Music has evolved with us as human beings. It can be escapism, but equally a way to feel more connected with the world. Over the last century, music has worked around motifs, and then removed them. It has added lyrics to melody; protest songs or love songs have helped people feel accepted, or at least not alone in the world. Rap and hip-hop have brought language and stories to the forefront of music. Dance music, such as disco or electronica, has targeted the body; stretching out the timespan of tracks, mixing genres and questioning the importance of the original artist with the rise of the DJ. Genres have fused, and the purpose of music has been further explored in genres such as ambient music, designed not to be listened to but to add a background or a mood to a room. 



For Californian academic, sound engineer and record producer Susan Rogers, music still needs to function in a particular way for it to be successful. Rogers, who worked with the artist Prince in the 1980s through his most prolific period, has spent a lifetime asking how music works and looking for the answer from a historical, scientific and emotional perspective. Rogers explains that she has never been interested in performing and that her relationship with music has always been that of a listener. At a conference focused on the future of music, she spoke more about her lifelong relationship with sound.

Susan Rogers (American accent): I entered the music industry as an audio technician in 1978 in Hollywood, so I worked with Crosby, Stills and Nash as their studio tech. Prince was looking for a technician, and I joined him in the summer of 1983. From the tech chair he put me in the engineering chair, because he liked working with women and because he just needed an engineer. So I worked with him through Purple Rain, and Around the World in a Day, and the Parade album, and Sign o’the Times and The Black Album.


Rogers worked with Prince for nearly five years before deciding to invest in her education.

Susan Rogers: I entered college as a freshman and ultimately went for eight years and earned my PhD in music cognition. So now I’m at Berklee College of Music, I teach record production and I teach music cognition and psychoacoustics. And we have these conversations all the time of what music is, whether you’re making it or you’re producing it or you’re engineering it or you’re mixing it.  


Rogers believes that while technology is a huge part of making music today, the human artist is still essential to music. It is primal instincts and complex emotions intentionally turned into sound that gives music meaning, she says. And music entirely created by a machine is unsatisfying. 

Susan Rogers: I don’t believe that we can design music from a scientific or a rational place. That doesn’t serve the function of what music is. Music isn’t just from the neck up... it’s that primal instinct that comes from your nervous system, and your blood system, the neurotransmitters that are part of your emotional system. So music evolved in order to be especially effective at manipulating emotions. So to take a machine-based approach and to create music purely from a mathematical perspective removes intentionality. A human being means to write a song that expresses this... a machine obeys what someone told it to do.


There are many complex processes behind the music we connect with. Music implicates language, culture, memory and marketing. Rogers describes the major physiological pathways through which we bondto music.

Susan Rogers: Music makes us think. For most of us, especially when we’re teenagers, lyrics solve problems for us; it helps us to find our place in the social world, it allows us to try on a fantasy life. Music makes us move. Our nervous system oscillates at different frequencies throughout the day. Gamma state is when you’re thinking and moving and working really hard. Alpha state is when you’re chill. Beta is that sweet spot right in the middle; music listening gets us into that zone. When we listen to music, it takes those oscillations in the beta band and it amplifies them; if you’re chill, it can pump you up, if you’re hyper, it can calm you down. 


Melody and harmony typically make us feel something. That is because sound directly affects our emotions, as she explains.

Susan Rogers: Another way that we bond to music is through a purely emotional path. Sound is a special form of touch, so when sound comes in through our ears it comes up through the auditory brainstem25 and that path is very richly endowed with opiate receptors


Musicians today are experimenting with sound manipulation, says Rogers. Something previously practised by just a few avant-garde composers has come into tune with our times. 

Susan Rogers: I believe that the music of the next twenty years is going to be driven by sound design, manipulating sounds. I think the youth of today, with their tools, they’re able to create musical instruments that we’ve never heard before.