What albums and songs are getting a lot of play on your Spotify or iTunes app currently? My guest would say that the music you put in heavy rotation comes down to your unique “listener profile.”
Her name is Susan Rogers, and she’s a music producer-turned-neuroscientist as well as the co-author of This Is What It Sounds Like: What the Music You Love Says About You. Today on the show, Susan unpacks the seven dimensions of music and how they show up along a varying spectrum in every song. She explains how everyone has an individualized taste for the configuration of these dimensions, and that how closely a particular song aligns with this pattern of sweet spots accounts for whether you like it or not. Along the way, we discuss artists that exemplify these dimensions, how Frank Sinatra injected virility into his music, how part of your musical taste has to do with the way you prefer to move your body, and much more.
Artists and Songs Mentioned in the Episode
- Prince’s Purple Rain
- Barenaked Ladies
- The Shaggs
- Ella Fitzgerald
- The Rentals
- The Killers
- Tame Impala
- Steven Page
- Johnny Cash
- James Brown’s “Hot Pants”
- Yes’ “Roundabout”
- Pharrell Williams’ “Happy”
- Carly Rae Jepson’s “Call Me Maybe”
- Miles Davis’ Birth of the Cool and Kind of Blue
- Frank Sinatra’s first hit song “Polka Dots and Moonbeams” (1940) vs. “It Was a Very Good Year” (1965)
Connect With Susan Rogers
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Read the Transcript
Brett McKay: Brett McKay here and welcome to another edition of The Art of Manliness podcast. What albums and songs are getting a lot of play on your Spotify or iTunes app currently? My guest would say that the music you put in heavy rotation comes down to your unique listener profile.
Her name is Susan Rogers and she’s a music producer turned neuroscientist, as well as the co-author of This Is What It Sounds Like: What the Music You Love Says About You. Today on the show, Susan unpacks the seven dimensions of music and how they show up along a varying spectrum in every song.
She explains how everyone has an individualized taste for the configuration of these dimensions, and that how closely a particular song aligns with this pattern of sweet spots accounts for whether you like it or not. Along the way, we discuss artists that exemplify these dimensions. How Frank Sinatra injected virility into his music, how part of your musical taste has to do with the way you prefer to move your body, and much more. After show’s over check at our show notes at aom.is/music.
Alright. Susan Rogers, welcome the show.
Susan Rogers: Hi Brett. Thanks for having me on. I’m looking forward to our conversation.
Brett McKay: So you’re a professor of cognitive neuroscience and you got a new book out called, This Is What It Sounds Like. And what you do is you take readers through the seven key dimensions of any song, and how the different ways people respond to those dimensions make up what you call a person’s listener profile.
And what’s interesting about you is that before you were a cognitive neuroscientist, you were a successful music producer, and the story of how you became a music producer is really fascinating. So how did a Led Zeppelin concert lay the stepping stone for you to become a music producer and then eventually a cognitive neuroscientist?
Susan Rogers: Thanks, it’s a good question. I’ll try to be brief. But I got married when I was 17 years old. I just kinda had to because of sort of a tumultuous home life with a long illness from my mother and passing away young, getting married was a good option when I was 17. Unfortunately, the person I was married to was really jealous and possessive of my love of music, so we didn’t go to concerts, and it was hard to… It was hard to engage with music.
Anyway, when I was around 21 years old, I got permission from him to go with my friends to a Led Zeppelin concert, which just happened to be The Song Remains The Same tour at The Forum in Los Angeles, and I was under strict orders to be home by 10:30, which I thought I could do because the tickets said they go on at, I don’t know, 8 o’clock or whatever it was, but they didn’t even take the stage until after 09:00.
So for the sake of peace at home I had to leave that concert early, which was just devastating, but I was at The Forum in LA and I made my little silent vow looking up to the rafters and pledging to those rafters that I’d be back there someday, and I would mix live sound for an amazing band and no one was gonna tell me to leave.
And [chuckle] through quite a lot of gumption and determination to get out of that bad marriage and start my career, ultimately, eight years later, I sort of kind of made it come true, because I started my career in Hollywood shortly after that Led Zeppelin concert as an audio technician, working self-taught in electronics and things like that, but working to repair consoles and tape machines.
That led to my being hired by my favorite artist in the whole world, was Prince in 1983, he was looking for a technician to help him with Purple Rain, the movie and the album. So I joined his crew in ’83, and in ’84 we were on the Purple Rain tour, and we set a record for seven sold out nights at The Forum.
The record was broken, but at that time we had the record, seven nights at The Forum. And I wasn’t mixing front of house, but I was in a mobile recording truck at the back of the stage. My job was to record that show for posterity. So I kind of made my dream come true.
Brett McKay: And then you went on to actually produce. Prince was like, “How about you do something producing as well.” That’s different from being a technician, correct?
Susan Rogers: Yeah, it is different, but what Prince did was transition me into the engineering chair. Because he produced his own records, he was unlike Michael Jackson or virtually every other artist in the world who works with a producer, Prince produced his own music. But he did need an engineer, just to route the signal and make sure that everything got correctly to the tape machine, and back from the tape machine and all the technical stuff, so I did that for him.
