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  1. Abstract We argue that music can serve as a time-sensitive lens into the interplay between instrumental and ritual stances in cultural evolution. Over various timescales, music can switch between pursuing an end goal or not, and between presenting a causal opacity that is resolvable, or not. With these fluctuations come changes in the motivational structures that drive innovation versus copying.
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    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.
  4. Abstract Studying a complex cultural phenomenon like music requires many kinds of expertise. Savage et al. adopt a pluralistic approach, considering multiple forms of evidence and perspectives from multiple fields. This commentary argues that a similar scholarly ecumenicism should be embraced by more studies of music and other cultural phenomena.