10 March 2024: This Is What It Sounds Like


This Is What It Sounds Like
What the Music You Love Says About You
Susan Rogers and Ogi Gas
New York: Norton, 2022.


For Christmas this year, my daughter, Madeleine, asked around online for suggestions for "books about music that don't suck." As a result, she gave me This Is What It Sounds Like by Susan Rogers and Ogi Ogas. It is, indeed, an excellent book, and I highly recommend it for anyone who is passionate about music, whether musician or listener.

Rogers is a professor at the Berklee School of Music in Boston, a producer of hit records (including "One Week" by Bare Naked Ladies), and a recording engineer who worked for a long time with Prince, among other musicians.  

Rogers and Ogas argue that --

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. Collectively, your natural response to each of these seven dimensions form a personalized "listener profile" unique to you.

Is it easy to sing in the shower? If so, this song has a good melody. Does it work on the page? If so, this song has good lyrics. Does it pop into your head when you are exercising? If so, this song's best feature may be its groove.

When we focus on those special dimensions of music that make us swoon, we learn something real about ourselves and perhaps discover a new way to connect with others.

In reading this book, however, I quickly realized that Rogers' scheme for analyzing my responses to extant music could also be turned around and used as a heuristic for creating music, for consciously considering -- rather than intuitively crafting -- these seven critical features in my own songs.  

  • What are my preferred locations on these continua?  Why?  
  • How can I foreground these preferred features in my own work?

Using myself as an example here, I will try to show how other musicians might use this book as a roadmap for moving forward with their own work.


Rogers and Ogas write that --

Authenticity is the subjective conviction that the emotion expressed in a musical performance is genuine and uncontrived.

Authenticity is a highly influential dimension of your listener profile. It offers an enigmatic but potent reward: the experience of genuine emotional truth.

The frank expression of feeling is a primary channel through which music connects with listeners. Listeners can experience how even novice musicians can convert pain into something beautiful and transcendent, for instance.

  • Are the emotions I am trying to express genuine and uncontrived?  
  • Am I offering a frank expression of those emotions?
  • What pain am I trying to convert into something beautiful?


Rogers and Ogas note that --

For most of human history, all music that listeners heard was exclusively realistic. Before Edison assembled his favorite invention, music consisted solely of live performances: real people playing real instruments in real time.

High fidelity -- selecting the right equipment, materials, and techniques to re-create a musical performance so faithfully that the listener could imagine she was sitting directly in front of the band.

Realism on a record is conveyed by the types of sounds we hear (real versus virtual instruments), the fidelity or exactness with which they were captured, and the performance gestures -- the unique ways an artist uses their voice or instrument to express their musical ideas and emotions, a distinctiveness that can become their "signature sound."

Along the continuum of realism to digital audio abstraction, it is clear that for my music, at least, I want to create the sense that my recordings represent, to the best degree possible, a real person singing and playing a real instrument in real time. So long as I am doing the solo singer/songwriter/guitar player thing, I want my recordings to sound exactly the way I sound when I play live. The questions, then, are --

  • What are my performance gestures?  
  • What are the unique ways I use my voice and instrument?    
  • How can I craft passionate vocal performances and distinctive guitar parts?  
  • What is my "signature sound"?


According to Rogers and Ogas --

Humans are born with the urge to explore new objects and situations, provided we stay within our personal "Goldilocks Zone" for novelty: not too strange, not too boring.  

We derive pleasure from the way music matches and violates our expectations, from that sweet spot at the intersection of familiarity and novelty/strangeness.

Any attempts at modernization must stay true to the classic form, must present a controlled degree of surprise within the reliable confines of familiarity.

Risk-taking artists play an indispensable part in the advancement of music. The public's appetite for novelty inevitably drives people to seek out artists who boast a fresher sound.

  • What expectations am I matching? And which am I violating?
  • What kinds of risk am I taking?  
  • What am I offering that is new?  
  • What is familiar?  What strangeness am I adding? 
  • What kinds and degree of surprise am I offering within what reliable confines of familiarity?


