What the music said_ narrative listening across cultures

Elizabeth Hellmuth Margulis, Patrick C.M. Wong, Rhimmon Simchy-Gross, J. Devin McAuley

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

25 Scopus citations


Instrumental music can seem to tell engrossing stories without the use of words, but it is unclear what leads to this narrativization. Although past work has investigated narrative responses to abstract moving shapes, very little work has studied the emergence of narrative perceptions in response to nonlinguistic sound. We measured narrative responses to wordless Western and Chinese music in participants in the US and in a cluster of villages in a rural part of China using a Narrative Engagement (NE) scale developed specifically for this project. Despite profound differences in media exposure, musical habits, and narrative traditions, narrative listening was employed by many participants and associated with enjoyment in both groups; however, the excerpts that unleashed this response were culture-specific. We show that wordless sound is capable of triggering perceived narratives in two groups of listeners with highly distinct patterns of cultural exposure, reinforcing the notion that narrativization itself is a readily available mode of experiencing music. The particular sounds that trigger narrativization, however, rely on enculturation processes, as demonstrated by the within-culture consistency, but between-culture divergence in the specific excerpts that led to narrative engagement. Narratives can emerge in multiple modalities, including wordless sound, but association patterns specific to individual cultures critically shape how apparently abstract sound patterns come to acquire deep meaning and significance to people.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Article number146
JournalPalgrave Communications
Issue number1
StatePublished - Dec 1 2019

All Science Journal Classification (ASJC) codes

  • General Arts and Humanities
  • General Economics, Econometrics and Finance
  • General Social Sciences
  • General Psychology


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