Samuel Mehr has long been interested in questions of what music is, how it works, and why it exists — and he’s turning to the whole world for help in finding the answers.
A fellow of the Harvard Data Science Initiative and Research Associate in the Psychology Department, Mehr is the director of the Music Lab, an online, citizen-science project aimed at not just understanding how the human mind understands music, but why music is a virtually ubiquitous feature of human societies.
“For the last few years I had wanted to get into this citizen-science space,” said Mehr. “There are all sorts of problems — not just in psychology but across all the sciences — of issues in the reliability and reproducibility of scientific results. One way to try to fix these issues is to collect huge amounts of data on the Internet. We can get many more participants than we would from people showing up to the lab in person, and because we study music, our studies are something people are excited to do online.”
The idea for the online project in part grew out Mehr’s earlier research that explored the link between musical form and function.
“When The New York Times did a piece about that paper, they included a short quiz where people could listen to an audio clip, guess that it was a lullaby or dance song, get a point if they were right, and then learn a bit about the song,” he said. “That is exactly the idea for how our citizen-science projects work — you do an experiment that feels more like a game than like research. We’re testing a scientific hypothesis — in this case, the link between form and function in music — but the participant is also getting something fun out of it. They get a score; they learn about the songs they’re listening to; and they can compete with their friends.”
That test, dubbed the World Music Quiz, was the first game developed for the site, Mehr said, and has proven successful online, racking up nearly 36,000 players thus far.
And for each, the site gathers more than a dozen other data points, ranging from standard demographics like age, gender, native language, and nationality, to how much visitors enjoy music, whether they’ve taken music lessons, whether their parents sang to them when they were little, and even whether they are taking the test using headphones.