THE READING ROOM: A Brain Science View of Loving Music
When you listen to music, what aspect of it appeals most to you? Do you listen to the lyrics of songs, or are you attuned more to the melody, following the opening melodic notes as they course through the verses and elevate the chorus? Do you listen over and over to that ethereal background vocal in the final verse of James Carr’s “Dark End of the Street,” or are you listening for tinkling keys that lay the sonic foundation of a song or piercing lead guitar runs that dance around crunchy rhythm guitars?
As neuroscientist and record producer Susan Rogers — she was the chief engineer for Prince’s Purple Rain — points out in her euphonious book, This Is What It Sounds Like: What the Music You Love Says About You, “music activates our mind wandering network — and our personal self — more easily and fully than any other art form.” With the deep passion of a lifelong listener and as a scientist interested in how the physical networks of the brain receive and process music, Rogers, with co-writer and fellow neuroscientist Ogi Ogas, dives deep into brain science and music in clear, accessible, and entertaining prose. They demonstrate that we all have a listener profile, and the “qualities of every record [we] hear can be mapped onto the dimensions of [our] listener profile.”
When we listen to the same song as a friend, why do we often describe the song differently? Rogers contends that it’s because the patterns that shape our individual listener profiles are different. “These divergent reactions are not due primarily to your level of musical training, your circle of teenage friends, or even the year you were born. The music that delivers the maximum gratification to you is determined by seven influential dimensions of musical listening: authenticity, realism, novelty, melody, lyrics, rhythm, and timbre … The dimensions of your listener profile serve as distinctive routes through which your body and brain can fall in love with a piece of music.”
Lyrics, for example, animate our understanding of ourselves in ways that melody and rhythm do not. Some songs whose lyrics are are important to us when we’re young lack the same urgency when we are older. In the same way, some songs we hear when we’re younger don’t resonate with us until we’re older and listen to the lyrics in the context of lived experience. Lyrics are the ways we tell our stories and identify with certain situations or events, placing the song in a certain time in our lives. Thus, we sometimes listen to songs with a fondness, or a sadness, about a time in our lives that was especially joyful or sad or troubled or peaceful. As Rogers points out, “lyrics serve our social lives by stirring up our memories … autobiographical memories are the single most common form of visualization that listeners report experiencing while listening to their favorite music. Many people enjoy reliving scenes from their past, and cite the desire for reminiscence as their main reason for listening to music.”
Rhythm is a musical dimension that functions in a very different way. While lyrics allow us to revel in our individual stories, rhythm brings us together with others as we celebrate in community, letting songs move us as we listen to them. According to Rogers, “a group of people moving as one sends the powerful message that everyone is feeling the same emotions, just as a group of people singing the same lyrics suggests they are thinking the same thoughts.” She continues that “communal music making bypasses the need to express your musical self as an individual, letting you fuse your identity with something larger than yourself.”
We’ve all returned from a concert by a favorite artist still swaying and moving to the rhythm of the songs. We often exclaim how much the music “moves” us. According to Rogers, “of all the ways in which we emotionally bond to music, rhythm and perception is the most fundamental. A record doesn’t require a heart-wrenching melody, a take-your-breath-away lyric, or a chill-inducing timbral design to knock you out and earn your devotion. A groove that matches one of your personal sweet spots for rhythm can make a record feel as though it were tailor-made for your body. When a beat fits you like a bespoke suit, you’ve found true musical love.”
In the end, we listen to music because we love it. “Falling in love with a record follows a similar process of instant attraction, coupled with the peculiar cognitive dissonance of feeling as if you’ve known the music forever …,” Rogers writes. “Love at first listen arises from beneath our conscious considerations, from a deep wellspring of private attraction that even the most passionate music lover may struggle to explain.”
In This Is What It Sounds Like, Rogers and Ogas introduce us to the musical and aesthetic dimensions that shape our listener profile with the passion ofmusic lovers who have listened, and continue to listen, deeply to all kinds of music. This brilliant book adds to the growing number of books — Daniel Levitin’s This Is Your Brain on Music and Oliver Sacks’ Musicophilia are two examples — that illustrate how music maps its way into our neural networks, shaping our lives.