But after I left Prince, I came back to Los Angeles and worked for some clients, I was a recording engineer. For others, I was a mixer on their albums, and then for others, I was an engineer and producer, and that included Barenaked Ladies. I enjoyed all three of those roles, but I had a huge commercial hit album with Barenaked Ladies in ’98.
Thanks to that big financial success before the age of Napster and file sharing, I was able to take that money and start a whole new life entering academia as a freshman when I was 44 years old.
Brett McKay: Well let’s talk about your book. So what you’ve done is, like I said, you take readers through the dimensions of music that make up our listener profile, and you combine your experience as an engineer, producer, and also your research in cognitive neuroscience to help people understand why it is some music really calls to them and some music you could do without it.
So we’re gonna talk about these factors or dimensions of our listener profile, but before we do, how do we even develop this musical profile? What goes on? Is it biology, is a genetic, is it social? How does our genetic make-up and our social make-up influence our taste in music?
Susan Rogers: Such a wonderful mystery. So exciting to think about. Of all the art forms, music is the most immediate, the quickest and the easiest to consume, and that means it’s the quickest to make up our minds about. Takes a couple of hours to watch a movie, takes a long time to read a book, you have to actually invest some time and energy into going to an art gallery to see visual art, but music, it’s all around us, and we can easily pick and choose and curate our own musical library if we want.
So as with our taste in food and fashion, our taste in music starts developing when we’re really young, based on what we hear in our environment, and based on what happens when we decide to either approach or retreat from a stimulus. So certain foods you eat, you really hate it, and you never wanna taste it again, and other foods you love, and it kind of becomes your go-to thing, and that’s the same thing with music.
And it’s the same thing with fashion, you make those fashion blunders that you’re really embarrassed about later, and you start developing your set of, “This works for me and this will not work for me.” And you might have admire the folks who are really adventurous and willing to take risks, but perhaps you’re a little bit more timid when it comes to making choices in that one modality, so you might be brave in one thing, timid in another.
But anyway, our tastes in music tend to form when we have positive and negative experiences. The positive experience, for example, might be, let’s say you’re 3 or 4 years old and you’re in the seat of the car with your family and you’re on your way to a vacation or just something special, and the radio is on and you feel great, you feel safe and happy, and you’re excited, looking forward to whatever it is you’re gonna do.
And there’s a song on the radio that just so happens to match your emotions right now in your little 3-year-old or 4-year-old brain, you’re gonna associate that pattern of neural activity, it’s going on in your auditory brain, with those feel good neuro-transmitters. So everything is influencing us.
When we get a little bit older, especially in our teens, now we’ve got a more complex brain and we can start to identify musical styles with lifestyles, and we can start to say to others, “I like this kind of music and I don’t like that kind of music.” What we’re doing at that stage is broadcasting our self-identity. You want the other kids to think of you as this person, but heaven forbid they should think of you as that kind of person. So again, you’re picking and choosing.
You’ll change your mind a little bit, but usually by the time we’re college age, that’s when our tastes starts to really solidify and we’ve got a pretty well-established listener profile.
Brett McKay: Okay, so listener profile, biology plays a role. Our experience growing up plays a role in shaping what we’re drawn to. And then as we get older in those teenage years, we start even shaping our musical profile, our listener profile to create an identity for ourselves.
So let’s talk about these seven dimensions you’ve homed in on in your work as a producer, engineer and neuroscientist. Three are aesthetic, four are musical. And the aesthetic dimensions are authenticity, realism and novelty. So let’s talk about authenticity. What do you mean by authenticity in music?
Susan Rogers: That’s an interesting thing, and I chose authenticity to discuss first because of the seven, authenticity is the one I learned more about in the recording studio than in grad school and in academic conferences and reading papers and doing research. But authenticity is studied in terms of whether or not and how good we are at interpreting intentionality in art.
Ellen Winner from Boston University looks at at that very thing in the visual arts, and she’ll compare paintings side by side of little 4-year-olds who’ll just do a scribbling kind of paintings and abstract artists also doing what appears to be scribbles, and she tests people to see if they can tell which one was done by a 4-year-old and which one was done by an artist, a trained artist. And they can look very, very similar yet people can tell.
And in music, it’s kind of similar. When you’re a producer or an engineer, you’re in the recording studio on the other side of the glass, the musicians are out there playing, and what you’re listening for in their performance is whether or not they meant that. Is that singer singing her heart out? Is that drummer really driving that groove into a listener’s brain? What are you saying with your hands and your feet and your lips on those instruments. We can pick up on that. You don’t need to be trained in order to read intentionality in performance gestures.
Now some of us, like our authenticity, our feeling to come from below the waist or from the heart, we like that gut bucket or we like that pure raw emotion. Other listeners have a preference for a more cerebral or technical or virtuosic performance. It’s all good. Among these seven dimensions, I’m talking about how each listener has a unique individualized sweet spot on each dimension.
Collectively these seven sweet spots form your listener profile. For me personally, I’ll take that gut bucket. I like that gut bucket. I’m gonna listen for that, I’m gonna highly value it. My co-author on the other hand, Ogi Ogas, can’t stand that. That sounds sloppy to him. He prefers a cerebral controlled performance. Different sweet spots.
Brett McKay: Yeah, so it’s a spectrum with all these dimensions. There’s a great example, you give this example of a band that it’s known in the music industry, probably not by the popular audiences, but it’s The Shaggs. And it’s these three sisters, 1960s, they are from New Hampshire, and their dad had this vision, or there was a prophecy from their grandma that they’re gonna be a great rock band.
