RITMO Seminar Series: Origins and Functions of Music in Infancy (Samuel Mehr, Harvard)

Samuel Mehr, Research Associate in the Department of Psychology at Harvard University, will give a seminar lecture entitled "Origins and Functions of Music in Infancy". 

Samuel Mehr. Photo: private


In 1871, Darwin wrote, “As neither the enjoyment nor the capacity of producing musical notes are faculties of the least use to man in reference to his daily habits of life, they must be ranked among the most mysterious with which he is endowed.” Infants and parents engage their mysterious musical faculties eagerly, frequently, across most societies, and for most of history. Why should this be? In this talk I propose that infant-directed song functions as an honest signal of parental investment. I support the proposal with two lines of work. First, I show that the perception and production of infant-directed song are characterized by human universals, in cross-cultural studies of music perception run with listeners on the internet; in isolated, small-scale societies; and in infants, who have much less experience than adults with music. Second, I show that the genomic imprinting disorders Prader-Willi and Angelman syndromes, which cause an altered psychology of parental investment, are associated with an altered psychology of music. These findings converge on a psychological function of music in infancy that may underlie more general features of the human music faculty.


Samuel Mehr is a Research Associate in the Department of Psychology at Harvard University, where he directs the Music Lab (themusiclab.org). Sam studies music: how the design of the human mind leads us to perceive, create, and engage with music, and how this psychology of music may be leveraged to improve health outcomes across the lifespan. These questions are multidisciplinary, drawing insights from the cognitive sciences, evolutionary biology, anthropology, ethnomusicology and music theory, and linguistics. Originally a musician, Sam earned a B.M. in Music Education from the Eastman School of Music before diving into science at Harvard, where he earned a doctorate in Human Development under the mentorship of Howard Gardner, Steven Pinker, and Elizabeth Spelke.


Published Jan. 5, 2019 11:39 AM - Last modified Mar. 26, 2020 4:18 PM