Do you hear what I hear? Perceived narrative constitutes a semantic dimension for music

J. Devin McAuley, Patrick C.M. Wong, Anusha Mamidipaka, Natalie Phillips, Elizabeth Hellmuth Margulis

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

18 Scopus citations


Music has attracted longstanding debate surrounding its capacity to communicate without words, but little empirical work has addressed the topic. Here, 534 participants in the US and a remote region of China participated in two experiments using a novel paradigm to investigate narrative perceptions as a semantic dimension of music. Participants listened to wordless musical excerpts and determined which of two presented stories was the correct match. Correct matches were stories previously imagined by individuals from the US or China in response to each of the excerpts, while foils were correct matches to one of the other tested excerpts. Results revealed that listeners from Arkansas and Michigan had no difficulty matching the music with stories generated by Arkansas listeners. Wordless music, then, far from an abstract stimulus, seems to engender shared, concrete narrative perceptions in listeners. These perceptions are stable and robust for within-culture participants, even at geographically distinct locales (e.g. Arkansas and Michigan). This finding refutes the notion that music is an asemantic medium. In contrast, participants in both the US and China had more difficulty determining correct story-music matches for stories generated by participants from another culture, suggesting that a sufficiently shared pool of experiences must exist for strong intersubjectivity to arise.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Article number104712
StatePublished - Jul 2021

All Science Journal Classification (ASJC) codes

  • Experimental and Cognitive Psychology
  • Developmental and Educational Psychology
  • Cognitive Neuroscience
  • Language and Linguistics
  • Linguistics and Language


  • Cross-cultural comparison
  • Intersubjectivity
  • Music cognition
  • Musical meaning
  • Narrative


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