Rogers and Ogas contend that --

Three axes contribute to the melody dimension of your listener profile: melodic range (wide versus narrow), articulation (legato versus staccato), and complexity (simple versus complex).

Melody ignites our emotions.  Even simple melodies can evoke nuanced feelings like wistfulness, pride, adventure, or unrequited love.

Melody can evoke specific emotions by mimicking speech, or it can sound obscure and therefore open to broad interpretation.

The shape of a song's melodic contour provides some hints the kind of emotions the melody might evoke in a listener. An ascending melody can give a sense of rising excitement. A descending melody can feel poignant or nostalgic.

  • What feelings do my melodies evoke? 
  • What feelings can my melodies evoke?
  • How can I shape my song's melodic contour to evoke particular emotions in a listener?
  • Two what extent are my melodies mimicking speech, and to what degree are they more obscure and open to interpretation?


Rogers and Ogas note that --

Lyrics can make us feel seen, heard, and understood.  

Lyrics can make us feel that we are experiencing life through someone else's eyes. This is the immense power of lyrics: to enable us to momentarily become someone else.

Lyrics expose us to songwriters' worlds -- to their value systems and perspectives. And when lyrics repeatedly ring the bell of self-recognition, it can cause us to feel as if we know the writer personally.

Lyrics serves as an encyclopedia of personas for us to explore and adopt.  

Lyrics animate our awareness of our private selves. Words that express our secret fears and longings resonate powerfully with us. The lyrics we revel in the most reflect who we are, what we value, and -- every now and then -- who we'd like to be.

Writers intentionally use ambiguity to provide a more engaging experience, inviting listeners to create their own stories around the missing parts. Ambiguity lets the listener explore several possibilities in a search for meaning. It can feel satisfying to believe you have figured out what a song is about. Abstract art requires more complex mental processing, and for some brains, that extra effort is a treat.

  • How can my lyrics make listeners feel seen, heard, and understood?
  • How can my lyrics can make listeners feel that they are experiencing life through someone else's eyes?
  • How can my lyrics enable listeners to momentarily become someone else?
  • How can my lyrics express my value systems and perspectives? 
  • How can my lyrics express our secret fears and longings and make listeners resonate with me?


According to Rogers and Ogas,

Timbre refers to the unique voice of an instrument.

We associate talented musicians with their unique sonic signatures.

  • What unique features of my singing and guitar playing can I foreground? 
  • What is my unique sonic signature?
  • How can I embrace my current abilities not as deficits and limitations but as distinctive elements in my unique sonic signature?


Near the end of the book, Rogers and Ogas write that no matter how hard we try – 

Our very best efforts will not please everyone. If we want a successful record, however, we need to please only one broad category of audience: critics, musicians, or the public. Each group uses different criteria to judge a record. Thus, each bestows a different kind of reward on record makers. Before embarking on a project, it's smart to pick one of these audiences to target. Though there are some records that appeal to all three audiences, the overlapping territory is small and extremely difficult to hit.

Critics and scholars of music are listening for ideas whose time has come. They ask, "Who is doing the kind of work that contemporary culture could use right now?" When a record pleases the critics, they publicize you, and thus critics offer record makers fame.

Musicians seek inspiration and points of reference from records. When a record pleases other musicians, they admire you and cite you as an exemplar to other musicians, and thus they offer record makers respect.

The general public likes what it likes and doesn't care who is the most clever, creative, or virtuoso. When your record pleases the public, they follow you, go to your shows, stream your music, wear your t-shirts, and call themselves fans, and thus they offer record makers love.

  • Who am I writing for, who am I primarily aiming for, whom am I trying to reach with any given song?  
  • Realistically speaking, given the hard facts of the music business in southwest Virginia at this time, given my age, given my talent (and lack thereof), given the function of music-making for my fragile ego and my limitless desire, whom should I be trying to reach as my primary, secondary, and tertiary listeners at any given time, with any given song? 
  • And how best can I do that?



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