top of page

Sounds Like Music to Our Ears

An interview with Susan Rogers about her new book.

As you may already know, March celebrates Women’s History Month. At Beats by Girlz, our mission is to celebrate and empower women and gender minorities in their journey as creators and musicians. To that effect, all of the blog posts this month will focus on past and present stories that shine a light on incredible female and gender minority musicians.

Starting off, we interviewed Susan Rogers, who is quite possibly one of the most influential female audio engineers and record makers of our time. Susan Rogers worked as a staff engineer for Prince on albums such as Purple Rain, Around the World in a Day, Parade, and more. She also worked as a sound engineer and producer for musical artists such as Barenaked Ladies, David Byrne, and more. Aside from her work as a record maker, Rogers holds a doctorate in psychology from McGill University, where she studied music cognition and psychoacoustics. In other words, Susan Rogers is literally one of the most epic women in the music industry.

Susan Rogers recently published a book, along with co-writer Ogi Ogas, title This Is What It Sounds Like. In this book, Rogers and Ogas explore the concepts that determine our unique listener profile, the principles that help us discover why we love the songs we play on repeat.

1. If you could summarize your book in just a couple of sentences, what would that be?

This Is What It Sounds Like describes your unique listener profile. All people have a listener profile that refers to how music rewards us from listening

2. So, you've put an incredible amount of time into this book. How long did it take you to conduct all of the research for it?

Well, the research has been ongoing. When I left the music business and decided to pursue life as a scientist, that’s what you do. You’re reading empirical research reports and reading textbooks. So, I began in 2004, eight straight years of college, and came to Berklee. And then, of course, as a PhD, I continued to read research reports. So, in a sense it’s been going on almost 20 years now. And the musical stuff, of course, started back when I started my career in 1978. So it represents decades of knowledge.

3. Going off of that, at the beginning of your book, you recount an anecdote from your past, in which you're at Prince's house and you meet Miles Davis. He says something to you, like, "The best musicians aren't really musicians at all," which greatly inspired you to write the book. But other than that, was there a specific moment in which you thought, "I need to write this book"?

I wasn't thinking along those lines. My favorite thing to pursue is material that is new to me. So I think a lot and research a lot. That's my happy place. But I was approached by Ogi, who had just finished up a research project at Harvard, and he asked me to write a book on music. And I said, “You got the wrong girl here, because I'm not a musician.” And he said: “Well, yeah, but you know a lot.” And I said, “What I know is music-listening. I can write about music-listening.” So once he planted that idea I said, “Yeah, let's form a partnership. I'll put a ton of material on the table and you'll help me shape it into book form.

4. Are there any perspectives or beliefs that you challenged in this book?

I did, and it scared me a little bit, because I want to be in good standing with the scientific community. But I'm a good scientist and I stand by the things that I published, and I've been gratified to learn that some of the heavy hitters in the science world are endorsing the book.

So what I tried to do in this book is draft a model of music perception and cognition that accounts for why we tend to have such eclectic musical tastes. Each one of these chapters reflects things that I learned in grad school. I just so happened to have done my graduate work at McGill University in Montreal. McGill is the hub in the world for music perception and cognition research. So, I was right in the center, learning from some of the great music cognition researchers in their classes and seminars. They taught me a lot; they crafted a model of music cognition to account for why we love some music for its rhythm, some music for its lyrics, and some music for its style: different regions of our brain can process different elements of music and independently give us a neural reward release of dopamine for the act of listening.

5. Absolutely! Music-listening is fascinating to think about from a psychological perspective: "Why do we like what we like?" Do you believe that learning about this helps us explore more about ourselves?

That's what I hoped to do. I wanted to bring the listener into the conversation of what music is and how music works in the recording studio for all those years. You know, you hang around the studio afterwards and people talk about music. And for over 20 years I've been listening to people talk about the music that they loved, and I would talk about the music that I love. Those moments go a long way to deepen your own relationship with music and to allow you to express to other people. I wanted the music lovers who might be non-musicians out there to get a chance on the microphone to say, “This is what I like. This is the music of me.”

Listening is a musical act. If you or readers of this blog post want an example of that, you can go to the website: And there's a link at the top that says “Record Pull”, just inviting people to share a record with us. You'll see, when you read those posts, all these different people talking about music that they love. And, and for the most part, these are records I've never heard of. They're not the Taylor Swift's, and Ariana Grande’s, and Nicki Minaj’s, it isn't the big names out there in the music world. No, no, no. These are artists that you'd have to hunt for. And yet, when you listen to them, you realize for someone out there, this music is perfect. I've gotten turned on to some new artists by reading those posts, which makes me really happy.

