This Is What It Sounds Like: What the Music You Love Says About You is a must read for any music producer, recording artist, audio engineer, or consumer of art in any form. Susan Rogers [Tape Op #117] doesn’t explain to us the technical aspects of how a song is written and gets recorded – that’s been done – but instead she examines what music does to the listener’s mind to make them love, hate, or ignore it altogether. The companion playlist is a must-listen to fully appreciate this book. In fact, we are instructed to listen to specific songs at the beginning of each chapter before reading!
Rogers spent much of her recording career working with Prince, engineering some of his most influential recordings and winning Grammys. There’s no doubt he had an incredible influence on her technique and ear, but the experience left her with a nagging question, “Did listening to music actually matter?” This idea stayed with her, and she eventually left the recording industry at her professional peak to pursue a career in academia, eventually attaining a Ph.D. in cognitive neuroscience and later a professorship at Berklee College of Music.
The book is based on the concept of a “record pull; a hang where guests each bring a song to share and discuss. Whether you like the companion songs or not, they complement Roger’s text in such a way that by not listening to them you will miss the deeper experience of the text. The author takes no hostages (and makes no promises) as the songs are curated equally from her own tastes and those of her co-author, neuroscientist Ogi Ogas Ph.D. (whose musical preferences contrast deeply with hers in an informative way). The result is an exciting journey through the emotional psychology that makes us listen to the music we listen to. I personally found myself hearing familiar songs in a completely new light, and hearing others I never would have given a chance and coming away enlightened. This is an experience Rogers recalls after hearing Michael Nesmith’s “Joanne” at a record pull, and recognizing, “…a tenderness I’d never noticed before…” as her host offered, “…a heartfelt account of the record’s influence on his own early career…”
It’s both eye and ear opening to hear two widely opposite songs such as Creedence Clearwater Revival's “Born on the Bayou” and Daft Punk’s “The Grid” back to back, and then reading Roger’s explanation of musical realism; what a listener “sees” when they listen to a particular song or another. I began hearing and “seeing” recordings completely differently after reading this chapter; more in three dimensions and with enhanced imagery. It’s also affected the way I mix, and given me more confidence and bravado to try new techniques and not consider if they are “correct.” Feeling more than thinking.
Another perspective I gained from reading this book is that it’s perfectly natural to continue to listen to the same artists, songs, records, and genres over and over. Not that you shouldn’t keep your ear open for something new, but it’s in our DNA. If I like classic rock and bluegrass, and my kids like Top 40 pop, there’s nothing right or wrong about it, it’s just how we’re wired. Thank heavens for the invention of the Walkman and what came after it so we can all happily go about our lives with a personal soundtrack, or none at all, playing in our heads. But as Rogers explains, it’s more fun to invite your friends over, share some songs, and discuss what they do or do not do to you emotionally. You might just hear something fresh, or find out you actually do like Bach!