Beat of the Drum: Harvard Lab Decodes Universality of Music

As a species, we’ve evolved particularly well when it comes to our aural comprehension. When we listen to music or perceive minute variations in sound, there are very clear emotional and behavioral by-products. This is why we are able to discern whether a particular song is meant for dancing, for romance, or a lullaby with impressive accuracy. We are motivated to engage with music on a regular basis, irrespective of our cultural background, socioeconomic status, or experience with music composition.

No matter what part of the world we or the music originates from, this characteristic is something that everyone is endowed with to a varying degree. With this observation close at hand, we might begin to ask ourselves if music truly is a universal language that transcends linguistic, cultural, and expressional barriers.

The Harvard Music Lab, hosted by Harvard University’s department of psychology and only a stone’s throw away from Sanders Theatre—a world-renowned venue for sound of all types—is conducting clinical studies to answer this question. While the lab typically involves developing people of all ages and populations with genetic conditions, a central focus of its inquiry is centered around infant cognition and how music shapes and influences behavior during the brain’s critical periods of development.

The scope of its work extends to an international level and leverages an interdisciplinary approach to compile data that is useful for continuing research. Investigators come from a wide range of disciplines including cognitive science, music composition, evolutionary biology, anthropology, and computer science. In fact, the principal investigator at the Harvard Music Lab, Samuel Mehr, never imagined he would find himself involved in this sort of work, let alone in the world of academia.

“I didn’t do very much psychology or science in undergrad. I was on track to be a full-time musician or music teacher,” Mehr said. “Then I took a right turn into science…there was some funkiness about learning what it is to work in academia.”

In the early days of Mehr’s research, he would apportion his time almost equally to lab work and music gigs on the side. Yet, music was still a first love for him. He recalls a family story of him matching notes played on the piano to the sounds of recycling trucks as they drove in reverse up the street. After carrying this passion through middle school and high school as both a pianist and a wind instrument player, he received a degree in music education from the Eastman School of Music at the University of Rochester. His pivot into research was in response to his desire to understand how people used music in daily life, the acoustics of music production in informal settings, and the long-term effects of the use of music in the home on parent and infant health.

“The big question is ‘What is music all about?’” Mehr said, waiting for a kettle to boil water for his tea. “We have a bunch of lines of work that we’re excited about, but they all sort of start at this basic question.”

Mehr’s ascension to the role of director at The Music Lab, however, was a quite recent development. Currently, the lab is only a few months into its life as a physical space within Harvard’s department of psychology and was made possible as a result of funding provided through the High-Risk, High-Reward Research Program at the National Institutes of Health as well as Harvard’s Data Science Initiative. Mehr and his research partners have emphasized a multivariate and data-intensive approach, collecting as much infant psychophysiological points as possible in high definition.

One of the lab’s collaborative research projects is the Natural History of Song, bringing together researchers from universities in Germany, Tel Aviv, and across the United States.

“[The Natural History of Song] is a cross-cultural study. It’s an effort to characterize music from many different places and characterize musical behavior from many different places,” Mehr said. “A big reason that we don’t know that much about what’s the same about music in different places in the world is that there isn’t any one database. We basically built systematically constructed databases to do that.”

While this study continues to experiment both in the field as well as online, Mehr and his team at The Music Lab have begun recruiting babies from two to 12 months old via The Music Lab Facebook page for music cognition tests. The tests follow the lab’s aforementioned data-rich modus operandi, collecting electrodermal data—the amount of sweat secretion on skin surface—as well as gaze-tracking data  and pupil dilation using stable 4K cameras.

For this reason, the team has drawn from the expertise of data scientists and computational scientists to sort through the data and connect it to formal theories of music that underlie the lab’s working assumption about the universality of music. Ultimately, Mehr believes that the purpose of his work is to explore research questions in ways that few have dared to explore previously.

“There are similar attempts that have been made, but they have different goals or have different issues associated with them,” Mehr said. “So there’s a lot of work that’s waiting to be done and ready for us to dive into, which makes it an exciting area.”

Featured Image Courtesy of  Harvard Music Lab

April 8, 2018