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Professor Travels to China to Research Music and Narrative

by | Jun 13, 2018

Have you ever listened to a piece of music and had the sense that you were hearing a story unfold? Some melodies, especially when they incorporate dramatic shifts in dynamics or rhythm, can give listeners the sense of a narrative in the music.

Elizabeth Margulis, a professor of music at the University of Arkansas, wondered how much these narratives are influenced by the listener’s culture. She is currently working with Patrick Wong of the City University of Hong Kong on a three year project, funded by the National Science Foundation. They are studying the relationship of music and narratives in Fayetteville, Arkansas and a small village in the Guizhou region of China. She and her research team made their first trip to Guizhou in June.

Guizhou is located in southern China and is one of the most diverse provinces in the country. The researchers focused on a small village with a population of several hundred people, who are members of the Dong ethnic minority. “The first version of the project was going to take place in Wong’s lab,” Margulis explained, “but we realized that globalization means there might be a lot of overlap in the media experiences of people in Arkansas and in Hong Kong.” The Dong, she explained, have a rich and unique musical tradition, and live in a relatively remote part of the country, which makes them well-suited to help the researchers study cultural differences related to music.

The team was made up of Margulis, Wong, six research assistants and three translators. One part of the research involved playing clips of music for the participants and asked them what came to mind while they were listening. “It was a really cool experience for the research assistants,” Margulis said. “They heard some amazing stories.” Natalie Phillips of Michigan State University, a collaborator on the project, will use text analytics to identify patterns in the responses. Researchers also asked more specific questions, such as how much they enjoyed the music and how familiar it sounded to them.

On this trip, the researchers were collecting what Margulis called “norming data.” They wanted to get a sense of what musical clips would work best for the rest of their three-year project. The researchers’ goal for this part of the study was to collect sets of musical clips that vary by only one of the categories they are studying. For example, if they want to study the amount of contrast in the music, they have to make sure that the clips don’t also vary in familiarity and enjoyability.

Communicating with the villagers involved translating three different languages. “The translators spoke Mandarin and Dong,” Margulis said, “and people on the team spoke Mandarin and English. We had to translate everything from English to Mandarin to Dong, then back.” One member of their party was especially helpful when it came to communication: Margulis’ son Nikolai, who has been studying Mandarin, was able to talk to the children in the village. Unlike the older villagers, many of the children could speak both Dong and Mandarin.

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On a couple of nights, the researchers were invited to join a performance of the villagers’ traditional songs. Margulis explained that being able to share this experience with the villagers allowed the two groups of people to relate to each other in a new way. “The singing traditions in the village are absolutely stunning. It changed the way we interacted during the day to have shared these extraordinary experiences at night.”

As an outsider in the Dong village, Margulis was struck by what she calls its “soundscape.”

“There would be these scooters that would come through with a cooler strapped on the back,” she said. “And speaker on the back saying ‘you can buy buns.’ There were water buffalo and donkeys walking through town. There was a rhythm to people going to the fields and coming back. The people were so lovely, and the villages were extraordinarily beautiful.”

About The Author

Camilla Shumaker is the director of science and research communications. She writes about physics, chemistry, political science and other topics. Camilla can be reached at or (479) 575-7422.

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