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The Listener Profile: How We Perceive Music

Listen Up!

Understanding the science behind musical taste and listening preferences can help you make more effective production decisions.

I was in the studio nearly every day for 22 years. In the early days of my career, I was there to repair the equipment. Then, in 1983, I was called away from my tech job in Los Angeles to work for Prince in Minneapolis. He moved me from the tech chair into the engineering chair, where I stayed for several years. Returning home to LA, I engineered, mixed and produced records, mostly in the alternative/indie genre. Success followed thanks to the Stunt album with Canada’s Barenaked Ladies. The money that music’s royalty participants earned in the days before file sharing allowed me to jump across a divide and swim in a different stream: academia. For the next eight years I was in a classroom or laboratory, earning my bachelor’s and doctoral degrees in auditory neuroscience.

Studying neuroscience turned out to be very similar to studying electronics. I saw parallels between the signal manipulations that we put our recording devices through and the way that our brains transform signals to become sound. Both kinds of audio systems have circuits, mechanisms, filters and processors for carrying out similar functions. While I was making records I focused on mastering how the studio worked, crafting sound through instrument choice, mic placement, equalising, compressing and monitoring. Learning to mix honed my engineering skills; learning to produce honed my mixing skills. Yet never once did I think about the mysteries of the most critical signal path of all — the distance from the ear to the brain. It is along this path that an acoustic pressure wave becomes music. I’d have been well advised to consider it.

The exciting but daunting thing for record makers is that each listener is unique. A given record can reach two dozen ears as more or less the same signal, but in the fraction of a second that the resultant neural activity takes to reach the upper circuits of a dozen brains, it becomes something else. The record will be encoded, analysed, scrutinised, ignored, enjoyed, embraced, dismissed or remembered according to the listener profile: a collection of ‘sweet spots’ matching the features of music that elicit the greatest pleasure in the individual’s brain.

Ears There & Everywhere

Figure 1: Different ears exhibit a surprising degree of variation in high‑frequency response.Figure 1: Different ears exhibit a surprising degree of variation in high‑frequency response.Listeners differ anatomically, starting at the pinna or external ear. I wish I had known in my record‑making days how much the shape of our ears affects frequencies above 5kHz. It should have been obvious; simply push or pull on your ears in any direction and you’ll hear a big difference in the frequency spectrum. Figure 1, a graph derived from the work of psychoacoustician Simon Carlile, illustrates the point.

The figure plots the head‑related transfer function (HRTF) — the mediating influence of the ears and head on the sound spectrum — of seven subjects’ right ears. Frequencies from 1‑5 kHz get roughly the same 5dB boost in each case, reflecting the evolutionary advantage of detecting the most important sound in our world: speech. Above 5kHz the funny and complex shape of the pinnae makes individual differences more drastic. The participant whose ear is shown in purple has a big dip at 6kHz. The ear plotted in red has a typical 5‑dB boost at 4kHz, which rapidly plummets to a 10dB cut at 8kHz. Comparing the light blue with the red trace at 8kHz, we see that the ears of these participants differ by 15dB. Imagine how these two listeners hear the high end in your mix!

A Sense Of Belonging

Listeners differ motivationally, too. Our reasons for wanting to enjoy music vary throughout the day, and throughout our lives. Music’s greatest asset is its functionality. We use music almost medicinally to match or change our mood, to focus, or to shut out unwanted thoughts. Our listening choices reflect our inner needs at any given moment. Over a longer time frame, our music library becomes ‘self‑congruous’ in that its lyrics tend to reflect our personal beliefs and value system, or the culture in which we’d most like to belong.

Maybelle Carter: the Taylor Swift of her age?Maybelle Carter: the Taylor Swift of her age?Try telling a young Taylor Swift fan that if she likes Swift’s Folklore album then she’ll love the music of Maybelle Carter. I predict that the fan’s reaction would be the same profound disinterest as that of my 15‑year‑old self when told that because I loved Led Zeppelin, I’d really love Howlin’ Wolf. In my teens Led Zeppelin functioned for me as more than just music. The band represented my culture and sense of belonging. Now that I’m older and ‘belong’ with my new age group, I favour the Howlin’ Wolf records.

Research in the overlapping disciplines of cognitive neuroscience, psychoacoustics and music perception shows what happens in our brains when we hear a record or a live performance for the first time. Immediately, our organ of hearing and auditory circuits pick out the musical elements from any environmental or speech sounds in the background. This is called auditory scene analysis. The ability develops over our lifetimes from exposure to different types of sounds. By adulthood, our brains can easily isolate the sonic signature of musical instruments and sung vocals.

