Why your favorite songs are your favorite songs
So he convinced her to write a book. Out Tuesday, “This is what it looks like: what the music you love says about you” (WW Norton) aims to help us learn something about ourselves by thinking about the music that rocks our world.
Rogers is a longtime Berklee College of Music professor who teaches music production and psychoacoustics. She’s also a self-taught sound engineer who was lucky enough to work with a certain Minneapolitan known as Prince for several years in the mid-1980s. greatest success, from which she took the title of her book.)
She first met Ogas while working on his recent book “Dark Horse: Achieving Success Through the Pursuit of Fulfillment.” He learned that Rogers was a high school dropout who learned electronics by writing to the U.S. Army asking for their training manuals. In her 40s, she earned a doctorate in psychology from McGill University in Montreal, where she studied with Daniel Levitin, author of the 2006 bestseller This Is Your Brain on Music.
“She became one of my immediate heroes,” Ogas says, sitting on the couch in his Newton home.
When he first asked her to write a book, she hesitated.
“I’m not a musician,” she said. Instead, she calls herself a “professional music listener.”
It didn’t take long for Ogas to convince her that this was the book she should write. As a record producer, Rogers says, her job was to get inside the mind of the music creator and their potential audience.
“You constantly oscillate between these two perspectives,” she explains. In terms of dealing with the artist, “in the words of T Bone Burnett, you have to follow them like a leopard, hunt them down. What are you trying to say? What are you trying to tell me?
“And then you have to imagine that maybe a listener just heard the song while pumping gas.”
The book invites each reader to examine their own “listening profile”. Do your musical tastes tend to lean towards clever lyrics or catchy beats? Do you appreciate a strong melody, whatever the genre? Are you drawn to the timbre of a Les Paul guitar or a Roland TR-808 bass drum?
Lyrics, rhythm, melody, timbre: our responses to each of these dimensions of music have been extensively studied by neuroscientists, as Rogers and Ogas point out in their book. (Until recently, he led the individual master’s project at the Harvard Graduate School of Education.)
At first, they thought of describing our musical tastes in terms of “resonant frequency”. Then they simplified: For each dimension of music, what is your “sweet spot”?
Besides these quantifiable elements of music, Rogers explores three others: authenticity, realism and novelty. Do you prefer music without artifice or music played by virtuosos? Songs recorded using traditional acoustic instruments or modern pop created on, as she puts it, “virtual instruments you can’t imagine”?
“We want readers to look at their playlists in a new light,” says Ogas.
For the chapter on the “authenticity” of music, Rogers introduces the strange saga of the Shaggs, the 1960s group of untrained sisters from southern New Hampshire who created what they thought was “pop” music. in a virtual vacuum.
“I learned so much about what music is listening to the Shaggs,” says Rogers, speaking from his new home in the Catskills. She’s quick to add that she’s not suggesting that the Wiggin sisters were unquestionably great in spite of themselves – or that she thinks one person’s musical taste can be better than another’s.
“It was vitally important to me that nothing look like a conference,” she says. “The last thing I wanted was for someone to preach from a pulpit.”
Opposed to a “naive” group like the Shaggs would be what the 18th century poet and philosopher Friedrich Schiller identified as a “sentimental” artist: someone, as Rogers explains, “with so much training, they can express a feeling without really feeling it.
As for the new in music, some of us have more of an appetite than others. Do you still listen to your favorite records from your youth? Are you eager to follow the latest trends in trap beats and digital production? Does free jazz excite you or does it make you run for the exit?
Each of us can find our place on the bell curve of musical novelty, which goes from too simplistic on the left to too difficult on the right. Most “pop” music falls somewhere in the middle – which, after all, is shorthand for “popular.”
Because all of these elements of music are processed in various “consciousness centers” in the brain, the authors note, we can get a fuller picture of our individuality from our reaction to music than any other sensory experience. While, say, a wine tasting engages two of our senses – taste and smell – listening to music requires a wide range of knowledge.
All that brain activity helps explain why music probably seemed so vital to your 17-year-old self, she says.
“When you’re young, you’re more likely to need music. You need it to solve problems, to know what to say, what attitude to have, what tribe to belong to. You still haven’t tightened the nuts and bolts. There are loose threads in there.
As you get older, she continues, it’s perfectly natural to lose some of the desire to seek out new music. We may not have the same bandwidth we had when we were 17. Life bothers us.
But whatever your musical tastes – whether you’re still stuck on your favorite records from 10, 20 or 40 years ago – Rogers approves.
“I want to let this listener know that your experience is just as valid as mine,” she says. “You don’t have to be a foodie to enjoy a well-made sandwich.”
In the book, she writes about her participation in “record pulls”. Prince would sometimes ask his crew members to bring their favorite records to his rehearsal space for a party.
But a real coin toss is a bit more specific, she says. Each participant brings a few records which they believe help define their listener profile: “In doing so, you reveal your strengths – my idea of a groove that makes me weak in the knees, or a timbre that kill.”
The first time Rogers and Ogas got together to discuss the book idea, he brought a few records to his condo in Mass. Ave. He remembers playing with her Queen’s theme song for the movie “Flash Gordon”. This song, he says, “was the first record that made me aware of music”. For him, when the voice of Freddie Mercury appears, “it’s as if the sky opened”.
Ogas describes his listening habits as “way above the neck”. In contrast, Rogers considers himself to be primarily rhythm-oriented, or “under the neck”. In their draw, she played Creedence Clearwater Revival’s “Born on the Bayou.”
“It didn’t do anything for me,” Ogas said with a smile.
Just before calling last week, Rogers was listening “29 Ways” a bouncy rumba-style blues from 1956 by songwriter Willie Dixon. She was instantly transported, she reports.
“As soon as this record comes out, I can’t focus on anything else,” she says. “It gives me all the dopamine I need.”
Email James Sullivan at [email protected]. Follow him on Twitter @sullivanjames.