As I walked in to an L.A. vintage store on Figueroa recently to help my friend find some pants, I experienced an auditory onslaught like never before. The sheer volume of the sizzling electronic trap hi-hats coupled with the piercing sounds of the chaotically placed synths violently slithering behind one of the worst vocal performances I’ve ever heard in my life caused me to buckle with panic into the rack of fluorescent orange Stüssy work pants ($300). I couldn’t function, I could not breathe.

The following conversation with my absolute hero, engineer and producer Susan Rogers, attempts to explain what is happening to our brains when we’re pummeled with, let’s be real, horrible shit. Such as when a touring musician, like myself, is obligated to sit through opening band after opening band, year after year, and why our beloved and treasured venue staff, gig workers, and house sound techs might have a bit of an...attitude.

Susan is best known for being Prince’s staff engineer from 1983 through 1988 when she worked on Purple Rain, Around the World in a Day, Parade, and Sign ’o the Times. She is now an auditory neuroscientist and professor at Berklee, where she is the director of the Berklee Music Perception and Cognition Laboratory. I was thrilled to catch her on the phone and finally confirm what I’ve felt for many years: that I should never leave the house.

When the music really doesn’t suck: Susan Rogers (far left) with crew on the Purple Rain Tour in 1985.
When the music really doesn’t suck: Susan Rogers (far left) with crew on the Purple Rain Tour in 1985. Photo courtesy of Susan Rogers.

What exactly is happening to my brain when I walk into a vintage store in L.A. and they are blasting—at full volume—some generic, Spotify top 100 garbage with trap hi-hats EQ’d to destroy me? Why do I feel so stressed out?

I have that same response and bad music can drive me out of a business. So what’s going on is that human brains have made it our job, priority one, to decide about something. There is a wee little structure—a nucleus in the brain— called the precuneus that acts like a gatekeeper. When you hear music that you like, it increases its connectivity with a brain network called the default network. It’s so great, it’s our inner mind. It’s where our brain goes on default, when you’re not paying attention to anything. Your brain is just in idling mode. Right before [your brain] gets creative, or when you’re dreaming, your default network is at work. So the precuneus increases its connections to your [default network], your inner self, your self-awareness, your self-consciousness, when it hears music you like, and especially its favorite music. But as soon as that little thing, the precuneus, hears music that people rate as “dislike,” it cuts itself off from the default network. It decreases its connectivity. It’s as if this little thing is saying, “Not me, this is not the music of me. I don’t want this integrated into my self-image.”

When we are exposed to music we really hate, there’s another structure in the brain that is part of the default network called the insula, and the insula is very much concerned with self-image, especially your social self, how you fit in with others. The insula fires up when you experience feelings of disgust, or embarrassment, or repulsion.

If it’s just crap music, that's hard. That’s hard on your body.

Neuroscientists say, “If you want to fire it up right now, imagine eating a juicy cockroach.” The insula gets active when you’re listening to music you don’t like. So, to go back to your original scenario, you’re there. You’re in that shop. They’re playing music you hate. Your brain is saying, “Get this away from me. I don’t want this associated with me.” Music is very, very, very effective at activating our default network. We listen to music to daydream and fantasize, and to try on different personalities, different alternate selves, so that we can just mentally, privately play with being someone else for a little while. When you hear music that makes you say, “This is disgusting,” your insula fires up. Your precuneus says, “Get away from me.”

So would you say that when our little friends precuneus and insula get super fired up while listening to music that is’s actually bad for our health?

I’ve never read any intonations that would suggest it is. We all have different thresholds. If you were profoundly upset by it, your heart would beat faster. There’d be measurable changes in your blood pressure and your anxiety level.

Rogers (right) gazes into the tone zone at Roundhouse Studios in Auckland, New Zealand, with singer-songwriter Anna Coddington in 2018.
Rogers (right) gazes into the tone zone at Roundhouse Studios in Auckland, New Zealand, with singer-songwriter Anna Coddington in 2018. Photo courtesy of Susan Rogers.

Okay, so I’m a touring musician of 20 years. Where I came up, in punk and hardcore music, there’s always been this obligation to watch every opening band every night, and if you don’t, you are quietly considered unsupportive. So some of us have to sit through a lot, at ear-damaging volume levels. What is happening to me when I’m at a show now and I just can’t do it? Besides being an oversensitive old head.

That’s a really good point to make, and for the readers of the magazine, this is important information. The human auditory system, like any other system in our body, is vulnerable, and it’s especially vulnerable to the presence of cortisol stress. So I teach students in my courses, those who are going to become record makers—the producers, engineers, and mixers—“If you are working with a client who makes you chronically stressed, day in and day out, get out. The music business is a tough business, so you’re going to be stressed. There’ll be moments when you’ll be stressed, but if it’s chronic stress, get out, because that presence of cortisol is actually damaging your hearing.”

