Amazing Songs, Amazing Music: The Neuropsychology Behind Hamilton

Edited by Olivia Spahn-Vieira

The Curtain Rises: (Not Throwing Away) My Shot

If you’re anything like me, you’ve probably been humming the songs from Hamilton NON-STOP since July 3rd. In fact, I bet that the words, “why do you write like you’re running out of time?” are coursing through your mind right now.

Hamilton is a theatrical masterpiece. Since its 2015 Broadway debut, it’s taken the world by storm, with no signs of ever slowing down. And rightly so — it’s a poignant, relevant, ground-breaking snapshot of American History.

More importantly: it contains one of the strongest musical albums of all time, crafted by the brilliant Lin-Manuel Miranda and the incomparable Alex Lacamoire.

But why, exactly, is “The Room Where It Happened” so ethereally gripping? How does the whole world know the bridge to “My Shot”? 

The short answer is, Lacamoire and Miranda have songwriting down to a science.

Not a figurative science—

No, they’ve literally been harnessing the sciences — particularly, psychology and neuroscience — to craft songs that’ll elicit a positive, catchy and popular response.

Let’s take a dive into some of their techniques…

ACT I: A Brief Introduction to Music Cognition

Before we get into the whole nitty-gritty of Hamilton’s phenomenal music, let’s discuss the connection between music and neuropsychology — a well-studied field often referred to as music cognition.

Music, as a whole, has the ability to influence human emotions. That’s why Debussy’s "Claire de Lune" evokes a strong sense of serenity, whereas “Sincerely, Me” from Dear Evan Hansen quirks your lips into a smile. 

Auditory stimuli are capable of stimulating a biochemical response in the brain, done via the instigation or inhibition of molecular messengers known as neurotransmitters. Most notably, listening to music stimulates an increase in dopamine: one of the four “happiness hormones,” which generates positive emotions and increases one’s attention- and learning-span.

Additionally, pairing words with an accompanying melody ignites a response in the hippocampus; the structure in the brain associated with forming — and retrieving — episodic (autobiographical) memories

Think about it: when you were an infant, did you drift off to the sound of soft, sung lullabies? Did you learn the ABCs to the tune of a song?

For most individuals, the answer is “yes.” Yes, you grew up listening to music. Some of your earliest memories have to do with music. And because of this… whenever you hear a melody, a harmony, your hippocampus activates. It realizes ‘hey, there’s some music playing… music is integral in some of your earliest memories… I should probably remember this,’ then begins coding a new memory.

As such, by simply applying standard musical conventions — melodies, harmonies, bass lines and vocalization — Lacamoire and Miranda’s score was guaranteed to be just as engaging as any other musical piece (pop, rap or otherwise). 

Yet Hamilton stands out from the crowd — it’s more catchy than your average, run-of-the-mill Top-40 radio hit. 

Why is that, you ask? Well, let’s take a closer look.

ACT II: Studying Lacamoire & Miranda’s ~ Psychological Magic ~

Lacamoire and Miranda didn’t just use these same, old musical conventions: they went above and beyond to set their masterpiece above the crowd. It would take ages to go through all the lyrical, melodic and harmonic complexities, but let’s touch upon a handful of the techniques that turned Hamilton into a global sensation:

1.  Repetition

60 years ago, psychologist Robert Zajonc studied a phenomenon that he dubbed the “mere exposure effect.” Through his experiments, he concluded that the more times we’re exposed to something — be this a word, a string of lyrics, or a melody — the deeper it’s ingrained in our brains. When a person listens to a song over and over again, some of the instrumental, melodic and rhythmic patterns are stored in a region of the brain known as the Superior Temporal Gyrus. The brain thus becomes familiarized with these styles, solidifying their retention in our minds. 

As such, by invoking repetition in their music, a songwriter holds the power to influence our Superior Temporal Gyrus. They are, quite literally, branding their melodies and harmonies into our brain, ensuring that we’re familiar with their particular musical patterns, that we can recall the tempo, the lyrics, the notes. 

