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.

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