So they started it and at first, everyone’s like, “These people, these girls are not good.” But then other musicians discover these girls and they’re like, “These girls, these girls… These girls got it. They got some… This is rock roll.” And if you listen to it, I think the first time I listened to it and I was like, “Oh,” this jarring, ’cause it just doesn’t sound polished. But then after a while I’m like, “This does sound punk rock. These New Hampshire girls sound punk rock.”
Susan Rogers: Sweet, I’m glad you got that impression. The Shaggs were known in the industry because listening to The Shaggs gave us… It rang a little, rang a little alert bell. And The Shaggs serve as a reminder that as my friend, the musician Tommy Jordan said, the wrong note played with gusto always sounds better than the right note played timidly.
In other words, you can be technically perfect, but if you don’t imbue your music with some heart, with some soul, with some intentionality, with some feeling, listeners aren’t gonna pick up on anything in your performance. So the reason The Shaggs are important is because singularly, they are to music what a child’s finger painting is to art. Technically, it’s not good at all.
Technically, it’s horrible, it breaks all the rules. But as you just said, they’re communicating, they’re using their instruments to show that, “Even though we really can’t play very well, we can’t sing very well. But I wanna tell you something, I wanna tell you something about my life. This is what it’s like to be a teenage girl in 1965 in rural New Hampshire with an oppressive dad.” That’s punk. That’s rock and roll.
Brett McKay: Is there a band or maybe a group that kind of epitomizes above the neck? So people have an idea. ‘Cause we’ll link to The Shaggs on Spotify so that people can listen. They’ll listen and like, “Yeah, that’s… That’s definitely gut.” Is there a band that maybe exemplifies above the neck?
Susan Rogers: Yeah, these are all in degrees, but if we were to go back to the 1940’s, perfect example of just soul coupled with technical perfection would be Ella Fitzgerald. She was a maestro. Yeah, you can’t say that Ella didn’t have soul, but when you listen to Ella, I do anyway, you’re thinking, “How is it humanly possible to be that great?”
If you think about authenticity above the neck versus below the neck on a continuum, there aren’t too many extremes, but most people are somewhere in the middle, and a great example of one versus the other is the Beatles versus the Rolling Stones. So when I was young, kids would be divided, are you a Beatles fan or are you a Stones fan? I was always the Rolling Stones.
I found out later, in part because the Stones were… They developed a musical form that was built on blues, on early blues, on non-formally trained music gestures. So they were imitating the blues, the raw blues. Whereas the Beatles were imitating something that was a little bit more refined and more polished.
So kids don’t know why they like what they like, but they do know if they’re in touch with their listener profile, what feels best to them. When I was a kid, the Stones always felt better to me than the Beatles, and that’s an aspect of my listener profile that has not changed throughout my life.
Brett McKay: Okay, so authenticity. Most people kind of in the middle. I’m kind of in the middle. Let’s talk about realism as a musical dimension. What is realism?
Susan Rogers: So Ogi and I in putting together the material for this book, we’re interested in what people visualize in their mind’s eye when they’re listening to their favorite music. In other words, where does your mind go? What sort of fantasies do you have when you’re enjoying music?
And it turned out he and I had completely opposite fantasies. Mine, my go-to visualization has always been, I picture the musicians performing. That’s what I see. And Ogi has always pictured anything other than human beings. [chuckle] He pictures outer space and abstract shapes and colors. We’re both looking at each other thinking, “That is so weird.”
Since I was at Berkeley, I began interviewing some of my colleagues and some of the students asking them, “What do you see in your mind’s eye when you listen to music?” Great variety. Great variety. So we conducted a survey research of nearly 1700 music listeners in the United States, from all 50 states, to ask, “What do you see when you’re choosing to listen to music just for pleasure?”
We found that the most common answer was people see themselves really, they see autobiographical memories. Second most common answer was a story in the lyrics. So it turns out the music that you prefer is often chosen to give you the visual daydream or fantasy that you enjoy having.
I personally love records that are made with real musical instruments that I can visualize, made by real people, sung in real time, not pitch corrected or time corrected. I like visualizing the real thing. Ogi, on the other hand, likes the opposite. He likes artificial or abstract records that are made in the box, in the computer, software instruments, things that don’t involve people, an easily visualized set of people all playing together as one.
So we tend to have a preference also on that dimension of realism. I like extreme realism in my records, other people like electronic music and techno, extreme abstraction. Most of us like something that’s somewhere on that slider between one pole and the other.
Brett McKay: Yeah, I think I’m drawn, I’m in the middle. I love when artists are able to combine digital with the real. So in the book you talk about the Moog, the keyboard. Is that how you pronounce it, Moog or Moog?
Susan Rogers: I think it’s Moog.
Brett McKay: Moog. Alright, the Moog. And it was popular in the late ’70s, ’80s, then it kinda went away. But there’s a band that I really like, that I liked since high school and I still like them, The Rentals, where they use the Moog, but then there’s like violin as well with it. I love the combo of that. It’s like humanness overlaid over digital.