Naturally, the Hamilton soundtrack is FULL of repetition.

The most obvious example is the first-line hook of the very first song, where Aaron Burr (Leslie Odom Jr) states: “How does a bastard, orphan, son of a whore and a Scotsman…”

This fragment repeats throughout the musical — and though its lyrics change slightly, the pitch, the tone, the tempo and the underlying instrumental harmony remain identical. In “A Winter’s Ball,” Burr repeats the bastard, orphan sentiment, whereas in “Guns and Ships,” he adjusts his words to introduce Lafayette. These lines are invoked again at 0:13 in “What’d I Miss,” the opening song of Act II; they’re heard in “The Adams Administration," and culminate in “Your Obedient Servant.”

That’s six whole repetitions of that ONE phrase pattern! As such, it’s no wonder why the opening bars are so recognizable: if you’ve heard the same phrase that often in one viewing of the show/listen-through of the album… well, that’s more than enough repetition to code the phrase into your Superior Temporal Gyrus. 

Of course, this isn’t the only repeated phrase in the show. Most characters have a leitmotif: a melody or phrase that recurs whenever they’re around, and is therefore associated with said character.

Think about it: Eliza repeats “Look around, look around, at how lucky we are to be alive right now” in several of her songs, whereas Angelica’s “I know my sister like I know my own mind” verse crops up in both acts of the play. Washington sings “History has its eyes on you,” whereas Laurens repeats “I may not live to see our glory.” I mean, Hamilton even has a recurring soliloquy that crops up in three different songs! These leitmotifs are incredibly recurrent, providing yet another instance of repetition — thus coding Hamilton’s songs even more strongly into your Superior Temporal Gyrus, ensuring that you’ll remember them long after you take off your headphones.

2.  Sampling

This second technique works via a similar manner as repetition: it also harnesses the activity of the Superior Temporal Gyrus.

Naturally, when you listen to the same song over and over again, you gain a familiarity with that piece of music. Its melodies and lyrics become further encoded into your Superior Temporal Gyrus, and you retain a stronger memory of the song. 

If you're a Hamilton fan, then you've probably heard the song “Ten Duel Commandments”... but did you know that it’s based off the Notorious B.I.G.’s “Ten Crack Commandments”? In fact, though their underlying instrumentations are quite different, the melodies in their lyrics are quite similar; not to mention, of course, their structrural patterns — counting from 1 to 10, with two-to-four-line explanations between each number — are nearly identical.

3.  Instrumentation Reflecting the Lyrics

Another feature that crops up repeatedly throughout the Hamilton soundtrack is the use of instrumental patterns that reflect the vocalist’s words. For instance, in Burr’s first solo, “Wait For It,” Burr says a line, then there’s a pause before the ensemble replies with “Wait for it… wait for it… wait for it.” Quite literally, the listener has to wait to hear the ensemble’s response.

This provides an extended dual coding effect. The Dual-Coding Theory of Cognition suggests that learning something using both verbal and visual associations leads to the same information being processed by multiple neurological pathways, thus leading to stronger mental coding of the stimulus.

Though music is purely auditory -- there are no visual associations -- instrumentation and lyrics are categorized differently in the brain.

As such, when semantically-related stimuli are expressed simultaneously — for instance, Burr saying “Click, boom” in “The Room Where It Happens,” overtop the click and shot of a gun — the same stimulus becomes coded in both the instrumental and lyrical regions of the brain, resulting in a more-comprehensive neurological coding of the phrase (and thus a more-catchy, better-retained musical moment).

Curtain Call: Who Lives, Who Dies, Who Tells Your Story?

Of course, this is just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to the magic of Hamilton’s music. I firmly believe that Miranda and Lacamoire are two of the greatest musical geniuses of all time: a statement only furthered by the immense, continuous success of the Broadway show (and its Disney+ release). I guess you really can say that they’ve been “passionately smashin’ every expectation,” huh?

One thing’s for certain: I’ll be belting along to “Yorktown” for a very, very long time.