For this month’s theme of “Research”, Dr. Susan Rogers was kind enough to answer our questions about her work and research in music cognition and psychoacoustics. Susan Rogers holds a doctorate in cognitive psychology from McGill University (2010). Prior to her science career, Susan was a multiplatinum-earning record producer, recording engineer, mixer and audio technician. She is currently an Associate Professor at Berklee College of Music, Boston, teaching music cognition, psychoacoustics, and record production. She is the director of the Berklee Music Perception & Cognition Laboratory where she studies auditory processing in musicians.
Designing Sound: What drew you towards the subject of psychoacoustics and music cognition?
Dr. Susan Rogers: I have an engineer’s mind. I like understanding mechanisms and processes. I also have a scientist’s mind because I am curious about natural phenomena. Auditory science and brain science attract similar kinds of thinkers — those who are ok with imagining the mechanism and process. We typically don’t view air pressure variations, electrons or nerve spikes in action; we must often infer the process from the resulting behavior or event. Short answer is that it’s just fun.
DS: Is it an area that is often overlooked by the scientific community?
SR: My doctoral advisor Daniel Levitin reminds us that humans are visual creatures first and foremost. The sense of sight is how humans navigate the world, including informative activities like reading and watching television. So WAY more research time and money has been spent on mapping the visual modality. The growth of psychoacoustic research in the ‘70s and music cognition in the ‘90s has helped auditory science to catch up.
DS: Whether we’re professionals in music or sound, we all stand on the shoulders of giants; artists, crafters and technicians who’ve defined the mediums, the language of auditory art and the tools that we use today. What are some examples of individuals or landmark studies that paved the way for the research work you’re doing today?
SR: In psychoacoustics, it would include the studies of the inner ear by Noble laureate Georg von Bekesy, consonance/dissonance work by Hermann von Helmholtz, Ernst Terhardt, R. Plomp and W.J.M. Levelt, and cochlear tuning work by Donald Greenwood and Brian C. J. Moore. In music cognition we have tonality work by Carol Krumhansl and Roger Shephard, performance work by Caroline Palmer, timbre perception by Stephen McAdams, the influence of musical training by Gottfried Schlaug, music and language by Ani Patel, and development work by Sandra Trehub and Laurel Trainor. In auditory neuroscience we have the great Charles Liberman and Sharon Kujawa, and the equally great Nina Kraus.
DS: With the resurgence of Virtual Reality, there’s been a lot of work in and development of new tools to create immersive audio that draws from research on how the brain interprets sound. Do you ever expect the work you do to extend beyond academics, that it will perhaps go on to influence a craft or tools in a direct way?
SR: Some researchers get frustrated with the grant writing process and having to spend so much time teaching that they succumb to the “pull of the weasel” and join commercial research endeavors. I know one who would like to help build better a music search engine and who looks for opportunities to be paid to do so. I am like most researchers in that I enjoy the pure motive of intellectual curiosity. I want to contribute to what is known of the natural world, and I don’t want pressure to find a pre-determined outcome. That sounds a bit cynical. I don’t mean to imply that commercial work is biased; only that it risks bias.