Why sing to a baby? I learned about Samuel Mehr’s fascinating research recently and decided to reach out to him. A few questions and answers:
Where were you born and where did you grow up?
I was born in Boston and grew up in Cambridge and Lexington.
How did you end up researching infants and song?
As an undergraduate in music education at Eastman I started working with infants, young children, and their parents through their early childhood music education program and with a great advisor & music educator, Donna Brink Fox. I got interested in psychology, met some people at Rochester, who then set me up at Harvard. More detail in this profile: https://psmag.com/the-30-top-thinkers-under-30-the-multi-instrumentalist-who-wants-to-understand-why-people-make-fbc0382e6bed
What are the main findings of your recent research study?
We recently published a couple of papers about infants’ social responses to people who sing to them (see my Psych Science and Developmental Science papers available on my website). Everybody knows that infants are super interested in music and in the people who sing to them, but we don’t know much about why. One reason infants may be interested in music, and particularly songs, is that they could transmit social information: if a new person sings a song that mom or dad knows, that new person might know mom or dad and might be a good caregiver like mom or dad is. We find evidence for this idea in 5-month-olds and 11-month-olds, who show social preferences for new people that sing familiar songs to them. The preferences are strongest when the songs are familiar from a parent’s singing — they are less strong or nonexistent when they know the song by hearing it from a musical toy’s recording or from a nonparent’s singing.
What are your next steps in your research?
Recently I’ve been spending a lot of time on the Natural History of Song project (see naturalhistoryofsong.org) where we are trying to figure out the universal features of music, including music for infants. Music appears all over the world but surprisingly we don’t know much about what features turn up frequently or universally in songs. Lullabies might sound like lullabies regardless of where they come from because they could share features across cultures, like descending melodies, simple rhythms, and so on. We’re testing many universals by doing large-scale analyses of ethnographic text and field recordings from over 100 societies.