Another band I think that does that as well, The Killers does it well. I always get chills whenever I see ’em play Human. It starts off like this robot voice and it’s like a da da da da, and then Brandon Flowers comes in with that tenor voice of his, and it just… I don’t know, just for some… That just hits me. So I’m like right in the middle of realism and abstract.
Susan Rogers: Yeah, and Tame Impala, when you mentioned The Killers, it got me thinking of Tame Impala, they do that as well, or he does that as well, that combination of, “Here’s real familiar instruments that you know, and then here’s some sound effects that are unique to us.” Modern music today typically involves a combination of both, and today it’s really hard to tell if the performance you’re listening to actually happened that way in the studio, or if the record makers pitch and time corrected it.
I’m from the analog era where you didn’t have those tools. What you heard on record was what people played. But today we’re drifting toward more abstraction, that’s not a bad thing, it’s actually a great thing for people who like that sort of thing, because now they have more options than ever before.
Brett McKay: So it sounds like if you’re listening to music and you like imagining the band performing or you’re at the concert, watching the band beat the drums, play the guitar, you’re probably more towards that realism side. And if that stuff doesn’t really matter to you, when you listen to music, you imagine other things, maybe the lyrics that are being painted in your head like a picture, maybe more abstract?
Susan Rogers: Yeah, students will turn me on to electronic music that I admire cognitively. I might think, “Stylistically, this is great, this is innovative.” But I don’t get that visceral reaction of love, and I think in part it’s because my brain is searching to get its treat, to get its visualization, and if it can’t find it, it says, “Well, yeah this is good, but there’s nothing for me over there in that particular corner.”
Brett McKay: Well, let’s talk about the novelty dimension. Some people, they like music that sounds familiar, other people, they’re always searching for the next new thing, the stuff that sounds avant garde. In your research and just in your experience, are there differences between the two groups of people, psychologically, who want the familiar over the novel?
Susan Rogers: If it’s so cool to think about, because we humans, we here are full of paradoxes. There are genes in our body that encode for sensation-seeking, and some people are extreme and that they take extreme risks. Alex Honnold, the climber, came to mind. And the late Marc-Andre Leclerc. These guys do incredibly risky things, they’re definitely cut from a different piece of cloth.
Most of us are somewhere in the middle where we can be bold and risk-taking in certain settings, and we can be just a little bit more cautious in others, whether it’s financial or with food or fashion, or with music. So for some of us, we’re okay with taking a risk musically, or aesthetically.
We’re okay with spending the money and the time to go to an art house film, which could be terrible, no one’s talked about it, it’s not seen by many people, but we’ll take that risk because we love film a great deal, and we’ve been rewarded in the past by checking out some art films.
And it’s the same thing with music. Some of us will take risks and spend our time to explore boundary-pushing styles of music. I’m one of those people. I enjoy that. It’s rewarding to me. Others, I’m thinking of my brothers who are all around my age, but they like their… They like their classic rock and roll.
It’s so unappealing to them, the idea of checking out innovative music. What they love, just like many sports fans is, “Give me a stimulus the form of which I know really well, so that the form doesn’t surprise me. ‘Cause what I want to attend to is these individual performances. Blow me away with your guitar tones or with your performances or with your lyrical messages.” Sticking to this familiar form, again, another sweet spot. We all have our preferences there on that axis of novelty versus familiarity for music.
Brett McKay: And I think it can change through the lifespan. I know when I was younger in high school, early college years, I was much more exploratory with my music, I loved going to the record store when record stores were all over the place, and just spending hours there just shifting through all the new albums. I would be willing to listen to some local band that made a cassette tape.
Today, not so much. I kinda like you said, after about when I was done with college, I kind of set in what I liked and I… That’s where I’m… And not that to say if a new group shows up, I’m not gonna give ’em a shot, but I’m not actively seeking out new stuff.
Susan Rogers: Yeah, and there’s another reason for that, and that has to do with, a little bit with the lyrical content and style, but when we’re young, we have this huge problem to deal with, and that huge problem is figuring out who we are compared to all the other kids. So when you’re a teenager, there is nothing that your brain is more interested in than establishing your identity, and you’re very concerned with what the other kids think of you.
So you need a source of intelligence on these matters. Often a record can provide that intelligence. You privately listen to a piece of music, you listen to it to your ear buds or your headphones, and that singer may just convey to you the exact right attitude or the exact perfect phrase or lyrics that you think, “Yeah, that’s gonna help me.”
“I’m gonna say this tomorrow. I’m gonna be this person tomorrow. I’m gonna dress like this person and have this attitude tomorrow. That’s gonna work for me. I wanna adopt this identity and try it on just to see if it works for me in the social world.” As we get older, we don’t have to solve those problems, we have a greater sense of who we are.
So we’re less likely to go exploring for music that solves problems, and more likely to go exploring for music that matches our mood or changes our mood. We use music when we’re older as more of a self-medication, we’re modifying our moods with music.
Brett McKay: I think it explains that we just talked about. So when I was in high school, I was really into punk rock and ska music, and then I stopped listening to it. And then every now and then, I’ll go back and I’ll Spotify ska, 1990’s ska, and I’ll try to listen. I’m like, I just can’t. I can do maybe one or two songs and then I can’t do it anymore. It just doesn’t resonate anymore.