6. That being said, what was the most difficult part of this writing process?

Honestly, the hardest chapter to write was the “Melody” chapter. For all of the other dimensions, there's empirical research on preferences, but there isn’t any research on melodic preferences. Melody is as varied as our speech prosody, so it would almost be silly to ask people: “What sort of speech do you like best: Questions or statements?” It's just silly. Similarly, it's kind of hard to talk about people's melodic preferences. That really cost me a bit of time and I had to do a lot of digging, trying to figure out what to write about that would be scientifically oriented and would not be inaccurate. The best way I could write about it was just to say that melodies reflect how we use our voices to express different emotions and show that we tend to favor melodies that sound familiar to our native language.

6. And, alternatively, what chapter was the most fun to write?

Oh! Oh! I got to go mentally back into the studio when I wrote about form and function. So, every chapter I wrote about musical dimensions had to be vetted through Ogi, and Ogi’s listener profile could not be more opposite from mine, nor does Ogie have a deep understanding of music. So, there were times when I had to explain what rhythm is, explain what timbre is, tthe sorts of things that every musician knows about almost instinctively. A lot of people don't know what those things are. So I had to really, really work to get him on board and to get him to understand what these things were. But in “Form and Function”, I was writing about being a record producer, and that was the chapter where we agreed, “Okay, Ogi, just just let me do my thing here and I'll do my best to make people who are not producers understand what it means.” I wrote that chapter the fastest and I enjoyed it the most.

7. So, out of all the research that you've conducted over the past years, what was the one "fun fact" that you found most interesting and why?

My favorite thing, and I think my excitement kind of jumps off the page a little bit, is something you'll encounter in the very final chapter. But it's what happens in our brains when we listen to music that we dislike. This just strikes me as funny. It's so cool.

So, there is a nucleus in our brain. It's called the Precuneus. And it is connected to, although it's not part of, the default network. The default network is defined as the circuits that become active when we go into our own heads, which we do 30 to 50% of the time: we go into our own heads and we focus on something internal and not the external world. We're always going back and forth between our own thoughts. Anyway, the little precuneus, when it likes something, it increases its connections to the default network and allows our creative ideas to flow. It's kind of a gatekeeper for creativity. And, it allows us to go into our own heads when we are experiencing something we really like, especially music.

It gets really active listening to music that we love, but when we hear a record that we dislike, the first thing that happens is that little precuneus basically says, “Oh, hell no,” and it cuts itself off from our default network. It's as if it's saying, “Do not want! Keep this away from me! This does not represent me!” It's preventing that record from getting integrated into your internal notion of yourself.

That's funny to me. That's really funny, because we have this notion that we are in control. That we have free will and that we make conscious decisions about what we like and we don't like. What we forget is before we've made a choice for anything, there are circuits and nuclei in our body that have already decided for us. For example, I used to love going to Boloco when I was on the Berklee campus, and there was this one thing that I always got. I got my favorite. And I remember once I said to myself, “I am deliberately not going to get my favorite. I'm going to get something different.” I did this several times before walking up to the counter only to order my usual. The reason that happens is because if I think, “Today's going to be Boloco,” my digestive circuits go to work and they prepare for that thing they know they're going to get. So every behavior has an antecedent: Before we act, things inside our body have already gone to work preparing for that action.

8. After everything we've discussed, I think readers would want to know what the value of knowing your listener profile is, even if you aren't a musician.

What people are saying in the This Is What It Sounds Like website “Record Pull” section is something that I had really hoped to hear. What they're saying is that learning more about their listener profile has helped them to appreciate their own music even more. And perhaps, more importantly, given them words to describe why they like what they like. Prior to reading the book, some people said “I knew what I liked, but I had a hard time saying why I liked it.” And now they can isolate and attend to individual elements on a record and say, “Well, I really like a certain kind of groove,” or “I really like a certain kind of vocal timbre,” or “I'm seeking a certain kind of complexity or familiarity that works for me.” So it's given them language so that they can describe their music to other people.

Interested in reading this This Is What It Sounds Like? Head on over to to order it today!

-Interview conducted and written by Sabrina Gamboa

Subscribe to the BBG Blog

Thanks for subscribing!

bottom of page