Brown bag du 12/12/2017 Sam MEHR


Title: Psychological functions and universality of music in infancy

Speaker: Sam Mehr (Harvard University)

Location : Salle C

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.” Nearly 150 years later, the psychological
functions of music are still a mystery. Why are we musical? In this talk I
outline a functional account for infant-directed song as an honest signal
of parental attention (Mehr & Krasnow, 2017, Evolution and Human Behavior)
and present data supporting it from the newly-created Natural History of
Song project. First, I conduct corpus analyses of the ethnographic records
of 60 small-scale societies, finding a number of universals in music and,
in particular, associations between the use of music and the parental care
of infants. Second, I conduct a pair of online experiments that examine
the links between form and function in the songs of 86 cultures. I find
that listeners worldwide can identify infant-directed songs on the basis
of their forms alone, and show that this form-function link is
attributable specifically to musical features of those songs (e.g.,
tempo), rather than contextual features of their performances (e.g.,
number of singers). These demonstrations of the universality of
infant-directed music dovetail with the results of laboratory studies of
infants' social responses to music (Mehr, Song, & Spelke, 2016,
Psychological Science) and natural experiments in people with genomic
imprinting disorders (Mehr et al., 2017, Psychological Science) to provide
convergent evidence for a key psychological function of music in infancy.