What is it about?

Are we all imagining the same thing when we listen to music, or are our experiences hopelessly subjective? This research analyzes the similarity of responses from 622 participants in three locations on a highly unconstrained task: free-response descriptions of the stories they imagined while listening to instrumental music. Strikingly, participants in two separate locations that share an overarching culture imagine highly similar narratives to individual excerpts. But these similarity patterns do not extend to narratives imagined by participants in a third location with a distinct culture. This work shows that music—often considered an “abstract stimulus”—can trigger shared stories in listeners’ minds but that this intersubjectivity depends on a shared underlying culture.

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Why is it important?

Imaginative experiences often feel highly personal and subjective, but this research suggests they can actually be broadly shared. The fact that these shared imaginings do not extend across cultures underscores the role of cultural experience in shaping musical response, and highlights music's potential role in both social bonding and division.

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This page is a summary of: Narratives imagined in response to instrumental music reveal culture-bounded intersubjectivity, Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, January 2022, Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, DOI: 10.1073/pnas.2110406119.
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