And what I think is interesting about The Killers, we’re doing a record pull here, I love The Killers. What I love about them is that I feel like they’ve evolved, they’ve grown with me. They started out sort of that synth party dance music in the early 2000s, and then what’s interesting is their albums have developed the lyrics, it talks about becoming a dad, getting married.
And that, I’m dealing with that stuff. And so I’ve kind of grown… They’ve kind of grown up with me, I think that’s one of the reasons I keep going back to them.
Susan Rogers: Isn’t that wonderful? That’s what smart artists do. They recognize that. For example, you’re college age and you got a band and kids are coming out to see you and it’s great, it’s great, and the record you make is inviting college age people to come out and see you play live.
Five years later, that same audience is likely to have infants. They’ve got kids at home, they’ve got jobs, they’ve gotta get up in the morning, they’re not gonna come out on a Wednesday night to see you play because they have to hire a babysitter and they gotta get up in the morning. It’s just, it’s not the same.
So a savvy record producer and/or artist will shape subsequent records to allow the audience to stay attached to that bound as you all grow together. Someone I worked with who’s doing that really, really well, two folks actually, both Ed Robertson and Steven Page of Barenaked Ladies are really good at it.
I’ve seen Steven with his solo, his solo act, he’s not with Barenaked Ladies anymore, but I’ve seen him play in the local Boston area in the last five, 10 years, and his audience is filled with middle-aged men, and his lyrics are talking about what it’s like to be a middle-aged man. It’s an under-served audience that seems to be very appreciative of what he’s doing.
Brett McKay: We’re gonna say a quick break for a word from our sponsors.
And now back to the show. So we’ve kind of shifted into one of the other dimensions, the musical dimensions, is lyrics, in our conversation about bands growing with us. And I think one thing we talked about earlier, some people when they hear lyrics, they like it when it paints a story in their head. That’s what I like.
I think Johnny Cash does this really well. I think Cake, the band Cake does this really well. I love listening to their lyrics and they kinda delve into these cool things. Killers does that for me. But then some people, they don’t really care out the lyrics, they could just listen to gobbledygook and they’re okay with that.
So is there an example of an artist or a musician who has lyrics that aren’t very literal, but people still respond to it?
Susan Rogers: Well, there must be loads and loads of them. I tend to love lyrics, so I don’t tend to be a big fan of lyrics that are just dense and really abstract. But I’m remembering from… There were those art bands in the late ’70s, I’m thinking of the band Yes, for example, and there were a lot of drug-fueled lyrics that were just utter nonsense.
In particular, I’m thinking of the line on, the song was Roundabout and the line is, “Mountains come out of the sky and they stand there.”
I remember being young and hearing that. But when you’re really young, you’re trying to figure out, “This must mean something. What does this mean? It’s important, I just can’t figure it out.” And after a while, you really realize it doesn’t mean anything, they’re just high.
So yeah, lyrics are more important to some people than to others, we can be really tolerant in some cases. Lyrics that have no meaning for me personally, on a record that I love, are… I’m thinking of James Brown’s, “Hot pants gives you confidence.” Well, that’s just cool and it’s just silly, but I don’t care about hot pants and confidence.
I’m not listening to that record for its lyrical content, I’m listening for Jimmy Nolen on rhythm guitar and Clyde Stubblefield, the funky drummer on drums. I’m getting my treat from the rhythm. So I can safely ignore the lyrics, they can be whatever they wanna be, I’m not listening there. My treats are being delivered elsewhere.
Listener profile is drawn from things I learned in college in papers and academic conferences and things like that, but it turns out there are different modules in our brain that can independently of the others, deliver us a treat, a release of dopamine or opiates in response to a feature on the record. So we can choose to find our treats in one aspect and ignore the others.
This is why when you ask most people, “What kind of music do you like?” people who are really into music will typically say, “Well, I like a variety of styles.” Of course they do, they’ve got a set of records that they go to for their rhythmic treats and a set for their melodic harmonic treats, and a set for their lyrical treats.
They might not be consciously aware of it, but that’s what we’re doing when we reach for a given record in a given moment in time, one of those circuits in our brains, one of those seven, has won the argument, so to speak, and says, “Me. What I really want out of music right now more than anything else is I want a performance that blows me away.”
I did that yesterday. I thought, “What I really want right now is hit me up with some innovation. I wanna hear something brilliant, a brilliant idea.” I’m seeking novelty here and I chose a very different style of music for that specific treat.
Brett McKay: Well, let’s talk about another musical dimension of our listener profile, and that’s melody. For lay people, I think we all kinda know what a melody is, but how do you describe a melody?
Susan Rogers: It’s the pattern of pitch changes. It’s what you sing when you’re not singing the words. An example that I gave in the book of contrasting two songs. And so let’s do it now. Contrasting for Pharrell Williams’ Happy with Carly Rae Jepsen’s Call Me Maybe. The songs from 10 years ago. But the melody for Happy goes…
That’s basically it.
Very rhythmic there. It’s pretty simple. So it’s the words and the arrangement in that record that help convey that feeling of joy and happiness of a balloon taking off. But Carly Rae Jepsen’s song has a melody in the chorus that goes…
And that’s perfect for suggesting, “I just met you. This is crazy.” Like, “Oh, I got a little hesitation going on here, but I got a smile on my face. Here… ”
“Here’s my number.”
