Oslo Summer for Social Sciences 2020

Psychology of Music

Research Associate Sam Mehr, Harvard University, USA

Dates: 29 June - 3 July 2020

Main disciplines: Psychology, Anthropology, Sociology, Musicology

Course Credits: 8 ECTS

Limitation: 25 participants


Course content

Music is a cultural signature of our species, appearing frequently in daily life, across human societies, and throughout our history with striking diversity. Why are we musical? How is the human mind designed to perceive and produce music? Do we differ from other animals in this respect? Is music a "universal language", as Henry Wadsworth Longfellow wrote nearly 200 years ago? In this course, an in-depth introduction to the psychology of music, we will answer all of these questions and more.

We will focus on recent advances in the field, including new findings on the universality and diversity of music across cultures; infants' and children's developing music perception and music production abilities; the evolution of musicality; studies of music-like behaviors in nonhuman animals; extremes of musical abilities, from musical disorders to musical prodigies; the neuroscience and genetics of music perception; roles of music in human social cognition; and more. Particular attention will be paid to leading-edge methods such as multi-site cross-cultural studies of perception, big data approaches to corpus research on music, eye tracking, psychophysiology, citizen science research, music informatics, and more. The course readings are intentionally skewed toward very recent publications.

Students will be encouraged to address major questions in the field, with opportunities to design their own experiments (especially using web-based methods); some students may wish to carry out these experiments in the academic year following the Summer School, and this will be encouraged, so as to provide a direct application of the content covered in the course.

Learning objectives

By the end of the course, students will:

  • understand current knowledge in the psychology of music
  • be articulate in the major issues and unanswered questions in the field
  • design an experiment testing one of those unanswered questions
  • connect issues in the psychology of music to issues in psychology writ large.


The ten lectures will be organized around major themes in the field, including (but not limited to): evolution; universality and diversity; cross-species comparisons; development; musical ability; auditory cognitive neuroscience; genetics; and social cognition.

Syllabus/reading list

Bainbridge, C., Youngers, J., Bertolo, M., Atwood, S., yurdum, lidya, Lopez, K., Xing, F., Martin, A., & Mehr, S. A. (2020). Infants relax in response to unfamiliar foreign lullabies. PsyArXiv. https://doi.org/10.31234/osf.io/xcj52 15 pp

Boebinger, D., Norman-Haignere, S., McDermott, J., & Kanwisher, N. (2020). Cortical music selectivity does not require musical training. BioRxiv, 2020.01.10.902189. https://doi.org/10.1101/2020.01.10.902189 47 pp

Bregman, M. R., Patel, A. D., & Gentner, T. Q. (2016). Songbirds use spectral shape, not pitch, for sound pattern recognition. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 113(6), 1666–1671. https://doi.org/10.1073/pnas.1515380113 5pp

Fritz, T., Jentschke, S., Gosselin, N., Sammler, D., Peretz, I., Turner, R., Friederici, A. D., & Koelsch, S. (2009). Universal recognition of three basic emotions in music. Current Biology, 19(7), 573–576. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.cub.2009.02.058 3 pp

Granier-Deferre, C., Bassereau, S., Ribeiro, A., Jacquet, A.-Y., & DeCasper, A. J. (2011). A melodic contour repeatedly experienced by human near-term fetuses elicits a profound cardiac reaction one month after birth. PLoS ONE, 6(2), e17304. https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0017304 10 pp

Hagen, E. H., & Bryant, G. A. (2003). Music and dance as a coalition signaling system. Human Nature, 14(1), 21–51. https://doi.org/10.1007/s12110-003-1015-z 31 pp

Hannon, E. E., & Trehub, S. E. (2005). Tuning in to musical rhythms: Infants learn more readily than adults. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America, 102(35), 12639–12643.  https://www.pnas.org/content/pnas/102/35/12639.full.pdf 5 pp

Jacoby, N., Undurraga, E. A., McPherson, M. J., Valdés, J., Ossandón, T., & McDermott, J. H. (2019). Universal and Non-universal Features of Musical Pitch Perception Revealed by Singing. Current Biology, S096098221931036X. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.cub.2019.08.020 28 pp

Mas-Herrero, E., Zatorre, R. J., Rodriguez-Fornells, A., & Marco-Pallarés, J. (2014). Dissociation between musical and monetary reward responses in specific musical anhedonia. Current Biology, 24(6), 699–704. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.cub.2014.01.068 6 pp

