If you’ve ever made a playlist—for yourself or someone else—you’ve done the delicate dance of music curation. By what logic did you order the songs? What nearly made it on, but got left out, and why?
In This Is What It Sounds Like: What the Music You Love Says About You, storied sound engineer and cognitive psychologist Susan Rogers and mathematical neuroscientist Ogi Ogas explore the fundamental experience of music listening.
With surgical care, they walk the reader through the components of music, from technical aspects of music theory to abstract elements like intention and performativity, to get at the heart of where our music taste comes from.
When music gives us that special feeling—the “oh yes, THAT’S what I’m talking about”—it can be difficult to describe exactly why it spurs that emotion. We may lack the vocabulary to explain which elements of the music really worked for us. Sometimes, when music does its job perfectly, it transcends explanation entirely.
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I recently spoke with Rogers about the new book and her fascinating career, during which she has collaborated with icons including Prince and David Byrne. Below is our conversation, lightly edited for clarity.
She asked the first question.
Susan Rogers: Before we begin, what kind of music do you like? What do you listen to?
Isaac Schultz, Gizmodo: I’m kind of all over the map. I listen to a lot of jazz, a lot of classic rock, some Broadway tunes. Maybe some new age rock, but those would probably be the most common threads.
Rogers: When I ask people that question, usually they do say, “I’ve got eclectic tastes,” and that just supports my my thesis in the book, that, well, of course you do. Your brain is seeking out different treats, depending on what it is you need at the time. Music functions much more like food than it does like architecture. We seek out different kinds of food—sometimes we need the fat, sometimes we need the lean, sometimes we need salt, sometimes we need something a little bit more bland. We have different appetites for food and we have different appetites for music. So we’re going to have kind of a broad collection to scratch different itches, to use a different metaphor.
Gizmodo: A few weeks ago I went to a production of Into the Woods, and there is a really, really great song called “Giants in the Sky.” This rendition gave me shivers down my spine. I needed to figure out exactly what was scratching that itch, so to speak. And your book has helped very much with that.
Rogers: To people in the music business, that’s your goal. That’s your target. To get someone—anyone, hopefully more than one person—to listen to what it is you’ve done and say, yes, that’s a perfect fit. The music that came out of your head, it’s a perfect fit for my head. And it’s such a beautiful thing when that happens.
Gizmodo: How did your collaboration with Ogi kick off?
Rogers: One of my former students suggested that Ogi talk to me for a book he was writing with a Harvard professor, when the book was titled Dark Horse. It was about people who’ve achieved something in their lives coming from a very unexpected place and taking an unusual path to achieve that. I was one of the subjects that Ogi interviewed in the book. Then after Dark Horse was finished, Ogi approached me and said, “Would you like to write a book about music?” And I said, I wouldn’t be a good choice for that. My students actually know more about music than I do. What I can write about is a book on music listening. Musicians are on output, but we listeners are on input. And that’s what I’ve done as a record producer, as an engineer, and also as a music scientist. My job is to listen beyond input.
Gizmodo: You lead with music’s more aesthetic elements and then get into components of music and its construction. Why lead with the stylistic rather than with the musical?
Rogers: I honestly don’t remember why we did that, but I can tell you that each and every one of these chapters represents things I learned in college or in the recording studio. Authenticity is mainly from the recording studio, but the other six dimensions are from grad school. I happened to have my grad school education at McGill University, which just so happens to be the Mecca for music perception and cognition research. So I learned from some of the greatest minds in the field, and it’s just all stuff that really excited me.
Producers are on the other side of the glass; the performers are there performing. How do you know it’s good? It’s more than just playing the right notes in the right time with the right velocity. There’s something that emerges from performance that we listeners, even the untrained among us, can interpret. So I wanted to write about authenticity, what that sounds like to us. And novelty and familiarity, I think, is important to help listeners begin the process of categorizing themselves and understanding just what it is they’re hoping to get from a new record and what it is that might just sort of turn them off or cause them to ignore our record.
Gizmodo: The Arctic Monkeys have put out a new album, and a friend recommended it. I remain cagey about the album, but as the years go on and it becomes more a component of memories of mine, as it becomes less new, I think I’ll develop more affection for something that happened, rather than something that for me is currently happening.
Rogers: It’s interesting to record makers and scholars which records seem to stand the test of time and which records seem to get timestamped and be inextricably associated with a certain period in listeners’ lives.
I was having a record pull with a friend the other day. The two records he chose to play were Prince’s “I Could Never Take the Place of Your Man” on the Sign of the Times album, a record I worked on. And the other record he chose to play was “Heart-Shaped Box” by Nirvana. And I hadn’t listened to either one of those in a long time. And listening to both of them again, I had to say I was surprised: that Prince record could come out today. I never anticipated that. But it’s stylistically somewhat neutral. It’s not timestamped with the year 1987. Whereas the wonderful Nirvana, whom I love very much, was the sound of the 90s. So for better or for worse, it’s nice to have success and be called the sound of 2018, whatever, but that comes with perils as well.
Gizmodo: Your book is peppered with is these wonderful anecdotes. I was taken by the story where Miles Davis wheels around and tells you that some of the best musicians that he knew were not musicians. How did that message change your perspective on how the listener can shape the musical experience, the music-making process?
