Audible cheesecake?

Music puzzled by Charles Darwin. “As neither the enjoyment nor the capacity of producing musical notes are faculties of the least direct use to man in reference to his ordinary habits of life”, he wrote in The Descent of Man (1871), “they must be ranked amongst the most mysterious with which he is endowed.” He precipitated a discussion that continues today about whether there is any evolutionary benefit to music. In 1997 the cognitive scientist Steven Pinker raised hackles by calling music “auditory cheesecake”, a purely hedonistic artifact that “we ingest through the ears to stimulate a mass of pleasure circuits at once”. It is, in this view, simply parasitic on mental faculties that evolved for quite different purposes. Yet for something so apparently useless, music is perplexingly ubiquitous: as Darwin admitted, it features among “men of all races, even the most savage”.

Speculations about the origins and functions of music abound. Some invoke Darwin’s theory of sexual selection, an adjunct to his notion of natural selection, whereby the skill and imagination needed for musical performance advertise an individual’s prospects as a mating partner in the same manner as the peacock’s tail. Others cite the roles of mother-child bonding or social cohesion. For Susan Rogers, “In large part we seek out music for the rewards of letting our minds wander, rewards linked to our deepest conception of our personal self… We turn to our favorite records to take us where we want to go – where we need to go.”

This is a vision of the nature and function of music for the age of individualism: the era of playlists consumed alone through headphones that act as acoustic insulation against the world, assembled in handpicked fragments on Spotify or iTunes. It’s a position that would have made little sense to Plato or Boethius, for whom music was a part of character-shaping moral education, or to Mozart or Haydn, who thought their compositions possessed universal and specific emotional resonance, or indeed to many non- western cultures in which a key role of music is in communal devotional practice.

This does not mean Rogers’ view is misplaced. Her book, rather, presents a perspective on how music functions in today’s popular culture, and if the focus – both culturally and musically – is narrow, it will nonetheless chime with many readers. Rogers was a sound engineer and producer for artists including Prince and David Byrne before becoming a professor of music cognition at Berklee College of Music in Boston. The considerable charm of her book comes from a deep understanding and appreciation of popular music that ranges from Frank Sinatra to Metallica, both from behind a mixing desk and within the laboratory. She is a superb listener, and you will want to keep a streaming service close to hand while reading, so as to hear for yourself the nuances that she teases out from even the most seemingly formulaic recordings of the past seven decades or so.

Rogers (whose text is sprinkled with contributions from the neuroscientist Ogi Ogas) identifies seven dimensions of musical preference. To the conventional attributes of melody, lyrics, rhythm and timbre (the “texture” of a sound – what distinguishes a note played on a violin from the same note on the trumpet), she adds “novelty”, “authenticity” and “realism” “. The first of these alludes to your taste for the unexpected: do you dive into the avant-garde or stick with country or reggae? It’s in the latter two attributes that the author’s record-producing experience shines through. Authenticity, she says, is “the subjective conviction that the emotion expressed in a musical performance is genuine and uncontrived.” For Rogers, there was more of this in the early records by the Rolling Stones than in those by the Beatles. Less controversially, there is more authenticity to be found in the huskiness of Nina Simone or in the plaintiveness of Björk than in the melismatic gymnastics of Mariah Carey.

This quality of surfaces at its most raw and vulnerable in one of the most bizarre records ever made: Philosophy of the World By a trio of sisters, the Shaggs, a band nurtured in virtual isolation from all other musical influence by their uber-controlling father in the rural depths of New Hampshire. Austin Wiggin paid for his girls to record an album on which their untutored incompetence and lyrical naiveté produced a transcendental strangeness that, when rediscovered in 1980, was called by the rock critic Lester Bangs “one of the landmarks of rock’n’roll history” , which led Frank Zappa to pronounce the band “better than the Beatles”. You can judge for yourself; I have certainly never heard anything like it.

“Realism”, meanwhile, is a product not just of the age of music recording, but of its transition to digital formats. When she began her career in the 1970s, says Rogers, the aim was always to achieve realism: to make a recording so faithful that “the listener could imagine that she was sitting directly in front of the band”. It took great expertise to achieve this with the limited dynamic range of magnetic tape: you had to know just where to put the microphones, and there are endless tales of drums being recorded in a stairwell or a bathroom to get just the right ambience.

Then the “digital audio workstation” arrived, in which acoustic sounds were electronically sampled thousands of times a second and stored digitally. Suddenly perfect fidelity was possible across all the acoustic frequencies. More, you could create the rich timbres of high-grade instruments in your bedroom, and have instant and free access to libraries of sounds. And you could treat them as you wish: blending, say, the sound of a guitar and a trombone, and weaving complex tapestries of novel sonic experience that could never be performed live. In one of his many astute observations, Rogers points out how Ariana Grande’s vocal on “7 Rings” has been digitally shorn of all the inter-lyric breaths that characterize a “realistic” performance. She says the track “makes me tense every time I listen to it because I’m constantly thinking, ‘Breathe, woman, breathe'”.

Her close analysis of Sinatra’s phrasing technique is another highlight. On “It Was A Very Good Year”, played live with the Count Basie Orchestra, “he is ahead of the downbeat when he wants to emphasize his fervor about life’s romantic stages from young to old, but he drags back behind the beat when he wants to let the superb musicians take the lead”.

In the end, however, the refrain becomes a little too familiar: “We each have a highly personal constellation of sweet spots on the dimension of timbre.” [as also of melody, lyrics, rhythm and so on], and this constellation is one of the most decisive ways, your listener profile is unique to you.” On the one hand, this expresses a simple but profound truth: as Bob Dylan’s sometime guitarist Mike Bloomfield put it, the music you love becomes the soundtrack of your existence. Here Rogers’s analysis dovetails with the recent musicological move away from the efforts of elite critics (such as Roger Scruton) to tell us what constitutes good musical taste and towards an engagement with how we actually use music in our lives: for mood management, identity construction and signifiers of allegiance.

On the other hand, you may be left wondering if that’s really all we can say about the power of music: it’s just down to personal taste. What, then, of the trope that music constitutes a universal language? The enthusiasm for this idea among musicians is challenged by the common view among academics that, as the ethnomusicologist George List put it in 1971, “The only universal aspect of music seems to be that most people make it”: that our preferences are almost entirely cultural. In fact, while musical scales and modes vary widely between cultures, some universals do seem to exist. We divide the continuum of frequencies into discrete pitches, almost always structured around the octave (for psychoacoustic reasons). Musical mood tends to mimic the corresponding physicality: sad music is softer and slower, say. A preference for a compromise between simplicity and complexity probably reflects the information-processing constraints of the human brain. What we all seem to share is not so much music but its musicality: the biological and social endowment that we have for creating, perceiving and using music, some elements of which can be perceived in other animals.

This Is What It Sounds Like is, then, a chapter of a wider story. It might not unlock the mysteries of music; probably no cognitive or neuroscientific approach ever will. But it can show you how to be a better listener – and, perhaps more importantly, how listening, too, is an art and a fundamental part of the creative process.

Philip Ball is a science writer. His most recent book is The Book of Minds2022

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