Megaphono: Susan Rogers seeks to understand the science of listening

Susan Rogers will be speaking at Megaphono this weekend.

In the school of rock, Dr. Susan Rogers gets a A — for her engineering work with Prince, David Byrne, the Barenaked Ladies and many other bands as a producer and for her work exploring the science of listening.

She is also a trailblazer in that she was a talented record producer in a world dominated by men.

Rogers, who is a professor of music production and engineering at the Berklee College of Music will be speaking this weekend at the Megaphone conference and delivering a talk that she says will discuss  “psychology for musicians. I want to touch on things such as how people bond to music and the mechanisms in our body that will cause us to respond to a record.”

She will also say there is no way to ever release a song that will appeal to everyone.

“One man’s ceiling will be another man’s floor, so pick a lane.” She will also talk about different kinds of audiences that musicians and other artists frankly face. These are critics and scholars, the public and other musicians.

This is all from research and her own observations of 20 plus years in the business. And her own experience as a Rolling Stones fan in the 1960s when you were either with Mick Jagger and his crew or The Beatles.

Here is Susan Rogers working on a record for the Odds in Vancouver, B.C. in 1991. 

“The Beatles were selling melody and harmony, Bob Dylan was selling his lyrical brilliance. And the Stones were rooted in the blues and selling rhythm.” Rogers is a self-confessed rhythm person.

She went into the music industry, she said, with her head filled with the “clear ether of youth. I didn’t know that I couldn’t do it.

“I grew up in a male dominated household. I have younger brothers and my mother passed away when I was a teen so it was me and my dad and my brothers. There was no reason for me to suspect I couldn’t do anything they could do within physical limits. They are stronger and faster, but mentally I always saw myself as the same.”

With that kind of upbringing, Rogers said she “just worked really hard to get that door to open.”

She was fortunate to have great teachers who respected and encouraged her.

“They saw that I was ambitious and that I had a strong motivation to be an audio technician. They saw that it wasn’t a second choice. … I owe them my gratitude.”

Rogers knew from a very early age that “had abilities that were very limited. My strength was an ability to study. I was cut from an engineering cloth and when I am studying audio electronics and audio neuroscience that is the street I live on in terms of mental prowess. That’s something I do easily. It is where my mind goes, logic and physics that kind of thing.”

So, she said, it was a matter of seeing what needed doing in the music business because I sure wanted to be a part of that.”

Her point of entry was as an audio technician which meant she was the person you called when your console broke or your tape recorder need repairs.

“In hindsight that was a smart move because if I had done what most of my peers did, work as an intern at a studio, they would have had me answering the phones and it might have been a long time before I got the opportunity.”

So that’s where she was when Prince came calling.

She said she had “five things going for me that made me a good fit for him.

“He needed someone who was well trained. He wanted that because he was just coming off the 1999 tour and was embarking on the Purple Rain movie and album project. This was going to make or break his career. It had to work.”

She had the kind of training and experience Prince wanted.

For Rogers, it was a dream come true.

“It helped that I was a huge Prince fan. He was my favourite artist in the world. I had seen him play every time he came to Los Angeles and I had all his records.

He and i shared same taste in music. He could mention any R&B, soul or funk reference and it was never too obscure for me. I listened to the same records that he listened to.

“He also liked working with women in part because women were less likely to challenge him,” she said.

Finally she had stamina.

“He would stay up all night. Our sessions would be 24 hours long very frequently and it wasn’t uncommon to have a 48-hour session.”

Her stamina started early.

As a kid, Rogers said she spent every dime she had on records. She was also always listening to the radio.

“I was deeply attracted to music listening. In the future I think scientists will look at music listening as a specific musical activity that is more active than passive.

There are some people, Rogers believes, who are born to be music listeners.

“That’s our relationship to music — we listen to it. It sounds so funny” but it’s true, she said

“As a child that’s what I wanted to do, I wanted to actively listen to music … not have it in the background but to sit and listen to the radio.”

After her producing career she is now examining this phenomenon from a scientific viewpoint.

“When I left the music business I had reached the point where I could kind of guarantee that a mix or a recording would be pretty high calibre.”

Now she wanted to return to university to get a degree and pursue her interest in music and the workings of the human brain. That took her to first the University of Minnesota and then to McGill University.

She began learning how listening happens in the brain.

“One thing we know is that the auditory path from the inner ear to the auditory cortex of the brain is richly endowed with opiate receptors. We also know that sound is a special form of touch.”

Early humans evolved a communication system that has two branches, she said, one for information and one for feelings. Language evolved so we could respond to and impart information.

“Music developed so we could respond to the feelings of others and broadcast our own feelings.

“The human auditory path is connected to neurons that go straight up the limbic system and that signal feelings. And so music is really efficient at getting us to feel something. For example, we can listen to music in a language we can’t speak and be moved by it.”

Humans also have something that is shared by some birds, she said.

“We have very powerful and numerous connections between the auditory system and the motor system. As a result, music is very effective at prompting us to move. The movement feeds back to the auditory system and helps us hone in on what we want to hear.

“People who have experienced brain damage and may not remember facts or names, will remember how a certain rhythm made them move or made them feel.”

And that could lead to healing, she believes, as we learn more about the connections between music, the brain and the body in the next few decades.

In town: Dr. Susan Rogers will be in conversation Friday at 3 p.m. at Dominion-Chalmers United Church. This is a free event. She will speak Saturday at 11:30 a.m. in the uOttawa LabO. Rm 1201, Arts Court at 10 Daly Ave. $10 at the door. More information:

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Peter Robb began his connection with the arts community in Ottawa in the mid-1980s when he was the administrator and public relations director of the Great Canadian Theatre Company. After a long career in journalism with the Ottawa Citizen where he served in a number of different posts he returned to the arts when he became the Citizen's arts editor.