Meaning, “This is a little bit risky, but I’m cool with it. I think this is gonna be okay.” So melody conveys feelings, that’s what it’s optimized to do, and words convey ideas. On a given record, there might be congruence or incongruence, the words and the melody can fit together perfectly like On Call Me Maybe, or there can be a total contrast where the singer and saying, “I’m doing great, I’m so glad she’s gone. This is fantastic. She was a pain in the ass anyway. I’m fine.”
And the music is saying, “His heart is broken, he’s devastated.” Or the other way around. Congruence versus incongruence, it can even shift throughout the course of a song, and that deepens the meaning on a record.
Brett McKay: So where do people lie in the spectrum of melody? What’s one side and what’s the other?
Susan Rogers: Now, the three aesthetic dimensions that we talked about, those are pretty bi-directional, there’s the two poles of novelty and familiarity, realism and abstraction. When it comes to the musical dimensions, they’re multi-variant. You think of melody more like a melodic space than a melodic access.
Because melodies can vary in a number of ways. They can be wide or narrow, they can be major or minor, they can be very fast-paced, short notes, very long legato with long notes. So melodic space is probably a better way of putting it. And many of us, we might not be consciously aware of having a preference.
If push came to show, you might say, “Well okay, I guess it’s this,” and sometimes that’s kind of a gray or vague area, your sweet spot on melody. For myself personally, I have some strong preferences. I’ve talked to others who do not have strong preferences.
Brett McKay: I think a good example of the differences in melody where you’d be on this, is Miles Davis. So Birth of the Cool, it’s that more like it’s shorter melodies, ike… It’s like just really peppy.
And then you look at Kind of Blue and the melody just gets drawn out and it’s slower, and it just… The melody changes slowly where you don’t even notice it. And I like both, but I find myself drawn to listening… I’d rather put in Kind of Blue, if I was gonna listen to a Miles Davis album.
Susan Rogers: Yeah, movie theme songs or movie themes, I should say, not songs, but movie themes are a good way of examining how we feel about melody. Sometimes a theme from a movie will just break your heart just listening to it, and it doesn’t have to have words to it, in fact, usually it doesn’t, but that melody will just make you swoon. If you’ve got some favorites there, then you’re likely to be someone who is a melodic listener.
Brett McKay: You mentioned Frank Sinatra as a artist who mastered melody. Tells about his evolution as an artist? ‘Cause I think we all know the Frank Sinatra from the 1950s, Rat Pack era Frank Sinatra. But he had a successful music career before that, but he was a vastly different artist. So tell us, walk us through that, how he used melody to catapult his career basically?
Susan Rogers: Ah Frank. Frank is regarded by many musicians, Frank and Ella Fitzgerald are both regarded by many musicians as the greatest singers America has ever produced, but musicians would kinda give the edge to Frank for being such a maestro. So when Frank was a young singer in his early 20s, he desperately wanted to be famous and successful, and he attended this concert at Carnegie Hall with Jascha Heifetz, and he was very interested in Heifetz’s violin bowing technique.
It was kind of circular, it seemed like Heifetz could play a phrase and then not even raise his bow, he could just kinda keep going and let a melodic phrase just continue and continue. And young Frank, he was only 24 at the time, thought to himself, “I need to learn how to do that with my voice.”
So he started taking voice lessons, as many great singers do, he took voice lessons and he took up swimming and he took up running, and he learned to control his breath so well that Frank could inhale, as you do at the top of a melodic phrase, but the thing Frank could do is just keep going and going and going and going.
He could time his phrases to be perfect and carry over the bar and keep going longer than you think they would. The subtext that that’s conveying to listeners is, “I’ve got more virility than you do, I’ve got greater power.” And that’s a good thing, that makes you popular among women who think, “Wow, this guy’s really got it going on.”
And it makes you popular among men who think, [chuckle] “Damn, this guy’s doing something right.” So melodic phrasing became his forte and his signature sound. Frank was the undisputed maestro of mastering melody as a singer.
Brett McKay: So yeah, I think listeners wanna hear this difference, like search on YouTube for a Frank Sinatra song from 1940 or 1939, and it’s gonna sound like a Bing Crosby song. Bing Crosby, great singer. Nothing wrong with it. But it’s kind of vanilla, it’s kind of just… It’s good. And then if you YouTube search or Spotify search for It Was a Very Good Year.
That’s a perfect example of him being able to extend that melodic phrase where you think, “You should be done, man,” like you should be, but he just keeps going.
Susan Rogers: Crazy great. And it’ll just make you swoon. Because humans have mirror neurons, they’re technically called Von Economo neurons, and what we’re doing with those is when we’re really into a performance, someone else’s performance, whether it’s playing tennis or basketball or singing, there are circuits in our brain, some of these neurons are following along as if we were doing it.
And you know a singer’s gonna inhale and, okay, you just expended all your air, you should be done, right? And when you’re not done and you keep going over the bar, something about that makes you think, “Wow, that was exceptional.” Or feel rather than think, but you get the sense of you’re listening to something extraordinary. Frank Sinatra mastered that.
Brett McKay: Alright, so melody is all about feeling. And again, it’s not that bi-directional or bilateral spectrum, like the aesthetic qualities, there might be some instances where you want a little more peppier melody, like a Carly Rae Jepsen. Or you want something a little more low-key and mellow, maybe minor. Just depends on your mood.
