Origins, universality, and psychological functions of music in human infancy Event as iCalendar

08 February 2017

12 - 1pm

Venue: Building 301, Room G053

Location: City Campus

Host: School of Psychology

Contact email: or


Origins, universality, and psychological functions of music in human infancy

Presented by Dr Samuel Mehr, Department of Psychology, Harvard University

Abstract: 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 origins of music are still a mystery. Why are we musical? Human infancy is a promising time at which to address this question: infants have robust music perception abilities and are fascinated by music, and adults worldwide often sing to infants, using music as a tool to modulate infant behavior. In this colloquium I will present a new theory of the evolution of infant-directed song (Mehr & Krasnow, 2017, Evolution and Human Behavior) and support it with two forms of evidence. These include (1) preliminary findings from the ongoing Natural History of Song project, a large cross-cultural study examining ethnography and audio recordings from some 100 small-scale societies (see; and (2) a series of behavioral experiments investigating infants' responses to people who sing to them (Mehr & Spelke, 2017, Developmental Science; Mehr, Song, & Spelke, 2016, Psychological Science). I will discuss other forms of evidence that could confirm or disconfirm the evolutionary theory and conclude with the possibility that infant-directed song could form the basis of more complex forms of music.