This has been shown in the past 10 years. Not all sound-pressure levels are created equal. When you are listening to high-intensity sound—let’s say music—and you feel great, the mechanism is unknown. They don’t know if the feel-good neurotransmitters act as a sort of prophylactic against damage, or if the damage starts to occur and the feel-good neurotransmitters just go ahead and help repair the damage.

This is the first time I’ve heard good music being referred to as a prophylactic. Awesome.

They’re not sure of the mechanism, but they do know that those who are in environments where the sound level is high and their stress level is high have worse hearing than people like, for example, the late great [producer] Al Schmidt, who was still making records at age 89. Our hearing is vulnerable to this. So if you’re in clubs, and you’re listening to music that you cannot stand, and it’s beating up your ears, your body is going to be more stressed, and that stress is going to make those punishing decibel levels worse for you.

This is the first time I’ve heard good music being referred to as a prophylactic

Wow. So do you think this contributes to—I mean, I love sound people. I love gig workers, so this is not a shot at them at all—but sometimes you go into a club while on tour and you get that one sound guy who seems to hate everything. He’s spiteful, even. He hates how loud your amp is and tells you to turn it down to a level you couldn’t even hear in your own bedroom and then is like, “Yeah, that’s good.” Do you think this vibe is attributed to a life of sitting through shitty set after shitty set?

That’s a good hypothesis. I don’t know if it’s true or not, but that could be. I tell my students all the time—and they’re hoping to have a career as a professional music maker, a record maker—I tell them, “Whatever you do, you’ve got to avoid mediocrity. Because you don’t want to internalize mediocrity. You want to internalize greatness.”

Now, “great” is a big word. So, when you’re at a club, you’re not going to see great every night. The odds are you’re going to see a lot of crap and then you’re going to see some average stuff. The average stuff won’t hurt you if you apply kind of an analytic mind and you ask yourself, “What is it about this that’s keeping it short of the target of greatness? What could be improved—more variety, or better songs, or better lyric writing, or better performance gestures?” I mean, there’s a lot you can learn, and that can make it pleasurable. But if it’s just crap music, that’s hard. That’s hard on your body.

Our writer, Ben Cook, plays guitar, fires up his own insula.
Our writer, Ben Cook, plays guitar, fires up his own insula. Photo courtesy of Ben Cook.

Back to that moment in the vintage store: I found my senses completely distorted, and wondered if this was a planned attack so that I would impulse buy and get the hell out of there. Well, get the hell out of there I did, and when I entered the next store, with completely opposite, relaxing music over the speakers, I was so relieved I immediately bought some pants.

That’s interesting. Studies show that when people like the music in a shopping environment, they will spend more time and money, too. There’s a researcher named Adrian North, and he got the permission of a restaurant owner to have different playlists on different nights. Some of the nights were pop music, some of the nights were classical music, and then I think one night was no music at all, and then they looked at the receipts afterward. Sure enough, when it was classical music, people spent more money. They were more likely to order appetizers and desserts, have an after-dinner drink, or have coffee. They lingered longer in the restaurant when it was classical music, presumably, because they felt like, “I’ve got this. I’ve arrived. I could spend a little bit of money.” When it was pop music, it was moderate, and when it was no music, they got out of there faster, which was interesting.

So why does every café play the worst music?

I don’t know. Maybe they haven’t looked at the studies. Maybe they don’t care. They could also be trying to appeal to the most common denominator, just the average number of people. Some of us, though, are really very sensitive to that.

God bless the heads. Okay, on to restaurants for a second. I’m out with my family and I’m so sensitive to the jarring volume of “Pretty Woman” blasting out of a broken speaker, I completely tune out and shut down until we leave and then it’s like, “Hey, Ben is back!” Restaurants don’t have photos of dying cats on the walls because that would be completely inappropriate, but sometimes the sounds make me just as nauseous.

You’re among that subset of people who are highly attuned to music. I have a friend, a colleague at Berklee, who is also a record maker. His name is Enrique, and he’s a real extreme foodie, and he tells me that a meal that is anything less than great sends him into depression. He would never eat at Taco Bell or Wendy’s or something like that. He’d get depressed, whereas most of us couldn’t care less. It’s fine. And it’s the same thing with music. Most folks, they don’t care. The music is fine. They don’t really even notice it.

I’m cursed.

Thanks for reading CREEM. This article originally appeared in our Winter 2022 issue. If you prefer to read in print, grab a copy here and subscribe to never miss another one.



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