McDermott, J. H., Schultz, A. F., Undurraga, E. A., & Godoy, R. A. (2016). Indifference to dissonance in native Amazonians reveals cultural variation in music perception. Nature, 535(7613), 547–550. https://doi.org/10.1038/nature18635 14 pp

Mcdermott, J., & Hauser, M. (2007). Nonhuman primates prefer slow tempos but dislike music overall☆. Cognition, 104(3), 654–668. 14 pp https://doi.org/10.1016/j.cognition.2006.07.011

Mehr, S. A., Kotler, J., Howard, R. M., Haig, D., & Krasnow, M. M. (2017). Genomic imprinting is implicated in the psychology of music. Psychological Science, 28(10), 1455–1467. https://doi.org/10.1177/0956797617711456 12 pp

Mehr, S. A., & Krasnow, M. M. (2017). Parent-offspring conflict and the evolution of infant-directed song. Evolution and Human Behavior, 38(5), 674–684. 10 pp https://doi.org/10.1016/j.evolhumbehav.2016.12.005

Mehr, S. A., Singh, M., Knox, D., Ketter, D. M., Pickens-Jones, D., Atwood, S., Lucas, C., Jacoby, N., Egner, A. A., Hopkins, E. J., Howard, R. M., Hartshorne, J. K., Jennings, M. V., Simson, J., Bainbridge, C. M., Pinker, S., O’Donnell, T. J., Krasnow, M. M., & Glowacki, L. (2019). Universality and diversity in human song. Science, 366(6468). https://doi.org/10.1126/science.aax0868 17 pp

Mehr, S. A., Song, L. A., & Spelke, E. S. (2016). For 5-month-old infants, melodies are social. Psychological Science, 27(4), 486–501. 15 pp https://doi.org/10.1177/0956797615626691

Mosing, M. A., Madison, G., Pedersen, N. L., & Ullén, F. (2015). Investigating cognitive transfer within the framework of music practice: Genetic pleiotropy rather than causality. Developmental Science, 19(3), 504–512. https://doi.org/10.1111/desc.12306 8 pp

Niarchou, M., Sathirapongsasuti, J. F., Jacoby, N., Bell, E., McArthur, E., Straub, P., Team, T. 23andMe R., McAuley, J. D., Capra, J. A., Ullén, F., Creanza, N., Mosing, M. A., Hinds, D., Davis, L. K., & Gordon, R. L. (2019). Unravelling the genetic architecture of musical rhythm. BioRxiv, 836197. https://doi.org/10.1101/836197 46 pp

Norman-Haignere, S., Kanwisher, N. G., & McDermott, J. H. (2015). Distinct cortical pathways for music and speech revealed by hypothesis-free voxel decomposition. Neuron, 88(6), 1281–1296. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.neuron.2015.11.035 15 pp

Peretz, I., & Vuvan, D. T. (2017). Prevalence of congenital amusia. European Journal of Human Genetics, 25(5), 625–630. https://doi.org/10.1038/ejhg.2017.15 5 pp

Pinker, S. (1997). How the mind works. Norton. (Chapter 8: "The Meaning of Life") 46 pp

Saffran, J. R., Reeck, K., Niebuhr, A., & Wilson, D. (2005). Changing the tune: The structure of the input affects infants’ use of absolute and relative pitch. Developmental Science, 8(1), 1–7. https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1467-7687.2005.00387.x 7 pp

Sievers, B., Polansky, L., Casey, M., & Wheatley, T. (2013). Music and movement share a dynamic structure that supports universal expressions of emotion. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 110(1), 70–75. https://doi.org/10.1073/pnas.1209023110 5 pp

Trainor, L. J., Wu, L., & Tsang, C. D. (2004). Long-term memory for music: Infants remember tempo and timbre. Developmental Science, 7(3), 289–296. 7 pp

Winkler, I., Háden, G. P., Ladinig, O., Sziller, I., & Honing, H. (2009). Newborn infants detect the beat in music. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 106(7), 2468–2471. https://doi.org/10.1073/pnas.0809035106 4 pp

Zentner, M. R., & Kagan, J. (1996). Perception of music by infants. Nature, 383(6595), 29–29. https://doi.org/10.1038/383029a0 1 pp



Tags: Psychology, Anthropology, Sociology, Musicology, PhD, Oslo Summer School
Published Feb. 7, 2020 2:34 PM - Last modified Feb. 13, 2020 9:53 AM