Sam Semsel ’25 explores the musical abilities of American presidents – The Lafayette

From Washington to Clinton, American presidents have a long hidden history of musical talent and appreciation. Sam Semsel ’25 has spent the summer discovering these skills and more through his research through the EXCEL Fellowship Program.

Semsel first became involved in the EXCEL program when her adviser in the Government and Law department put her in touch with music teacherby Professor Jorge Torres. Because Semsel is a double major in government, law, and philosophy who is also part of several musical ensembles on campus, she and Torres sought a research topic that would combine her two passions.

Over the summer, Semsel searched for a president each day using mostly online searches and library resources. From there, she went back to the ones that needed a little more digging.

“Some presidents, like Thomas Jefferson, have tons of biographies written about them, and some presidents, like James K. Polk, have very few, so it’s harder to find information,” Semsel said.

Semsel discovered that about 15 presidents played musical instruments, including Thomas Jefferson on the violin and Richard Nixon on the piano. According to Semsel, however, being musical is more than just playing an instrument. Whether or not presidents have a musical background, their experiences with music have often shaped their attitude toward the arts as an institution and the policies they have pushed while in office.

In his research, Semsel found a correlation between presidents’ personal appreciation of music and their willingness to fund the arts.

“For example, Donald Trump is a president who wasn’t really a musician at all. He quoted himself saying that he hit his music teacher in elementary school because he didn’t understand music,” Semsel explained. “He had no appreciation for music and that showed when, throughout his presidency, he tried to cut the Endowment for the Arts altogether.”

Throughout the research process, Semsel examined the socio-economic origins of the presidents’ musical habits.

“Some of the presidents come from the upper classes of society and therefore had the opportunity to learn and appreciate music in different ways,” she said.

Semsel’s research also highlights how music and the arts in general help compose American national identity. She describes the influence of music in terms of soft power, a type of power derived from economic or cultural authority.

“Especially during the Cold War, [we] sent musicians to Russia to participate in competitions in order to win [soft power]. So I realize how important arts and culture are to show that we are this country that has a beautiful culture and has the ability to create that culture,” Semsel said.

If Semsel had to choose a man to give the honor of most musical president, she would go with Warren G. Harding.

“Harding played nearly all of the brass and sat through Marine Corps Band rehearsals. A lot of these things that I’ve learned about some presidents are really surprising,” she said.

While a few presidents, like Bill Clinton, are well known for their musical abilities, some hid their musicality because they saw it as a personal hobby and not a tactic that should be used to woo voters. Semsel’s research gave him the opportunity to see historical figures as well-rounded people outside the realm of politics rather than one-dimensional characters.

“Taking these [political] aspects, looking at the whole person instead of the president is really interesting,” Semsel said.

This semester, Semsel will focus on continuing his research with different resources, such as presidents’ homes, libraries, and personal collections. When the research is complete, Semsel hopes to have gathered enough information to write a book or article to share their findings.