June 8, 2021, at 3 PM
Title: Some principles of music perception
Abstract: Like vocalizations found across the animal kingdom, human music can reliably transmit information from producers to listeners. Do the communicative properties of music constitute a basic piece of human psychology? In this talk I will argue that the answer is “yes”. Adult listeners accurately infer the behavioral functions of music, on the basis of musical forms alone, even when the songs are from unfamiliar cultures and sung in unfamiliar languages. Such effects are not, however, merely a result of musical or cultural experience: young children and infants show comparable effects, with little evidence for increases in sensitivity across ages; as do adults living in isolated, small-scale societies, with minimal exposure to the music of other cultures. High-level representations of musical communication may be a key component of the psychology of music, facilitated by lower-level processing of pitch, rhythm, and other acoustical information.
Bio: Samuel Mehr is a Research Associate in the Department of Psychology at Harvard University, where he directs the Music Lab. 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 an Ed.D. in Human Development and Education under the mentorship of Howard Gardner, Elizabeth Spelke, and Steven Pinker.
Mehr’s 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, he investigates the perceptual and cultural building blocks of music worldwide. In behavioral experiments, he asks how people hear and what people understand about music, even when that music is from foreign cultures. He is 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.
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