Universal language? People from similar cultures ‘see’ the same things when hearing music

PRINCETON, N.J. — People often call music a universal language, but do certain songs really evoke the same mental images in our minds? Scientists at Princeton surveyed hundreds of people about the stories they imagined, or saw in their minds, while listening to instrumental music. While music absolutely can foster similar mental experiences, the results also strongly suggest culture is a major factor.

For example, when people living in either Arkansas, Michigan, or China all listened to the same instrumental song, Americans imagined similar scenes while listeners in China envisioned completely different things.

“These results paint a more complex picture of music’s power,” says Princeton’s Elizabeth Margulis, a professor of music who uses theoretical, behavioral, and neuroimaging methodologies to investigate the dynamic experience of listeners, in a university release. “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.”

What do Americans see when the music plays?

A total of 622 people took part in this study. All of the volunteers came from one of three locations: two suburban college towns in the United States, one in Arkansas and the other in Michigan, or the rural Chinese village of Dimen. It’s worth noting that the main language in Dimen is Dong, a tonal language unrelated to Mandarin. Locals there have little contact with Western media or culture at all.

No matter their location, all participants listened to the exact same 32 “musical stimuli” — which were 60-second cuts of instrumental music. Half of these snippets came from Western music while the rest came from Chinese music. All songs were totally instrumental, featuring no spoken word at all.

After hearing each and every track, researchers asked the groups about the images they saw in their heads while listening. Incredibly, people from Arkansas and Michigan often described very similar stories, even using the exact same words frequently. Dimen listeners, on the other hand, envisioned stories that were similar to each other but quite different from the American listeners.

More specifically, one track evoked mental images of a sunrise over a forest, complete with animals grazing and birds chirping for Americans. Meanwhile, listeners in Dimen reported imagining a man blowing a leaf on a mountain while singing a song to his beloved simultaneously. Another song led to Americans seeing a cowboy in the hot desert surveying an empty town. Meanwhile, Chinese participants imagined a man in ancient times contemplating the loss of a loved one when they heard the same tune.

‘Music can bring people together’

Prof. Margulis, who is also the director of Princeton’s Music Cognition lab, says the team used technologies and techniques that required huge amounts of natural language data processing.

“Being able to map out these semantic overlaps, using tools from natural language processing, is exciting and very promising for future studies that, like this one, straddle the border between the humanities and the sciences,” the study author notes.

“It’s amazing,” explains study co-author Benjamin Kubit, a drummer and a postdoctoral research associate in the Department of Music. “You can take two random people who grew up in a similar environment, have them listen to a song they haven’t heard before, ask them to imagine a narrative, and you’ll find similarities. However, if those two people don’t share a culture or geographical location, you won’t see that same kind of similarity in experience. So while we imagine music can bring people together, the opposite can also be true — it can distinguish between sets of people with a different background or culture.”

“It’s stunning to me that some of these visceral, hard-to-articulate, imagined responses we have to music can actually be widely shared,” Prof. Margulis continues. “There’s something about that that’s really puzzling and compelling, especially because the way we encounter music in 2022 is often solitary, over headphones. But it turns out, it’s still a shared experience, almost like a shared dream. I find it really surprising and fascinating — with the caveat, of course, that it’s not universally shared, but depends on a common set of cultural experiences.”

“It’s just fascinating how much our upbringings shape us as individuals while also giving us enough common experiences that we relate to this media in ways that are simultaneously unique and shared,” concludes study co-author Cara Turnbull, a concert bassist turned graduate student in musicology.

The study is published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

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