THIS IS WHAT IT SOUNDS LIKE
A great book about listening from a professor neurscience who made Prince sound good
I had the pleasure recently of traveling down to Miami to conduct a conversation with Professor Susan Rogers, who has a PhD in cognitive neuroscience and teaches at Berklee College of Music at the Miami Book Fair. I knew her primarily as Prince’s chief engineer during his incredible mid-80s run of critically acclaimed hits. The reason we met was to celebrate the publication of her book, THIS IS WHAT IT SOUNDS LIKE: What the Music You Love Says About You (Norton, 274 pages), which is an insightful mix of science, storytelling, and observation focused on how we hear. This fall there’s been a lot of fascinating music books published, but Rogers’ book (co-written with Ogi Ogas) is the most original. At the center of the book is not a iconic musician or an opinionated critic, but the listener, the person who is amused, moved, or appalled by a a song or songs.
“The qualities of every record you hear can be mapped onto the seven dimensions of your listener profile,” Rogers writes. “The four musical dimensions — melody, lyrics, rhythm and timbre — are each analyzed in a distinct brain network specialized for music. The three aesthetic dimensions — authenticity, realism, and novelty — are each processed by several interconnected higher order brain regions that receive inputs from the four music specific networks.”
Rogers digs into precise definitions of these dimensions and how they work in relation to an overall song, in relation to ever changing technology, and how individual listeners focus on them. The reference points Rogers’ uses are wide ranging, from Bach to the Shaggs, from Sinatra to Bare Naked Ladies. Prince, of course, plays a role in her narrative, but she doesn’t lean on her time with the superstar to legitmize her thoughts. Rogers’ work as an engineer, a producer and scholar give her wide latitude in ranging across sounds of all types. Plus she’s has a great eye for the telling anecdote that illustrates a larger point. She only met Miles Davis once, but the trumper legend gave her a key that opened the door to her career as a music maker and that, eventually, led to his book.
To listen along to Rogers’ observations go to the website ThisIsWhatItSoundsLike.com for a playlist of all the music mentioned in this book.
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