What the music you love says about you

Susan Rogers is a record producer, audio engineer, and cognitive neuroscientist who teaches music production and engineering at Berklee College of Music. She was previously a staff engineer for artist Prince, but now her career is devoted to the study of musical perception. Ogi Ogas is a mathematical neuroscientist and author. He is director of the Dark Horse Project at the Harvard Graduate School of Education, where he studies how individuals achieve success.

Below, Susan and Ogi share 5 key insights from their new book, This is what it looks like: what the music you love says about you. Listen to the audio version, read by co-author Susan, in the Next Big Idea app.

1. Listening is not the same as hearing.

Listening to music – paying attention to what works and doesn’t work in a song, feeling its rhythms and melodies as if they were part of your body, like your fingers and hips – is an indispensable part of music. By perceiving, feeling and reacting to the many dimensions of a song, a listener closes the creative circle and completes the musical experience.

Becoming a “musical” listener takes curiosity, effort and love. But it also requires understanding and embracing your unique identity as a music listener. Everyone has a listener profile – the brain’s response to music that’s as unique to each of us as our tastes in food or fashion or romantic partners.

2. Listening to music has many dimensions.

Neuroscience describes seven aesthetic and musical dimensions that can each independently provide pleasurable reward from listening to music. Through these dimensions, you can discover your Listener Profile. These seven dimensions are:

  • Authenticity—the subjective impression of the authenticity and sincerity of the music. Where do the expressive gestures in the performance seem to come from: maybe from the performer’s head, maybe it comes straight from the heart, or from the hips?
  • Realism— the opposite of abstraction. Realistic recordings are played on real instruments, familiar enough to imagine in your mind. Abstract records are created on virtual instruments that only exist in computer code. Do you prefer music played on instruments you know or do your listening rewards come from virtual instruments that spark your imagination?
  • Novelty— your perception of the originality of the music. Some listeners prefer familiar musical forms that allow them to savor nuanced arrangements or virtuoso technique, while other listeners prefer to be challenged by musical innovation and stylistic boldness.

“Becoming a ‘musical’ listener takes curiosity, effort and love.”

  • Melody—music has evolved to reflect the emotional lives of humans. Melody does the heavy lifting of conveying a feeling. Melodies can be sweet, bitter, soaring, catchy, poignant, cheerful, catchy, or any human emotion. We can consider the melody as the heart of a record.
  • Lyrics— this dimension can be considered as the spirit of a record because the lyrics express ideas. You may prefer songs with clearly expressed truths or you may listen to poetic constructions. You may enjoy vivid imagery in the lyrics or have a penchant for more conceptual writing.
  • Rhythm—the hips of music. Switching to music is an irresistible urge for most people; it starts when we are very young. What kind of rhythm makes you dance?
  • Stamp— the sound itself. It is the unique sonic portrait that sets individual instruments and voices apart. We can call the face of a record timbre because timbre establishes the identity and genre of the music. Some prefer a lush orchestra, others a jazz trio; some prefer the acoustic twang, others a wall of electric guitars.

3. Your listener profile is characterized by seven “sweet spots”, one per dimension.

Think of a sweet spot like a “Goldilocks zone” of resonance. It comes from the feeling that this record is for you. We seek different types of rewards by listening to music. The record you pick at any given time is most likely your sweet spot on one or more of the seven dimensions. Our musical highlights exert a powerful gravitational pull on our thoughts and feelings, leading to a greater release of pleasurable neurotransmitters.

4. The music you love the most can activate your default network, a neural system in the brain that fires every time we dream and think creatively.

The default network is part of our sense of self: our identity and self-awareness. Listening to music you love activates your network by default, which means the music can serve as a personal guide to private places in your mind where only you can go.

“A journey in your listener profile is a journey in self-discovery.”

Getting to know your listener profile helps you dive deeper into your own desires, fantasies and creativity, those mental places where you can try out other identities to discover the “music of you”. A journey in your listener profile is a journey in self-discovery.

5. Falling in love with a record is like falling in love with a person.

That instant attraction that can be hard to explain. Of course, you recognize that not everyone loves your playlist as much as you do. They may even wonder what you hear in the songs that are most dear to you. But no one should ever be a music snob, or a music wallflower. Everyone’s taste is valid.

This is what it looks like hopes to answer questions about your musical loves that you didn’t think to ask. Knowing more about the music you love will deepen your relationship with the music and with yourself.

To listen to the audio version read by co-author Susan Rogers, download the Next Big Idea app today:

Hear key information in the next big idea app

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