Hi, I’m Sam. I direct The Music Lab, a research group at Harvard University focusing on the psychology of music. Our work draws on ideas and tools from cognitive and developmental psychology, data science, and evolutionary anthropology, to ask what music is, how music works, and why music exists.
For example, in the Natural History of Song project, we investigate the perceptual and cultural building blocks of music worldwide, to lay out basic facts of our psychological capacities for music. We build music corpora and use them in citizen-science experiments to ask how people hear music and what people understand about music, even when it was produced in cultures or languages unfamiliar to listeners. We’re also interested in how music listening affects emotions and health in the daily lives of infants, children, and parents; and how musical abilities vary across different people and different societies, including rare musical impairments like congenital amusia (tone-deafness).
Since the lab’s inception, we have run experiments with over 4 million people via our citizen-science platform. You can participate at themusiclab.org.
All of our papers and preprints are available below. For a lighter introduction to our research, here are some links:
Lab members Connie Bainbridge and Mila Bertolo discuss the relaxing effects of lullabies on infants on The Science of Happiness podcast (paper in Nature Human Behaviour).
Paula Span wrote a lovely New York Times piece about music in infancy, drawing in part on our papers in Psychological Science and Developmental Science. More recently, I discussed those findings on A Life in Music, a BBC Radio 4 special.
For an accessible summary of research on the idea that “music makes you smarter”, check out this Times op-ed.
A bit about me: I began my career at the Eastman School of Music, where I studied music education and got my first experience working with infants, children, and their families. In my last semester, I took a wonderful course in cognitive development with Elissa Newport and Richard Aslin, which led to a research assistantship at Harvard with Liz Spelke. I stuck around for grad school, working with Liz, Howard Gardner, Max Krasnow, and Steve Pinker. After finishing my doctorate I was lucky enough to start a lab at Harvard with funding from the NIH Director’s Early Independence Award and the Harvard Data Science Initiative.
If you’re interested in joining us, please see our open positions. You should also feel free to contact me directly, even if we don’t have a position posted. I’m always interested in hearing from new students!
^*Hilton, C. B., ^*Moser, C., Bertolo, M., *Lee-Rubin, H., Amir, D., *Bainbridge, C. M., *Simson, J., Knox, D., Glowacki, L., Galbarczyk, A., Jasienska, G., Ross, C. T., Neff, M. B., Martin, A., Cirelli, L. K., Trehub, S. E., Song, J., Kim, M., Schachner, A., Vardy, T. A., Atkinson, Q. D., Antfolk, J., Madhivanan, P., Siddaiah, A., Placek, C. D., Salali, G. D., Keestra, S., Singh, M., Collins, S. A., Patton, J. Q., Scaff, C., Stieglitz, J., Moya, C., Sagar, R. R., Wood, B. M., Krasnow, M. M., & Mehr, S. A. Acoustic regularities in infant-directed speech and song across cultures. bioRxiv. In revision.
^*Hilton, C. B., ^*Crowley-de Thierry, L., *Yan, R., Martin, A, & Mehr, S. A. Children infer the behavioral contexts of unfamiliar foreign songs. PsyArXiv. In revision.
*Liu, J., *Hilton, C. B., Bergelson, E., & Mehr, S. A. Language experience shapes music processing across 40 tonal, pitch-accented, and non-tonal languages. bioRxiv. In review.
*Atwood, S., ^Schachner, A., & ^Mehr, S. A. Expectancy effects threaten the inferential validity of synchrony-prosociality research. PsyArXiv. In review.
*Yan, R., *Jessani, G., Spelke, E. S., de Villiers, P., de Villiers, J., & Mehr, S. A. (in press). Across demographics and recent history, most parents sing to their infants and toddlers daily. Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society B.
*Hilton, C. B. & Mehr, S. A. (in press). Citizen science can help to alleviate the generalizability crisis. Behavioral and Brain Sciences. [Commentary on Yarkoni (2021) “The generalizability crisis”].
^*Bainbridge, C. M., ^*Bertolo, M., *Youngers, J., *Atwood, S., *Yurdum, L., *Simson, J., *Lopez, K., *Xing, F., Martin, A., & Mehr, S. A. (2021). Infants relax in response to unfamiliar foreign lullabies. Nature Human Behaviour, 5, 256-264.
*Bertolo, M., Singh, M., & Mehr, S. A. (2021). Sound-induced motion in chimpanzees does not imply shared ancestry for music or dance. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 118(2), e2015664118.
