Science. Music, a language that encapsulates our imaginations

When you hear three notes of harmonica in “La Moldo” by Smetana, “Les Quatre Sessons” by Vivaldi, or “Once Upon a Time in West” by Ennio Morricone, images appear immediately. Either because these musicals were made for a film, or because their title, even before hearing, constrains the imagination and immediately creates images for the wishes of the composer. Thus, in “The Trout” by Schubert, it is difficult not to see the fish swimming; In “The Flight of the Bumblebee” by Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov, the tempo of the notes and the nuances associated with them immediately reveal the insect buzzing around us; For all the instruments in “Carnaval des Animaux” by Camille Saint-Saens, “La Mer” by Debussy, or “Pierre et le Loup” by Prokofiev, the same phenomenon occurs: the title makes our brain listen and Produces images are created automatically – for some people, it even happens that musical images are created automatically in their brain (read below).

But, without a hint, without an index, without a pre-existing image, without a clear title, what seems imaginary to us? Is it always the same from person to person, perhaps thus sensing the musician’s desire for the listener to travel in his universe? When we listen to music do we share a human, common, universal context? To investigate these questions, an international team of researchers (including a classical pianist, a rock drummer and a concert bassist) asked hundreds of people what stories they imagined while listening to original instrumental music.

western ear and chinese ear

For this, the team tested 622 participants who came from three different regions of the planet, spread across two continents: two suburban college cities in the United States — one in Arkansas and the other in Michigan — and a , Dimen, which is in the countryside. China, where residents have little access to Western media.

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All three groups listened to the same 32 musical stimuli, consisting of 30 seconds of Western instrumental music and 30 seconds of Chinese music, without any words. After each passage, everyone was free to describe the stories, the images that came to them while listening. The results of the experiment were published in January in the Proceedings of the American Academy of Sciences.

“The experience was striking – Elizabeth Margulis, the study’s author and professor of music at Princeton University (USA), explained in a press release. Listeners in Arkansas and Michigan described very similar stories, often using the same words, while Audiences in China also imagined stories that were similar but very different from audiences in the United States. ยป

For example, in the musical passage known as W9, American listeners, with their eyes closed, saw a sunrise over a forest, with the chirping of animals and birds. For the Chinese people of Dimen, music inspired a man to blow a leaf on a mountain and sing a song to his beloved. On another listen, listeners from C6, Arkansas and Michigan described a cowboy sitting in the desert sun, while Dimen participants imagined a man from the past, grieving about the loss of his property.

While music can bring people together around a single fantasy, it can also differentiate between groups of people from different backgrounds or cultures.

“You can take two random people who grew up in a similar environment, play them a song they’ve never heard before, ask them to imagine a story, and you’ll find similarities,” the author explains. Huh. For the researchers, this experience has been described in publications, especially in 2022, as both perplexing and compelling. Because the way we listen to music today is often solitary through headphones. Despite this, according to this study, it turns out that it is almost always a collective experience, such as a shared dream.

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However, if the culture or geographical location of two people is not the same, then everything is different. So while music can bring people together around a single fantasy, it can also differentiate between groups of people with different backgrounds or cultures and isolate them.

Earworms, when the musical image causes resistance in the brain. So studies by US researchers show that the imagery created by music varies from culture to culture. But it also happens that, on the contrary, an image of music gets imprinted in the brain.

For Nicolas Farrugia, a transdisciplinary researcher in artificial intelligence, cognitive neuroscience and music at Brest, “Having music on a loop in the head is a common experience we talk about with the ‘ear worm’ or ‘stuck song syndrome’, Or, more formally, involuntary musical imagery (inmi),” he said in a 2015 article devoted to the topic. More broadly, this phenomenon replaces consciousness, using the term “spontaneous cognition”. also noted. For the researcher, “this inami can be equated with other self-generated thoughts such as mental wandering or daydreaming, which are known to occupy a large part of psychic life”.

This imagery usually begins with a recent musical performance as well as a state of reduced attention span. On the other hand, it seems that people trained in music experience this inami more often. The researchers say that “these episodes are mostly enjoyable but can also be disturbing”. Thus, music generates images in everyone, but musical images do not arise in normal humans. A little more earworm?

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