Rogers: It took a long time for that message to fully sink in, because as a non-musician, I had branded myself as someone who wasn’t fully qualified to discuss what music is, to discuss good versus bad, and to discuss how it works. When he said that some of that—“some of best musicians I know aren’t musicians”—I hung on to that. And then a few years later, I met musicians who played with him, and two of them independently said when we would play, he would sometimes tell us, “play like non-musicians.” He doesn’t mean play with no technique. He means play from a naive perspective, play like a 97-year-old would play, if they had the physical dexterity. Play like a 3-year-old would play if he had any musical training. I began to recognize that, yes, there’s music in everyone.
I’m also doing what all of us music lovers do. I’m expressing my musicality through my playlists, through my music library. When I listen to music, that’s the phrase I like to use: the music of me.
Gizmodo: I’m glad that you bring up playlists. When I go to a given playlist, the common thread is this combination of lyrics and themes and timbre. But when I was putting it together, none of those higher-level, more cerebral decision-making processes were clear to me.
Rogers: When you listen to a novel record, your brain will automatically and unconsciously scan this brand-new record that you’re hearing. You’re assessing first and foremost, auditory scene analysis. Am I hearing music? The next thing you do, and this happens in a matter of milliseconds, is you scan the timbres. What’s the style of music? Is this an electronic record? Is this an orchestral record? Is it a Broadway record? Is it a jazz record? You scan the timbres and, in a few hundred milliseconds, you know the style—the sources, shall we say—of the instruments that are playing.
Then you can independently process the words. For most of us, that’s in our left hemisphere. You can move your spotlight of attention to the melody and the harmonies. Very nice. You can move your spotlight of attention up here to the somatosensory cortex and the motor cortex. You can ask yourself, how’s that groove going? Where do I feel the beats in this record? You can extract that rhythm from this record.
Simultaneously, you’re assessing the style of the record, the genuineness of the performances. And as you do all that, you’re looking for treats. You just need to find one. And if that treat is powerful enough, your brain, your auditory cortex will recognize, “Yep, that’s what I’m talking about. That’s my kind of record.”
It’s going to release some opiates initially and some dopamine from your dopaminergic system. And that dopaminergic reward system is going to swing back and tell the auditory cortex, “Yes, please. More of that.” What happens is, over time, our auditory cortex is shaped to be better and faster at recognizing our treats. Better and faster at recognizing rhythms we love, melodies we love, the harmonies, the chord changes we love. The lyrical ideas we love, the style we love, the sound. That’s what happens when you listen to a novel record.
Gizmodo: How does the brain balance sounds that make us feel a certain kind of way because of their harmonics, as opposed to, you know, connections that are established culturally or based in memory?
Rogers: Biology and culture are twins. I like how the biologist D’Arcy Thompson many years ago said, “everything is the way it is because it got that way.” He’s a biologist, so he’s talking about how there are constraints. Certain genes are only going to be expressed under certain conditions, and we’re only capable of hearing certain frequencies above or below that range. And we can’t we can’t process it as sound. There are biological constraints on our hearing, on our organ of hearing, as well as our our processing capabilities. This is why scales have unequal step sizes. It’s easier to find the tonic. It’s easier to memorize.
But that said, there are heavy cultural influences on the music of our world, our local environment. In another country, your brain would functionally reorganize itself to pick up on new rhythms. Let’s say you were dropped off in Thailand and you had to pick up on the rhythms of the Thai language. You’d have to, if you were learning the language, pick up on where the frequency peaks are and where sentences start and stop, and where individual words start and stop. Your brain would functionally reorganize itself to adapt to what was useful in your culture.
Gizmodo: You introduce the idea of the novelty popularity curve. And I was wondering what happens when our brain hears a cover of a song in a completely different style than the version that we’re accustomed to and love.
Rogers: When we hear a cover version of a known song in a new style, that can be satisfying, because the familiar elements are entwined with novel elements. That can be a nice package. Where a cover version can be very disappointing is when it basically follows the style of the original and adds nothing new to the mix. It would be like redoing a Star Wars movie or The Godfather and doing it pretty much close to the same but not with the same actors. Extremely disappointing.
Gizmodo: How has the technology of music production changed the work of record producers and sound engineers since that first revolution?
Rogers: Compared to my generation, records can be made at home. Records can be made in a shorter time period. Your workday can be shorter. So you can work on a record for two or three hours. Save it, open up another file, work on a different record, work on a third record. You never were able to do that in my day, because recording studios were so expensive that you had to work a minimum of 12 hours—it would be a wasted day if you didn’t. And often we worked 24 hours. So the methodology of record making is drastically different.
In my day, we had to go from the materials to the vision. The budget would only allow you to have so many materials, so much tape. You could only afford this caliber of recording studio. You could only bring in these musicians and rent these instruments. You had to stick within your budget. So you gathered your materials in your budget and came up with a vision that you could make from these materials. Today, they go the other way around, from the vision to the materials.
Gizmodo: It sounds, then, like things have democratized a bit.
Rogers: They have. And yet they’ve shifted in that democracy where the rewards go. The rewards used to go to the record makers who had the most money: the Michael Jacksons and the Celine Dions and Mariah Careys of the music business sold the most records. Their records cost a lot of money to make. These days, the money that you put into your record is far less of an important factor. Now, your visionary ideas are more important. They’re ruling the day.