A natural history of song

Practical information
19 April 2019

ENS, room Ribot, 24 rue Lhomond, 75005 Paris


Theories of the origins of music claim that the music faculty is shaped by the functional design of the human mind. On these ideas, musical behavior and musical structure are expected to exhibit species-wide regularities: music should be characterized by human universals. Many cognitive and evolutionary scientists intuitively accept this idea but no one has any good evidence for it. Most scholars of music, in contrast, intuitively accept the opposite position, citing the staggering diversity of the world’s music as evidence that music is shaped mostly by culture. I will present two papers that attempt to resolve this debate. The first, a pair of experiments, shows that the musical forms of songs in 86 cultures are shaped by their social functions (Mehr & Singh et al., 2018, Current Biology). The second, a descriptive project, applies tools of computational social science to the recently-created Natural History of Song corpora ( to demonstrate universals and dimensions of variation in musical behaviors and musical forms (Mehr et al., working paper, 

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 Elizabeth Spelke, Howard Gardner, and Steven Pinker.