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 cognitive and developmental 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 behavioral experiments, we ask how people hear and what people understand about music, even when that music is from foreign cultures. 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 tone-deafness.

You can participate in our experiments at themusiclab.org.

All of our papers and preprints are available below. For a lighter introduction to my lab’s research, check out Philip Ball’s and Ed Yong’s pieces about our cross-cultural studies of music (Prospect Magazine and The Atlantic, respectively); Paula Span’s piece about music in infancy (New York Times); or this Science Magazine video on universality and diversity in music. 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, 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 my lab, please see our open positions. You should also feel free to contact me directly, even if we don’t have a position available. I’m always interested in hearing from new students!


Papers & Preprints

Throughout, * denotes advisee and ^ denotes equal contribution. Datasets, materials, & code are all available on request; most are open-access on OSF or GitHub. 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. Acoustic regularities in infant-directed vocalizations across cultures. bioRxiv. In revision.

*Yan, R., *Jessani, G., Spelke, E. S., de Villiers, P., de Villiers, J., & Mehr, S. A. Across demographics and recent history, most parents sing to their infants and toddlers daily. PsyArXiv. In revision.

*Atwood, S., ^Schachner, A., & ^Mehr, S. A. Expectancy effects threaten the inferential validity of synchrony-prosociality research. PsyArXiv. In review.

^*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 review.

*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”].

Mehr, S. A., Krasnow, M. M., Bryant, G. A., & Hagen, E. H. (in press). Toward a productive evolutionary understanding of music [Response to commentaries]. Behavioral and Brain Sciences.

^*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.

^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.

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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