perspective, which the students are able to do due to the skills and understanding they have developed as music majors.

Why are people so interested in “Hamilton?”

Why is it striking? Some of it’s content, some of it’s the way it’s written, and some of it is who we are as a nation. It’s also a multicultural cast. It’s looking at the founding fathers in a different way. The music includes hip-hop in a variety of styles. It’s not just hip-hop all the way through, but some of it is very true to the style of hip-hop. Some of it’s not, but some of it borrows specific songs from hip-hop. It’s kind of like paying homage to the person who did that song originally. It’s really neat to have that parallel. And why is it popular? It’s really good. It’s really effective.

How receptive are the students to “Hamilton?” 

They really loved it. Most of them were totally into it already, so they were really excited. I’ve heard through the grapevine that other people have been talking about our use of “Hamilton” in this course. We’re taking a slow read of it. We won’t get through all of it. It gives them a chance to dig in deeper to something that they’re already interested in.