Narratives imagined in response to instrumental music reveal culture-bounded intersubjectivity

Elizabeth H. Margulis, Patrick C.M. Wong, Cara Turnbull, Benjamin M. Kubit, J. Devin McAuley

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

25 Scopus citations


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.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Article numbere2110406119
JournalProceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America
Issue number4
StatePublished - Jan 25 2022

All Science Journal Classification (ASJC) codes

  • General


  • Culture
  • Imagination
  • Music
  • Narrative
  • Semantics


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