So let’s talk about another musical dimension, and that is rhythm. Our brain doesn’t really interesting thing in response to rhythm, so what’s going on in our brain when we hear rhythm and music?
Susan Rogers: Well, it used to be thought that humans were the only ones who could do this, and now it’s been discovered that there are a couple other species who possess the neural architecture to extract a rhythm from music, from a record. What that means, to extract a rhythm means that you can listen to a pattern, a repeating pattern of base and drums, let’s say, in high hat, and you can accurately predict, “Here’s when the next meet is gonna arrive.”
Now, a second to a conscious brain is, a second is really short, but to our neural circuits, a second is a long time. So you’re gonna be making these wee little micro-predictions of, “Alright, here’s when that snare is coming, here’s when that high hat’s coming, here is when that kick drum is coming,” and what emerges from all those predictions is an ability to see into the future and to feel really good when an event happens just the way you predicted it would, when that actually falls right where you thought it would.
And I’m talking on the order of milliseconds, really, really small timings, but we’re listening for that. That’s where our sense of groove comes from. We all tend to have a certain preference for rhythm based on how our bodies most enjoy moving, and you go to countless rock shows and the music is really high energy, you see a lot of kids just doing that pogo stick, that up and down bouncing.
Some bodies prefer to move that way. But if you go to an R and B or soul club, or you go to disco, you’re not gonna see that up and down motion as much as you’re gonna see kind of a front-to-back motion. That’s my go-to move. [chuckle] And if you go to a club that’s playing Latin music, you’re gonna see more of a side-to-side motion where your hips go one direction, then your shoulders go the other direction.
All of those movements involve correctly predicting, “Here’s when the beat is gonna arrive,” but that organizational property that has to happen is happening up in higher order circuits. Some unfortunate folks have impairments in those higher order circuits, and just like people with dyslexia who confused the order of words on a page, folks with beat deafness can’t make those predictions from a record about where the beat’s gonna land, and they have a hard time synchronizing their bodies clapping or moving in time to music.
Brett McKay: Okay, so so far we’ve talked about six of the dimensions of a listener profile. There’s three aesthetic ones, we got authenticity, realism and novelty. And we talked about three of the musical ones, we’ve got melody, lyrics and rhythm. There’s one more musical dimension, and that’s timbre. So what is timbre and how does that affect how we listen to a song?
Susan Rogers: What it is, is it refers to a tone quality. If you handed a musician a score for the song Young At Heart, let’s say, you’d see the lyrics, you’d see the melody would be written on the score, you’d see the time signature and the suggested tempo, you’d see all that, but what you would not see on the score is what instruments to play it on. Because you can play on guitar, you can play it on piano, you can play it on a variety of instruments.
When we’re making records, we have to make decisions about how to take these songs, the melody, the lyrics, the time signature, and how to express them with different sounds. Is this is gonna be drum machine or acoustic drums? Is it gonna be acoustic piano or electronic piano? What timbres are we going to employ?
It matters a lot because our memories of music involve associations with certain sounds. This guitar player always uses this guitar, maybe it’s BB King, or it’s Keith Richards or it’s Jimmy Page or someone like that, and you’re just gonna associate that tone with that artist.
Therefore, we’ll say sometimes the timbre is the face of a record, because it’s suggesting where this record falls in the history of other similar records. Certainly an orchestra has one timbre, a jazz ensemble has another timbre, electronic music has a distinct timbre as well.
Brett McKay: And again, you might want some type of timbre in certain situations and another type in another situation?
Susan Rogers: Yes. One of my favorite studies that I reported about in the book was just mind-blowing, and it concerned how long a human brain takes to make up its mind whether it likes or dislikes something. [chuckle] Oh, so sad, it’s sad because record makers work so hard and we assume, “Oh come on, you’re gonna listen to this song before you make up your mind, right?” And in actual fact, the answer is no, wrong.
These researchers took three styles of music, just snippets, just milliseconds in some cases or second-long, classical music, jazz music and electronic music, and they played these snippets for people who were lying in an fMRI scanner. Within one second, listeners’ brains had recorded positive liking responses to certain timbres and disliking to others.
So the kids who liked electronic music were far more likely to register a “dislike it, hate it” response [chuckle] to perhaps jazz or orchestral music in the first second. This is your brain deciding for you whether or not the stimulus is “the music of you”. “Does this match me or doesn’t it?”
Brett McKay: And so yeah, we talked about these seven dimensions, I thought this was really useful, ’cause now what I’ve been doing this past week after I finished your book is I’ve just been looking at my music that I enjoy or have enjoyed, and it’s been able to help me explain why I like the music now or why I don’t like it anymore. And it’s also helped me, I listen to music more actively now. So when I hear a song… This is something you talk about in the book.
A lot of people these days, they listen to music passively, like you just, you put on music when you’re working out, you’re doing chores, you’re working. People don’t just sit down in front of the stereo to listen to an album. That’s not something… That doesn’t happen very often anymore.
But there’s a joy in that. There’s actually, I forgot what it was like to do that. ‘Cause I remember doing that when I was in high school, just putting in a CD in my CD player and sitting in my room and just listening to an entire album. I’ve been doing that again with songs and I’m using your dimensions you laid out, I’ve kind of figured like, “Well, where does this line this dimension? And do I like that”? And it’s been a really fun experience listening to music actively again.