Once scene analysis has informed the brain that music is within earshot, timbre analysis lets us identify genre. Listening brains perform a snapshot survey of the different sonic make‑up of electronica, classical and jazz music, for example. Neuroimaging studies have shown that many listeners’ higher brain regions take less than a second to dismiss and ignore a record if timbre processing alerts them that it is in a disliked genre. If open to the timbre palette, we can focus on the musical and aesthetic features of what we’re hearing.

Neuroimaging studies have shown that many listeners’ higher brain regions take less than a second to dismiss and ignore a record if timbre processing alerts them that it is in a disliked genre.

Rhythm Is King

Past the gates of timbre analysis, internal ‘wiring’ delivers the sound signal to our auditory cortices, located above each ear. Each auditory cortex is a separate and equal processor. The left‑hemisphere cortex is evolved to specialise in speech, while the right‑hemisphere cortex deals with music. This lets us scan a record’s melody and lyrics independently, hunting for the kind of musical treat that we personally enjoy. Lyric processing is faster than melody, but both of these are slower than rhythm: the fastest and easiest of music’s features to comprehend. Record makers build short and long, strong and weak, syncopated and straight, behind‑the‑beat and ahead‑of‑the‑beat accents into the rhythm track, suggesting how a listener might best synchronise her body with the music.

Once a listener has accepted the timbral palette of music, he or she will then start to appreciate its other qualities.Once a listener has accepted the timbral palette of music, he or she will then start to appreciate its other qualities.One of the things that sets humans apart from other species is how readily we can perceive rhythm. It may surprise you to learn that monkeys can’t dance, at least not in the way that we do. Monkeys can’t perceive rhythm because they lack our thick bidirectional neural tracts linking auditory and motor brain regions. These form a specialised loop running through the speech system. Listening to a groove that is ‘just right’ for your body sends an ancient social message to your muscles urging you to move along with it. This compulsion emerges when we are toddlers and is practically irresistible.

Past The Profile

If none of a record’s musical features match a sweet spot on your listener profile, you can still find ways to like it. Aesthetic pleasure derives from a higher‑order analysis of music’s style and its relation to other pieces you have liked in the past. You can appraise a record cognitively and like it for its novel, innovative ideas or its traditional craft. You might appreciate the authenticity or sincerity you hear in its performances, or even in the performance restraint that only true masters of instrument and voice are capable of delivering.

Last but not least, there is the record’s realism. For most people, record listening conjures up mental images: mind‑wanderings that enhance musical pleasure. Being an engineer was a good career choice for me because my go‑to visualisation has always been images of the performers. When I hear drums, I picture a drummer. When I hear singing, I ‘see’ the vocalist. I thought this was common until I conducted a research survey and learned that only around 15 percent of music lovers visualise the performers. Many listeners like to imagine themselves performing; others tend to favour abstract shapes and colours, and sometimes science‑fiction worlds of imaginary planets. The most commonly described visualisation while record listening is autobiographical memories of people, places and events that were pleasurable in our past.

What do people visualise when they listen to music?What do people visualise when they listen to music?

The kinds of images that we enjoy fantasising about influence the type of music that we like. My brain can find a cherished treat while listening to a realistic record played on familiar musical instruments, but it comes up empty if listening to electronica or techno, in part because I’m trying in vain to picture the sound sources. Many of my younger friends are just the opposite: they’d rather be carried away by programmed tracks and computer‑generated sounds. Research suggests that fans of electronic music are less likely to experience autobiographical memories and more likely to see abstract or video‑game‑like imagery as they listen. New technology promoted today’s musical trend toward less realism and greater abstraction. This is exactly what happened to 19th Century visual artists when the camera came along. Audiences for painting moved away from Rembrandt and towards Basquiat. Many people find joy in abstraction because it frees the brain from what has been called the “dominance of reality”, allowing the mind to construct its own interpretation of what the art is saying.

Disconnecting ourselves from the world around us and going into our own heads, so to speak, is something that we do a lot. According to research published in 2016, if you ask people if they are thinking about something other than what they are currently doing, they answer “yes” 30 to 50 percent of the time. When we disengage from the world to enjoy some spontaneous mind‑wandering, we activate an interconnected set of nuclei labeled the ‘default network’. The default network is the hub for our sense of self: self‑consciousness, self‑awareness and self‑image. Because we are profoundly social creatures and music connects us to others, the default network is sensitive to music. A recent discovery revealed that when music listeners heard a record that they liked, their default network became more active. In contrast, when those same listeners heard a disliked record, a brain structure called the precuneus — a kind of gatekeeper for creativity and things concerned with the self — cut itself off from the default network, as if to prevent the disliked record from becoming associated with the self‑image. Disliking certain styles of music feels like a knee‑jerk reaction because, in a way, it is.

