Although people across multiple cultures have been shown to experience music narratively, it has proven difficult to disentangle whether narrative dimensions of music derive from learned extramusical associations within a culture or from less experience-dependent elements of the music, such as musical contrast. Toward this end, two experiments investigated factors contributing to listeners’ narrative engagement with music, comparing the narrative experiences of Western and Chinese instrumental music for listeners in two suburban locations in the United States with those of listeners living in a remote rural village in China with different patterns of musical exposure. Supporting an enculturation perspective where learned extramusical associations (i.e., Topicality) play an important role in narrative perceptions of music, results from the first experiment show that for Western listeners, greater Topicality, rather than greater Contrast, increases narrative engagement, as long as listeners have sufficient exposure to its patterns of use within a culture. Strengthening this interpretation, results for the second experiment, which directly manipulated Topicality and Contrast, show that reducing an excerpt’s Topicality, but not its Contrast reduces listeners’ narrative engagement.

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