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Why your favorite songs are your favorite songs

‘This Is What It Sounds Like’ gets inside our brains to explore the terrain of our musical ‘sweet spots’

Coauthors Ogi Ogas (left) and Susan Rogers (right) of "This Is What It Sounds Like: What the Music You Love Says About You."

Quick: Name a piece of music you like. It could be a song that got you going while you were stuck in traffic the other day. Or maybe it’s the album you streamed while you were making dinner last night.

Surely you can name a few songs that work for you. But do you understand why?

The neuroscientist Ogi Ogas had no idea why he gravitates toward certain music by Bach and Daft Punk. When he first met Susan Rogers, he was thrilled to discover that she could help him understand.

So he convinced her to write a book. Out Tuesday, “This Is What It Sounds Like: What the Music You Love Says About You” (W.W. Norton) aims to help us all 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 audio engineer who had the good fortune of working with a certain Minneapolitan known as Prince for several years in the mid-1980s. (She was there at the creation of “When Doves Cry,” his biggest hit, from which she drew the title of her book.)

She first met Ogas when he was working on his recent book “Dark Horse: Achieving Success Through the Pursuit of Fulfillment.” He learned that Rogers was a high school dropout who taught herself electronics by writing to the US Army to request their training manuals. In her 40s, she earned a doctorate in psychology at McGill University in Montreal, where she studied under Daniel Levitin, author of the 2006 bestseller “This Is Your Brain on Music.”

“She became an immediate hero of mine,” says Ogas, sitting on the couch in his Newton home.

When he first asked her about writing a book, she demurred.


“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 was the book she should write. As a record producer, Rogers says, it was her task to get inside the minds of both the music creator and his or her potential audience.

“You’re constantly flipping back and forth between those two perspectives,” she explains. In terms of relating to the artist, “in the words of T Bone Burnett, you’ve got to follow them like a leopard, stalking them. What are you trying to say? What are you trying to tell me?

“And then you have to imagine that a listener maybe just heard the song when he was pumping gas.”

The book invites each reader to examine their own “listener profile.” Does your taste in music tend to skew toward crafty lyrics or hip-shaking rhythms? Do you appreciate a strong melody, regardless of genre? Do you find yourself drawn to the timbre of a Les Paul guitar or a Roland TR-808 kick drum?

Lyrics, rhythm, melody, timbre: Our responses to each of those dimensions of music have been studied extensively by neuroscientists, as Rogers and Ogas point out in their book. (Until recently, he was head of the Individual Mastery Project at the Harvard Graduate School of Education.)

At first they thought about describing our musical tastes in terms of “resonant frequency.” Then they simplified: For each dimension of music, what is your “sweet spot”?


Besides those quantifiable elements of music, Rogers explores three more: 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 says, “virtual instruments you can’t picture”?

“We want readers to look at their playlists in a new light,” Ogas says.

For the chapter on “authenticity” in music, Rogers presents the strange saga of the Shaggs, the 1960s band 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 from listening to the Shaggs,” says Rogers, speaking from her new home in the Catskills. She’s quick to add that she’s not suggesting the Wiggin sisters were inarguably great in spite of themselves — or that she believes one person’s taste in music can be better than another’s.

“It was vitally important to me that nothing feels like a lecture,” she says. “The last thing I wanted was someone preaching from a lectern.”

The ShaggsGeoffrey Weiss

On the opposite end of the pole from 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 any sentiment without actually feeling it.”

As for novelty in music, some of us have more appetite for it than others. Do you still listen to your favorite records from your youth? Are you eager to keep up with recent trends in trap beats and digital production? Does free jazz enthrall you or send you scurrying for the exit?


Each of us can find our place on the bell curve of novelty in music, which ranges from too simplistic on the left to too challenging on the right. Falling somewhere in the middle is most “pop” music — which, after all, is shorthand for “popular.”

Because all these elements of music are processed in various “consciousness centers” in the brain, the authors note, we can get a more complete picture of our individuality from our reaction to music than any other sensory experience. Whereas, say, a wine tasting engages two of our senses — taste and smell — listening to music requires a wide array of cognition.

All this 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 inclined 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 down the nuts and bolts. There’s some loose wires in there.”

As we age, she continues, it’s perfectly natural to lose some of the desire to seek out new music. We may no longer have the same bandwidth we had at 17. Life gets in the way.

But whatever your musical tastes — if you’re still stuck on your favorite records from 10, 20, or 40 years ago — Rogers approves.


“I want to let that listener know your experience is every bit as valid as mine,” she says. “You don’t have to be a foodie to appreciate a well-made sandwich.”

In the book, she writes about participating in “record pulls.” Prince sometimes asked his crew members to bring their favorite records to his rehearsal space for a party.

But a real record pull is a little more specific, she says. Each participant brings a few records that they think help define their listener profile: “In so doing, you’re revealing your sweet spots — my idea of a groove that just makes me weak in the knees, or a timbre that kills me.”

The first time Rogers and Ogas convened to discuss the book idea, he brought a few records over to her Mass. Ave. condo. He recalls playing her Queen’s theme song to the movie “Flash Gordon.” That song, he says, “was the first record that made me aware of music.” For him, when Freddie Mercury’s voice appears, “it’s like the heavens opening up.”

Ogas describes his listening habits as “very above-the neck.” By contrast, Rogers thinks of herself as primarily rhythm-driven, or “below the neck.” At their record pull, she played Creedence Clearwater Revival’s “Born on the Bayou.”

“It did nothing for me,” Ogas says with a smile.

Just before she got on the phone last week, Rogers was listening to “29 Ways,” a jumping, rhumba-style blues from 1956 by the songwriter Willie Dixon. She was instantly transported, she reports.

“As soon as that record comes on, I can focus on nothing else,” she says. “It’s giving me all the dopamine I need.”

E-mail James Sullivan at jamesgsullivan@gmail.com. Follow him on Twitter @sullivanjames.