Techbeat: Harvard Music Lab

NICK EICHER, HOST: Today is Thursday, February 14th. Thank you for turning to WORLD Radio to help start your day. Good morning. I’m Nick Eicher.

MARY REICHARD, HOST: And I’m Mary Reichard. Coming next on The World and Everything in It: Music.

It’s been a part of every society and culture throughout history. From lullabies and love ballads, to dance melodies and worship songs, making and enjoying music is just something humans do.

EICHER: All human beings seem to be motivated to engage with music.

But why is that? Researchers in the Department of Psychology at Harvard University wanted to find out, so they set up a Music Lab to study the science of music.

And a key part of the Music Lab is its Citizen Science Platform where ordinary people from around the world can contribute to the project by playing music games.

REICHARD: Our science and technology reporter Michael Cochrane visited the Music Lab platform. He’s here to tell us how about it.

Michael, who are these researchers and what are they trying to get at with this Music Lab?

MICHAEL COCHRANE, REPORTER: The field of study is a pretty narrow one. It’s called ethnomusicology, which is the study of the music of different cultures, particularly non-Western cultures.

And the Music Lab is part of a project called the “Natural History of Song.” Its goal is to figure out whether there is an underlying structure to the world’s music and how that structure might vary across cultures. Researchers’ basic hypothesis is that music does have certain universal features so that even those with no musical training can predict the music’s function.

REICHARD: So, how does the Citizen Science Platform fit into this project?  

COCHRANE: The platform is a way to recruit volunteers from across the world to listen to snippets of songs from various regions of the world and ask them to guess what kinds of behaviors are associated with each song.

For example, is it a dancing song or one used to soothe a baby? The idea is that they want to see if people can discern the purpose of the song by its sound alone—without any prior knowledge of its cultural context.

REICHARD: I know you’ve visited the Music Lab site—tell us how it works.

COCHRANE: The site has what it calls four “games,” each of which takes no more than five minutes. The first asks you to listen to a clip of a song and respond as quickly as you can. You choose whether it’s used for soothing a baby, dancing, healing the sick, or expressing love—which is kind of appropriate since today’s Valentine’s Day!

REICHARD: Sweethearts Day indeed! Well, I see you’ve brought along a few of the clips from that quiz for us to listen to.

COCHRANE: Yes, I have. I actually want to give you a chance to guess what these are and see how well you do! The quiz has eight songs but I’ve selected three for you.

REICHARD: Okay! I’ll give it my best shot!

COCHRANE: Here’s the first one:

AUDIO: [Music]

REICHARD: I’d say that’s a dancing song?

COCHRANE: Nope. It’s a healing song originating from the Turkmen people of Iran.

REICHARD: I thought the drums gave it away!

COCHRANE: Here’s number two:

AUDIO: [Music]

REICHARD: Okay, that’s got to be a love song. There’s a man and a woman singing together!       

COCHRANE: Correct! This is a Peruvian love song from the Q’eros people. By the way, the Natural History of Song project has a collection of more than 118 field recordings from 30 world regions. All right, here’s the last one for you:

AUDIO: [Music]

REICHARD: This is tough… I’ll say it’s for soothing a baby?

COCHRANE: It’s actually a love song from the Bai people of Yunnan, China.

REICHARD: Figures you’d give me two love songs on Valentine’s Day!

COCHRANE: Well, this kind of music is very different to our Western ears, so the quiz isn’t easy. I managed to get 5 out of the 8 right, and the website told me that was pretty good!

REICHARD: Well, you do have a musical background.

COCHRANE: That’s one of the variables they’re trying to test.

REICHARD: What were some of the other games on the site?

COCHRANE: There’s one where you have to determine whether the listener to the song would be a baby or an adult. There’s also a synthesizer game where you hear a synthesized version of a song, try to discern its purpose, and then compare it to the original and rate how close they are. But the last one was pretty interesting: It’s a test to determine how tone deaf you are!

REICHARD: That should be interesting! How do they test that?

COCHRANE: They give you 32 sound pairings – a reference tone played three times and then a fourth tone of a different pitch, which could be either higher or lower. Here’s an example for you:

AUDIO: [Tone]

REICHARD: Well, that was easy. The pitch went down.

COCHRANE: Here’s another:

AUDIO: [Tone]

REICHARD: Pitch went up. But I’m sure not all of the samples were that easy!

COCHRANE: No, they weren’t! Very often the tones were so close they sounded like the same pitch. I was able to guess 30 out of 32 correctly, which the researchers say is better than about 85 percent of the people who’ve taken the quiz. Scientists call tone-deafness congenital amusia and about 4 percent of the population performs poorly on a test like this—which would be a score of fewer than 20 correct responses.

REICHARD: This is fascinating stuff, Michael! And sorry to my parents for wasting their money on piano lessons all those years ago. This was fun, thanks Michael.

COCHRANE: You’re welcome, Mary.

(Photo/A.P. Cortizas Jr.) Memorial Hall at Harvard University

WORLD Radio transcripts are created on a rush deadline. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of WORLD Radio programming is the audio record.

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2 comments on Techbeat: Harvard Music Lab

  1. Mary: I’m a pianist and piano teacher in Evanston, Illinois, so of course I had to respond to your remark about your parents “wasting their money on piano lessons all those years ago”, as I hear this said so often! And yes, I know your comment was made tongue-in-cheek. Nevertheless, I did want to point out that each year it seems, new studies give us more insight into the tremendous long-lasting benefit of childhood music lessons, especially piano lessons, even if the person does not continue playing the instrument as he or she gets older, including enhanced verbal skills ( and “added defense against memory loss [and] cognitive decline” (

    So perhaps you should not apologize to your parents, but rather thank them for investing in your future!

    Thank you for a great podcast and a great news source. Most news sites simply stir up anger and frustration in me; you folks keep me Christ-focused while remaining current with the events happening in the world each day.

  2. Mary reichard says:

    Nancy, my mother age 90 was sitting next to me as I read your comment out loud. I took your advice and thanked her and she said to thank you!

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