....compared quantitative measures of narrativity (the likelihood that an excerpt of music triggers a story in listeners minds) and narrative engagement (how vivid and clear the events of the story are in listeners minds) for a large set of musical excerpts from Western and Chinese musical traditions for listeners in the same three distinct geographical locations as the present investigation—two suburban college towns in the US Midwest and one rural village in the Chinese province of Guizhou. Results showed that people in all three locations readily narrativize to excerpts (i.e., narrativity scores were quite high) with varying levels of narrative engagement for both Western and Chinese instrumental music; moreover, people do so with about the same degree regardless of location. Notably, however, although both excerpt narrativity and narrative engagement scores were highly correlated across the two US locations, they were not correlated (not predictive) for cross-cultural comparisons between listeners in both of the US locations and the remote rural village in Guizhou.Here is the article's abstsract:
The scientific literature sometimes considers music an abstract stimulus, devoid of explicit meaning, and at other times considers it a universal language. Here, individuals in three geographically distinct locations spanning two cultures performed a highly unconstrained task: they provided free-response descriptions of stories they imagined while listening to instrumental music. Tools from natural language processing revealed that listeners provide highly similar stories to the same musical excerpts when they share an underlying culture, but when they do not, the generated stories show limited overlap. These results paint a more complex picture of music’s power: music can generate remarkably similar stories in listeners’ minds, but the degree to which these imagined narratives are shared depends on the degree to which culture is shared across listeners. Thus, music is neither an abstract stimulus nor a universal language but has semantic affordances shaped by culture, requiring more sustained attention from psychology.