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Making sense: music and the human mind

Building blocks of music across cultures

Could you tell what's a lullaby or dance song even if it was in another language? What does our response to music reveal about universality, cultural diversity and human cognition? 

Update (Monday 16 March, 2020) 

In light of COVID-19 developments, please be advised this event will not be going ahead at this time. The Sydney Ideas program will continue, with our talks and conversations available as a podcast. Stay in the loop by signing up to our newsletter or following Sydney Ideas on Facebook and Twitter.


Is music a cultural universal? That's the big question at the centre of a major project conceived by Harvard researcher Dr Samuel Mehr, a psychologist and trained musician. 

Mehr and an interdisciplinary team (musicians, data scientists, psychologists, linguists and political scientists) analysed vocal music from 300+ cultures stretching back over 100 years. These analyses lay out the building blocks of music across the breadth of human societies, revealing both universal features and patterns of variability in our culture.

What does this mean? In terms of mapping and understanding how people connect and communicate through music? Dr Mehr will explore key insights and implications from the project. 

The speaker

Sam studies music: how the design of the human mind leads us to perceive, create, and engage with music, and how this psychology of music may be leveraged to improve health outcomes in infancy and adulthood. These questions are multidisciplinary, drawing insights from the cognitive sciences, evolutionary biology, anthropology, ethnomusicology and music theory, linguistics, and computer science.

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. To learn more about Sam's research and to participate in music research online, please visit themusiclab.org.

Event image credit: Photo by Lee Pigott on Unsplash

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