Elizabeth H. Margulis Professor of Music; Director of Graduate Studies (Musicology)

Elizabeth Margulis is Professor and Director of Graduate Studies in Musicology, with affiliations in Psychology and Neuroscience. She studies the perception and cognition of music. She directs Princeton’s Music Cognition Lab, which brings together students and researchers to ask questions that lie at the intersection of the humanities and the sciences. In particular, she’s interested in the aspects of musical experience that seem most powerful, but hardest to talk about. The lab uses experimental data as a provocative, illuminating way in to some of the most complex, subjective, culturally situated aspects of music, which in turn reveals neglected, broader aspects of human cognition and behavior.

Her current book project with Liveright explores the phenomenon of musical daydreams. To study the memories and imaginings that people sustain while listening to music, she and her collaborators collect free response descriptions of these experiences and analyze them with natural language processing. When listening to musical excerpts they’d never heard before, people in different parts of the US independently generated highly similar imaginings; the shared content did not extend cross-culturally (see papers in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences and Humanities and Social Sciences Communications). These imaginings tended to change dynamically at the moments that features in the musical excerpts changed (see paper in Cognition). Funded by a grant from the Leverhulme Trust together with Kelly Jakubowski, and a grant from the National Science Foundation together with Psyche Loui, ongoing work aims to understand how musical daydreams illuminate basic characteristics of human memory, imagination, and creativity, especially as it pertains to the interaction between individual and cultural constraints. Papers in Current Directions in Psychological Science and Trends in Cognitive Sciences offer a theoretical perspective on this line of work. A paper in Psychological Review examines the central role of source sensitivity, people’s robust sense of the identities, situations, and contexts that give rise to sound.

Another research program in the lab investigates the special role of repetition in music. This work considers the prevalence of repetition in musical structure and behaviors; the phenomenon of earworms, in which snippets of songs get stuck on loop in people’s heads; and the speech-to-song illusion, originally described by Diana Deutsch, in which bits of speech start to sound like song after being repeated. This project is summarized in On Repeat: How Music Plays the Mind, which appeared with Oxford University Press in 2014. It won the Wallace Berry Award from the Society for Music Theory, and the Deems Taylor/Virgil Thomson Award from the American Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers. It is being translated into Chinese by Shanghai Music Publishers. 

Margulis is committed to building interdisciplinary coalitions to study big questions about music. Her co-edited book The Science-Music Borderlands: Reckoning with the Past and Imagining a Future (MIT Press, 2023) seeks to generate dialogue between communities of music researchers who do not typically interact. She has co-convened workshops that bring together humanists and scientists to address topics such as the challenges and potential of cross-cultural work in music (see paper in Music Perception). Her book The Psychology of Music: A Very Short Introduction (Oxford University, Press, 2018) provides an accessible entry to the field, and has been translated into six languages.

Margulis has served as President of the Society for Music Perception and Cognition. Her work has been featured in outlets ranging from NPR’s All Things Considered to the BBC, and she’s given public lectures at venues ranging from South by Southwest to the World Science Festival. She was also trained as a pianist.

PhD Columbia University

MA Columbia University

BM Peabody Conservatory of Music of the Johns Hopkins University

Grant, Division of Behavioral and Cognitive Sciences, National Science Foundation

Kavli Fellowship, National Academy of Sciences

Deems Taylor/Virgil Thomson Award, American Society of Composers, Authors, and Publishers

Wallace Berry Award, Society for Music Theory

Summer Scholar, National Endowment for the Humanities

Faculty Gold Medal for Outstanding Mentoring of Undergraduates, University of Arkansas

Teaching Award for Undergraduate Research, University of Arkansas


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