Samuel Mehr

This is a picture of me (by Jason Nemirow).

This is a picture of my brain (by Anna Leshinskaya and Alek Chakroff).

Hi, I’m Sam. I direct the Harvard Music Lab, where we ask what music is, how music works, and why music exists.

Our research draws on ideas and tools from psychology, data science, evolutionary anthropology, and music. For example, in the Natural History of Song project, we investigate the perceptual and cultural building blocks of music worldwide. In music perception experiments, we ask what people understand about the music they hear, even when that music is from foreign cultures, and how music listening affects their emotions and health. In work with infants and parents, we study the impacts of music on daily life. We are also interested in how musical ability varies across different people and different societies, including rare musical impairments, like tone-deafness. You can try these experiments at themusiclab.org.

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, taught by 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. I’m always interested in hearing from new students!


All of my co-authored papers and preprints are available below. For a lighter introduction to my research, you can also check out Philip Ball’s and Ed Yong’s pieces about my lab’s cross-cultural studies of music (Prospect Magazine and The Atlantic, respectively); Paula Span’s piece about music in infancy (New York Times); or a video ‘splainer from Science. Some live media appearances include CBC Radio’s Quirks and Quarks, NPR’s Science Friday, and CBC TV’s The National. For an accessible summary of research on the idea that “music makes you smarter”, check out this Times op-ed.

If you’d like to read just one of my papers, I suggest starting with “Universality and diversity in human song” (Mehr et al. 2019).


Throughout, * denotes advisee and † denotes equal contribution. Datasets, materials, & code are all available on request; most are open-access at osf.io/6nvpe. Please contact me if you need assistance with any of these.

*Moser, C., *Lee-Rubin, H., *Bainbridge, C. M., *Atwood, S., *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. (2020). Acoustic regularities in infant-directed vocalizations across cultures. bioRxiv. In revision.

†*Bainbridge, C. M., †*Bertolo, M., *Youngers, J., *Atwood, S., *Yurdum, L., , *Simson, J., *Lopez, K., *Xing, F., Martin, A., & Mehr, S. A. (2020). Infants relax in response to unfamiliar foreign lullabies. PsyArXiv. In revision.

Mehr, S. A., Krasnow, M. M., Bryant, G. A., & Hagen, E. H. (accepted pending minor revisions). Origins of music in credible signaling [target article]. Behavioral and Brain Sciences.

†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.

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., *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., †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., 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., & Spelke, E. S. (2017). Shared musical knowledge in 11-month-old infants. Developmental Science, 21(2), e12542.

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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