Susan Rogers: That is so nice. I remember being a kid and one of my favorite activities was listening to music, which sounds so mind-blowing when you explain that to young people today, that listening to music was a thing you were doing, like that was the only thing you were doing, you were just listening.
But yeah, you’d take your records and you’d go to a friend’s house for the pasttime of listening to music together. Or they’d come over to your house. And those were really happy memories doing just that, you put the record on the turntable, you sit together and you listen. You look at the album cover. You read the credits, maybe. If there’s lyrics there, you read the lyrics. But most of the time you just sit and you listen.
Now, that’s called active listening, but today more people are engaged in passive listening where music is a background to another main activity. That’s kind of rough for certain styles of music. Some styles of music have most of their finer points embedded in the details, and if you’re not paying attention to those details, you’re not gonna recognize what’s great about this record.
Other records however, and good on them for doing this, are actually designed to… They’re gonna be cool with just being in the background. In fact, you better not pay too close attention to it, It’s a three-minute pop song, it’s not intended for a deep analysis. It’s just fun.
Brett McKay: Yeah, I’ve noticed that there’s a genre of music that’s popped up, the Lo-Fi. It’s basically you see these artists on Spotify and YouTube and it’s kind of digital music that’s really mellow, and basically, people listen to it to stuff. Like my kids, they’ll listen to that when they’re studying. I gotta put on, it’s Chillhop. “I gotta listen to Chillhop.” I’m like, “Okay.” But it’s nothing… There’s really nothing intricate about it and it just sounds nice. It’s pleasant.
Susan Rogers: Yeah, and you know, from music psychologists, that’s what’s so darn interesting. I tried to emphasize in the book over and over again that music is varied because it is functional. We need music to perform a job for us when we choose it, and it performs different jobs and different types of music will get the job done for you compared to other types.
So for your kids, what they need is probably they want a little bit of a companion, they want a little bit of melody going on in the background, they want some sounds. It’s an accompaniment to other mental activity that they’re engaged in. And it feels good, it’s lifting their overall energy up, it’s working for them.
For someone else who might say, “Okay, well, let me listen to this and let me try to analyze it, and let me see if it can do the job for me of describing a complex musical stimulus,” it’s unlikely to function in that way. This is why you should never, ever be a music snob. When someone likes music, all they’re saying is that it works for them. That’s it.
Brett McKay: You talk about it in the book that there’s research that suggests that music or listening to music is like daydreaming. How so? What’s going on there?
Susan Rogers: So a hot topic in neuroscience right now is this default network. The default network is an interconnected set of brain nuclei that are all collectively involved in our sense of self. Our self-image, self-awareness, self-consciousness. When you’re thinking about yourself or when you’re going into your own head, so to speak, which brains are always doing, they’re focusing on the outside world, and then they’re daydreaming, they’re going into their own heads. When you go into your own head, it’s the default network that gets active.
It turns out that when we listen to music that we like, it activates our default network. So this is what I mean by music being functional. If you’re really enjoying it, you will lose your focus on an exterior object and you will increase your representation of yourself, of what you like, of who you are.
And that will lead to the kind of spontaneous thought that is the origin of creativity. So for many people, listening to music will actually prime the pump to help them do their best and most creative thinking.
Brett McKay: I like that. So if you wanna develop yourself, be more creative, start listening to music.
Susan Rogers: Start by day dreaming, and sometimes listening to music you love is a great way to daydream. I always teach students that our daydreams are so important. When you take your brain off its leash and you say, “You don’t have to do anything right now. You don’t have to look at the phone, you don’t have to be on your computer, you don’t have to do anything.”
Let’s say when you’re in the shower maybe, or just as you’re falling asleep, go wherever you wanna go, it’s gonna go where its treats are. It’s gonna go to fantasies that feel good. That’s your brain telling you what it wants. I’ve based two careers on a capacity to daydream and listen to my brain telling me what it was it wanted.
Brett McKay: Well Susan, this has been a great conversation. Where can people go to learn more about the book and your work?
Susan Rogers: Oh thank you, thank you. The book’s for sale everywhere, and if you wanna join the record poll, meaning if you wanna suggest a record that you love and that just lights up your world, go to thisiswhatitsoundslike.com. It’s all one word. There’s a link there to the record poll and you put your record in. I’ll read that and respond to it.
Brett McKay: Alright. Well, Susan Rogers, thanks for your time. It’s been a pleasure.
Susan Rogers: Thank you so much, Brett. Good luck to you and thank you for having me on your program.
Brett McKay: My guest today was Susan Rogers. She’s the author of the book, This Is What It Sounds Like. It’s available on Amazon.com and bookstores everywhere. You find more information about her work at her website, thisiswhatitsoundslike.com, where you can see examples of the seven dimensions that we talked about.
Also check out our show notes at aom.is/music, where you find links to resources, we delve deeper to this topic, including links to the songs that we’ve mentioned in the show so you can hear what we were talking about.
Well, that wraps up another edition of The AOM Podcast. Make sure to check out our website at artofmanliness.com where you can find our podcast archives, as well as thousands of articles we’ve written over the years about pretty much anything you think of. And if you’d like to enjoy ad-free episodes of The AOM Podcast, you can do so on Stitcher Premium.
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