Becoming the future

The CAD Factory recently hosted Susan Rogers, whose experience as a studio engineer informs her role as a professor of psychology at Berklee College of Music.

In her presentation she linked research in music cognition back to first-hand observations about the music industry, drawing on her roles in the production of popular music by musicians like Prince, David Byrne and the Barenaked Ladies.

One of the themes in the discussion was introduced as she outlined how a Sonny and Cher album caught her ear as a child and the artwork showed her the role of a studio engineer. Rogers described the “mystery of children, deep down inside, we know who we are.”

She didn’t labour the innate knowledge that music stirs but, looking back over my notes, it’s surprising how often it featured in the talk. From research demonstrating that very young chickens respond to timeless music by Bach more than other sounds, through to her observation that young kids show pop music’s appeal in that unselfconscious way in which they’ll express their appreciation by moving their bodies. “Something in our physiology responds to good music.”

Rogers explained that “music is optimised audio” and the pleasure it stirs happens along neural pathways as sound passes a number of opiate receptors on the way through our brains. “Sound is a special form of touch,” she said and argued that music has developed as an emotion-manipulator — one that we use to self-medicate.

She cites David Huron who wrote in 2011 that the release of prolactin, a hormone which gives comfort, might explain the appeal of sad songs.

There are three key areas in which music works to capture our attention:
  • Cognition — making us think, particularly lyrics,
  • Emotion — making us feel, particularly through harmony (or dissonance), and
  • Meter — making us move, particularly through rhythm.

In combination listeners respond to arrangements that achieve tension and release. “As with language, we are surprised and delighted by novel constructs” although she noted that within popular Western music we can anticipate “it’s probably going to happen after eight bars.”

Psychologists often employ bell-curves and I was surprised at Rogers’ use, which showed an axis moving from simple, childlike melodies through to complex, avant-garde noise. In the middle, where the largest grouping sits, you’d expect to find popular music.

However, as popular music changes over time and adopts new sounds to keep up with trends. Rogers observed that it is worth incorporating ideas from ahead of the curve to anticipate their arrival in popular music. This reminded me that the one thing that I remembered about The Barenaked Ladies, who she produced, was the rapping in their music surprised me. She explained that initially she thought the band were too pop for her taste.

Looking to the other end of the axis, Rogers argued that music which appears very simple requires skill to appeal to its audience. Her example was Nashville, the home of country music and highly-skilled musicians because the apparently simple form of that style of music hides a nuanced delivery. The familiarity of the formula for music like country or blues means it stands out like the dog’s proverbial bollocks when the performance isn’t up to expectations of an audience attuned to the form of the genre.

Another model from psychology is the Venn diagram of overlapping circles and Rogers described how she was introduced to a design with three fields representing the audiences of public, musicians and critics. She recalled how Greg Kurstin and Tommy Jordan from the band Geggy Tah would debate who might be considered to have achieved the “triple crown” through satisfying each group, and I was delighted to hear they’d nominated Duke Ellington.

(If, like me, you’re wondering why the name Geggy Tah seems familiar, click above. However, I warn you this is an infectious example of their work. More recently Kurstin has contributed to a number of hit songs, including co-writing and playing most of the instruments on  Adele’s ‘Hello’.)

Of the fields in the Venn diagram, Rogers said “these three audiences will give different rewards” and that a smart record company executive would encourage an artist to pick one. “The public give love, musicians give respect and critics give fame.”

She reflected that one of the brilliant aspects of Prince was that he had reached each of these fields on successive albums, with Dirty Mind aimed at critics and Controversy at musicians and then 1999 at the public, Purple Rain back at critics and so on.

Another interesting diagram was the axis described by Bill Verplank, outlining archetypes that contribute to creative projects. It identified roles for:
  • Artists — unusual thinkers with ideas
  • Engineers — systems-centred builders
  • Entrepreneurs — leaders with social skills
  • Competitors — bullies who can get results

Rogers believes there is a physiological aspect to these characteristics, which means that some brains are shaped to fill the roles better than others. “Today’s unsigned artist will be tempted to do it all,” Rogers observed. “The more I embraced the things I am,” she outlined her roles as an engineer and scientist, “the better I perform.”

Given the popularity of Prince, it wasn’t surprising that one audience member took the opportunity to ask about Rogers’ experience working with him. I’d wondered if she had been able to speak more openly about that secretive musician since his passing and, when she reflected on how Prince’s experiences informed his creativity, it was quite incisive.

Rogers spoke to Prince’s lonely upbringing as a child sometimes locked in a room with musical instruments and how that pattern continued. First, when he left home, she said Prince could spend all night recording music in the basement of the friend’s family he moved in with.

Later Prince would have marathon recording sessions in which he would realise the music that was fully conceived in his mind. Susan Rogers said one session involved 96 hours without sleep. “I was seeing double at the end of that but, I was a fan, was I really going to say ‘No, I’d prefer to sleep’?!”

One of the reasons I was interested in hearing Rogers speak was her presentation at Sonar+D, where she identified the growing role for timbre in contemporary music production. “I think for the first time in our history now… we can make musical instruments that don’t exist.”

During the lunch break I took the opportunity to ask if this was a result of the shift to digital recording. “Yes, I think so” came the reply and toward the end of her presentation she elaborated on the shift.

Drawing on the writing of Eric Kandel, two paintings by Joseph Mallord William Turner were shown and Rogers spoke about how they were a similar scene divided by the development of photography. In ‘The Shipwreck’ from 1805 (above left), you can easily identify a boat being enveloped by the sea. While in ‘Snowstorm: Steamboat Off a Harbour’s Mouth’ from 1842 (above right), it requires some interpretation to identify the vessel among the swirling darkness of what must be raincloud and water.

The parallel with audio is that the introduction of digital recording made it easier to achieve a realistic-sounding result and now we’re hearing an approach to sound like abstract expressionism develop in reaction. Abstract art requires a viewer to actively interpret the image and now digital recordings are using abstract sounds to represent parts that were previously played by instruments.

“By dismantling performance we can find new directions,” said Susan Rogers and I marvelled at her perspective as someone who has seen the music industry change shape and can make observations from the field of psychology.

It leads me to ponder those times when I feel like a child exploring sound. How exciting it is to hear music in field recordings and now I know those landscapes travel through poppy fields in my brain.