The role of narrative listening in music perception

Music and language are both modes of human communication that convey meaning. Although there are many studies of how language acquires meaning, little is known about how music becomes meaningful. One hypothesis is that music acquires meaning in part because listeners impose narrative significance to musical events, translating abstract musical sequences into a story line as the notes unfold (a process known as narrative listening). A series of parallel experiments will be conducted that vary both the structural features of musical excerpts and the cultural background of the listener in order to disentangle questions about the role of nature and experience in the formation of musical meaning. Learning more about the mechanisms that underpin musical meaning fundamentally adds to our understanding of human communication and artistic expression, with the broader potential to lead to improved intercultural exchange. The work will also contribute new methodologies to probe the musical experiences of lay listeners across cultures, who often lack the musical vocabulary to describe their perceptions. By bridging science and the humanities, the project will provide STEM-based research training to students in the humanities and, in turn, expose students in the sciences to questions in the humanities that would benefit from development of novel scientific methodologies. The project’s reach will be expanded by the development and dissemination of a new app for collecting crowd-sourced data via cell phone. Embedded GPS technology will allow the researchers to map patterns and variations in narrative listening across geography and cultures.

This project takes a theory-driven and cross-cultural approach to investigate the core factors that shape narrative listening to music. The investigators will obtain a normative set of cross-cultural data on narrative listening for a large sample of Western and Chinese musical excerpts from both American listeners with little exposure to Chinese music and from Chinese listeners will little exposure to Western music. If narrative listening arises from a fundamental tendency to make abstract stimuli concrete, then listeners will tend to ascribe agency to points in the music that violate their expectations in order to make sense of what they hear. If narrative listening arises from enculturation, people should be more likely to perceive narratives in music from their own culture than from a different culture. Within a culture, people should be more likely to perceive narratives for high topical-association music than for low topical-association music. Lastly, the investigators will examine the relationship between narrative listening and other well-studied aspects of music perception, providing novel insights about established phenomena and opening up new avenues of investigation.