This is just one of many new findings in neuroscience providing support for the individualisation of the listener profile. Pleasurable listening experiences, whether enjoying music privately on headphones or at a concert venue surrounded by thousands of people, release dopamine. Even the adult brain is changed by experience, and feel‑good neurotransmitters serve as the catalyst. The good feelings from music listening come from endorphins that actually hone the auditory system, refining it to become better and faster at recognising the ‘music of you’. Your listener profile is different from everyone else’s, and the older you are, the truer this becomes. The impossibility of satisfying every music listener should be intuited by record makers because it means that, rather than trying to hit numerous bullseyes with one dart, we can aim for our own musical centre: records that match our listener profile. Trust that nature and common experiences have created a wide variety of listeners, many of whom have profiles that at least partially intersect with your own.

The Profile & The Producer

How, then, can psychoacoustics inform record makers? Some of the things I learned in grad school made me wish that I’d had more insight during my time in the studio. Learning how the frequency spectrum is affected by the shape of our ears helped me realise how crucial it is to check our work on a variety of loudspeakers. Unless you are a highly experienced expert with years of mixing under your belt, you shouldn’t mix exclusively on headphones. Headphone manufacturers must compensate for the absence of a head‑related transfer function. If their filter design happens to be different to your body’s own, your mixes will shape the spectrum to compensate, perhaps in the wrong direction.

If your record falls apart when the vocal and lead instrument go away, keep working on your drum and bass sounds until they are exciting on their own.

Given how readily we respond to rhythm, it’s important to follow Prince’s advice: make your rhythm tracks “sound like a record”. He believed that you should be able to mute all vocals and the melodic topline without losing any pressure. In other words, the rhythm track should be strong enough to hold the listener’s attention. If your record falls apart when the vocal and lead instrument go away, keep working on your drum and bass sounds until they are exciting on their own. That way, if your melody and lyrics aren’t as compelling as those of your competition, your record still has a fighting chance to earn some love. This applies to every type of music, even ambient, because our sense of time is an internal constant and we automatically seek to find a pulse or regularity in stimuli.

Know your audience demographic by actually watching them respond to your (or your client’s) music during a live show. Note which songs are most likely to get them moving, and make special note of how they move: up and down, side to side, and even front to back. Build that motion into your rhythm tracks. Men and women favour different motions due to the way that our weight is distributed. Note which pieces in your set draw which gender closer to the stage. Consider a song’s lyrical message in tandem with its rhythmic message if you want to speak to an ideal listener.

Accept that your listener’s brain has plenty to keep it distracted and amused. If you want its attention, assume that you need to work harder for it. Mix until you think you are done and then enhance the exciting elements 10 percent more. Your work will have to overcome a brain’s many competing signals and internal drives, so be even more arousing than you think is warranted for a given piece.

You don’t have to be an art expert to instantly recognise the differences between abstract art done by trained adults, and a child’s painting!You don’t have to be an art expert to instantly recognise the differences between abstract art done by trained adults, and a child’s painting!On the surface, an abstract painting and a four‑year‑old’s scribbled drawing might look the same, but research shows that viewers can accurately identify which is which.

The painter’s gestures are the outcome of his intention; even non‑experts pick up on the subtle cues that caused lines and colours to appear just so. As viewers can see intentionality, so listeners can hear it. When you are in the studio, listen for the underlying meaning in every gesture. If your instinct tells you that the singer or player isn’t genuinely feeling the performance, don’t think that no‑one else will know. Have your performers put some weight or purpose into every note.

Knowing something about the neuroscience of listening will not (and should not) change the in‑the‑moment running stream of decision‑making that you employ while making a record. Creative work demands a heavy contribution from instinct, a sense of knowing what will work. Analytical work — understanding why something worked or didn’t — should happen offline. But it should happen. Make that offline analysis easier and even more instinctual by getting better acquainted with your personal listener profile. Savour records deeply so that your auditory cortex can morph into a perfect receptacle for the ‘music of you’. Know the timbres, rhythms, lyrical style, melodies, harmonies, genres, sound designs and performance gestures that resonate the most powerfully for you. The best work you’ll do will be in service of your listening brain as it hunts for or creates the musical treats you crave. Trust that although no two listeners experience a record in the exact same way, your work can offer a menu of features rich enough to deliver a rewarding musical meal to a broad range of consumers.