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Music sparks strikingly similar visuals among people of the same culture

People who share the same cultural or geographical background have similar visual experiences while listening to music, according to a new study led by Princeton University. When listening to instrumental music, study participants in Michigan and Arkansas imagined very similar scenes, while listeners in China visualized completely different stories. 

“These results paint a more complex picture of music’s power,” said study lead author Professor Elizabeth Margulis, who is the director of Princeton’s Music Cognition lab. “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.”

The experts recruited more than 600 participants from regions of two continents, including two suburban college towns in Arkansas and Michigan. Some of the participants were from Dimen, a village in rural China where residents have little access to Western media.

Listeners from all three regions were presented with the same instrumental songs: 60-second samples of Western and Chinese music. The participants were asked to describe the stories they envisioned during each music sample.

To quantify the similarities in the listeners’ imaginary stories, the researchers used large 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,” said Margulis.

The results showed that individuals from similar backgrounds imagined strikingly similar stories. The narratives described by Chinese listeners were very different from those described by Americans.

For Americans, one particular musical piece prompted visions of a sunrise over a forest, with waking animals and chirping birds. During the same song, individuals from Dimen shared a vision of a man blowing a leaf on a mountain, singing a song to his beloved. 

“It’s amazing,” said study co-author Benjamin Kubit. “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.”

The music selected for the study had never appeared in a movie or any other setting that would prescribe visuals, explained the researchers. Still yet, within each regional group, hundreds of listeners shared similar visuals. 

“It’s stunning to me that some of these visceral, hard-to-articulate, imagined responses we have to music can actually be widely shared,” said Margulis. 

“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.”

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

By Chrissy Sexton, Staff Writer

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