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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...

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