Mehr, S. A., Krasnow, M. M., Bryant, G. A., & Hagen, E. H. (2021). Origins of music in credible signaling [Target article]. Behavioral and Brain Sciences, 44, e60. [dual target articles, commentaries, and responses: ]
Mehr, S. A., Krasnow, M. M., Bryant, G. A., & Hagen, E. H. (2021). Toward a productive evolutionary understanding of music [Response to commentaries]. Behavioral and Brain Sciences, 44, e122.
^McMahon, E., ^*Kim, D., Mehr, S. A., Nakayama, K., Spelke, E. S., & Vaziri-Pashkam, M. (2021). The ability to predict actions of others from distributed cues is still developing in children. Journal of Vision, 21(5), 14.
^Sheskin, M., ^Scott, K., Mills, C. M., Bergelson, E., Bonawitz, E., Spelke, E. S., Li, F.-F., Keil, F., Gweon, H., Tenenbaum, J. B., Jara-Ettinger, J., Adolph, K. E., Rhodes, M., Frank, M. C., Mehr, S. A., & Schulz, L. (2020). Online developmental science to foster innovation, access, and impact. Trends in Cognitive Sciences, 24(9), 675-678.
*Young, N. R., La Rosa, M., Mehr, S. A., & Krasnow, M. M. (2020). Does greater morning sickness predict carrying a girl? Analysis of nausea and vomiting during pregnancy from retrospective report. Archives of Gynecology and Obstetrics, 303, 1161–1166.
Jacoby, N., Margulis, E., Clayton, M., Hannon, E., Honing, H., Iverson, J., Klein, T. R., Mehr, S. A., Pearson, L., Peretz, I., Perlman, M., Polak, R., Ravignani, A., Savage, P. E., Steingo, G., Stevens, C., Trainor, L., Trehub, S., & Veal, M. (2020). Cross-cultural work in music cognition: Challenges, insights, and recommendations. Music Perception, 37(3), 185–195.
Mehr, S. A. (2020). How to write a lab handbook. Biologist, 67(2), 26-28.
Mehr, S. A., Singh, M., Knox, D., Ketter, D. M., Pickens-Jones, D., *Atwood, S., Lucas, C., *Egner, A., Jacoby, N., *Hopkins, E. J., *Howard, R. M., Hartshorne, J. K., Jennings, M. V., *Simson, J., *Bainbridge, C. M., Pinker, S., O’Donnell, T. J., Krasnow, M. M., & Glowacki, L. (2019). Universality and diversity in human song. Science, 366, eaax0868:1-17.
Kotler, J., Mehr, S. A., *Egner, A., Haig, D., & Krasnow, M. M. (2019). Response to music in Angelman syndrome contrasts with Prader-Willi syndrome. Evolution and Human Behavior, 40(5), 420–426.
^Mehr, S. A., ^Singh, M., *York, H. W., Glowacki, L., & Krasnow. M. M. (2018). Form and function in human song. Current Biology, 28(3), 356–368.e5.
Mehr, S. A., *Scannell, D., & Winner, E. (2018). Sight-over-sound judgments of music performance are replicable effects with limited interpretability. PLOS ONE, 13(9), e0202075.
Mehr, S. A., & Spelke, E. S. (2018). Shared musical knowledge in 11-month-old infants. Developmental Science, 21(2), e12542.
Mehr, S. A., Kotler, J., *Howard, R. M., Haig, D., & Krasnow, M. M. (2017). Genomic imprinting is implicated in the psychology of music. Psychological Science, 28(10), 1455–1467.
Mehr, S. A., & Krasnow, M. M. (2017). Parent-offspring conflict and the evolution of infant-directed song. Evolution and Human Behavior, 38(5), 674–684.
Mehr, S. A., *Song, L. A., & Spelke, E. S. (2016). For 5-month-old infants, melodies are social. Psychological Science, 27(4), 486–501.
Mehr, S. A. (2015). Miscommunication of science: Music cognition research in the popular press. Frontiers in Psychology, 6(988).
Mehr, S. A. (2014). Music in the home: New evidence for an intergenerational link. Journal of Research in Music Education, 62(1), 78–88.
Mehr, S. A., Schachner, A., Katz, R. C., & Spelke, E. S. (2013). Two randomized trials provide no consistent evidence for nonmusical cognitive benefits of brief preschool music enrichment. PLOS ONE, 8(12), e82007.
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