Is music a truly universal language?

What do you see when you listen to music?


Most humans spend a lot of time listening to music. Many studies have demonstrated the importance of music. 

What Happens to Your Brain When You Listen to Music?

Besides triggering certain kinds of brain activity more strongly, music can impair creativity, strengthens the development of brain networks of very premature babies, etc.

In 1835, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow claimed that ‘Music is the universal language of mankind.’ This statement made some scientists question whether music is a universal language of our species.

While listening to music, do we all imagine the same thing, or are our experiences hopelessly subjective? Is music a truly universal language?

An international team of scientists analyzes the similarity of responses from 622 participants in three locations to figure out the answer. The participants were asked about their imagined stories while listening to instrumental music.

The participants were from three regions across two continents: two suburban college towns in middle America — one in Arkansas and the other in Michigan — and a group from Dimen, a village in rural China. Dong is the primary language of Dimen.

All participants listened to the same 32 musical stimuli without lyrics: 60-second snippets of instrumental music, half from Western music, and half from Chinese music. After listening to each musical excerpt, participants were asked about their envisioned stories. 

Scientists found that listeners in Michigan and Arkansas imagined almost similar scenes, whereas listeners from China imagined different scenes.

Princeton’s Elizabeth Margulis and Devin McAuley of Michigan State University said, “Quantifying similarities between free-response stories required huge natural language data processing. The tools and strategies that they developed will be useful in future studies. 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.”

McAuley explained, “A musical passage identified only as W9 brought a sunrise over a forest, with animals waking and birds chirping for American listeners, while those in Dimen pictured a man blowing a leaf on a mountain, singing a song to his beloved. For musical passage C16, Arkansas and Michigan listeners described a cowboy, sitting alone in the desert sun, looking out over an empty town; participants in Dimen imagined a man in ancient times sorrowfully contemplating the loss of his beloved.”

Benjamin Kubit, a drummer and a postdoctoral research associate previously in the Princeton Neuroscience Institute and now in the Department of Music, said, “It’s amazing. 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.”

Margulis said, “It’s stunning to me that some of these visceral, hard-to-articulate, imagined responses we have to music can be widely shared. There’s something about that’s 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 surprising and fascinating — with the caveat, of course, that it’s not universally shared but depends on a common set of cultural experiences.”

Co-author Cara Turnbull, a concert bassist, turned graduate student in musicology, said“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.”

Journal Reference:

  1. Elizabeth H. Margulis et al. Narratives imagined in response to instrumental music reveal culture-bounded intersubjectivity. DOI: 10.1073/pnas.2110406119
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