Music

What ABBA tells us about the sound of being human

Music acts as a portal, connecting us to people we've lost. For Jude Rogers, it is the sound of being human, and a link to her late dad.

ABBA singing Super Trouper - what does it tell us about the sound of being human?

ABBA singing Super Trouper - what does it tell us about the sound of being human? Illustration: The Big Issue / Photo by Ibl/ Shutterstock

When we lose people we love, we often hold tight to heirlooms. From my grandmother, I have a bracelet of pretend pearls, and a wedding ring of Welsh gold which has now encircled a finger – hers and then mine – for over 75 years. But something else ties me much more strongly to her memory. It is something I cannot hold, touch or even see, but I experience it viscerally in my brain and my body.

It is a song: Super Trouper by ABBA, their melancholy-drizzled disco epic that is almost as well-known in the Western world as a nursery rhyme. But to me it is always this first: Grandma and I together in her kitchen, singing along to the radio, both of us smiling, having fun, feeling like a number one.

Since my book, The Sound of Being Human: How Music Shapes Our Lives came out in hardback last April, I’ve thought a lot about how songs become heirlooms in our lives. Songs are not objects that are passed on, but portals: access points to intense, longing connections to the roots of the personalities of people. When these heirlooms are heard unexpectedly, they can produce deep emotions. When Super Trouper was played during a BBC Radio Wales interview I was doing with Huw Stephens last May, without me expecting it, I was glad that I was off-microphone, as I burst into tears.

Songs produce such powerful reactions within us because our ability to hear and remember songs is built into us from before birth. In my book, I cite one of my favourite studies, from 2013, in which babies in utero were played a specific version of Twinkle Twinkle Little Star, the sounds travelling into their developing ears through their mothers’ growing bellies. It was replayed to them as newborns and then again at four months. Wearing tiny caps of electrodes on their heads, these babies registered heightened electrical activity in their brains when the correct version was played. Songs were becoming heirlooms already, passed on from the womb to the world.

Jude Rogers and her dad - who taught her about the sound of being human
Jude Rogers and her dad. Photo: courtesy of Jude Rogers

My late father also passed two musical heirlooms to me. They were both released in late 1983: Paul McCartney’s Pipes of Peace and the Flying Pickets’ cover version of Yazoo’s Only You. Before going into hospital for five days for a hip replacement to ease his ankylosing spondylitis, my dad had asked me to find out the new number one. These were the contenders. I never got to tell him that his favourite Beatle won the race. Dad died in the operating theatre two days later. He was 33. I was five.

When I hear Only You today particularly, I am propelled back to the last moment I saw him, the whole scene emerging in full colour. I dug into neuroscience to find out why, and Professor Catherine Loveday of the University of Westminster explained to me how music is a brilliant trigger for specific multi-sensory memories from childhood, including our teenage years, when we cling onto music to help differentiate our identities. The more evolved parts of our brain prompt music-associated memories, so our responses aren’t just animalistic reactions. Music also prompts our unconscious memory system, responsible for actions we do every day but rarely think about like walking. Music is, as my book title celebrates, the sound of being human.

Having thought much in the last year about the songs that carry the memory of my father, I have realised how much I try to pass musical heirlooms on to my son. When I finished writing my book, he was seven and mainly a fan of the Spice Girls. Now is nearly nine, music-obsessed, and has his own playlist on Spotify. Currently at 10 hours and 51 minutes long, it includes tracks by contemporary pop acts like Olivia Rodrigo, Imagine Dragons and Joel Corry. But his favourite 10 at the top of the playlist include two I have passed on to him, which makes my soul melt: The Night by Frankie Valli and the Four Seasons and You Forever by Self Esteem.

Jude's son enjoying Womad festival. Photo: courtesy of Jude Rogers
Jude’s son enjoying Womad festival. Photo: courtesy of Jude Rogers

The Night was a song that I got obsessed with during the first Covid lockdown, when the world, and my head, was in disarray. I would blast it out on drives to get milk in the car, feeling my heart race along to its bassline, my endorphins cascade as I sang along to its hooks. As restrictions eased, I played it to my son on short drives, watching his head nod to the beat in the rear-view mirror, hearing his little voice singing with gusto about heads being turned around. 

You Forever arrived differently. I was playing it in the kitchen one day – my son bumbled in, then stopped suddenly. “Mum! What is this?” Spontaneous dancing ensued, then he wanted to know everything about the singer. I told him she was Rebecca Lucy Taylor, she was brilliant, and wrote songs about how tough things could often be for girls, but how great girls should know they are, too. Liking my somewhat streamlined explanation, my son demanded to hear more. Now we share Self Esteem’s music often, and I hope what I told him about her will solidify in his mind as he grows up from the boy he is into the man he will be.

Conventional heirlooms usually matter to people because they suggest stories about people. Songs are the ultimate heirlooms, I believe, because they hold so many stories within them: the narrative the song hopes to put across, the account of how the track was put together, plus the many tales that the song wraps itself around as it works its mysterious ways into so many people’s lives. 

I hope my son holds the songs I have passed onto him tightly as we both get older, and that he enjoys moulding his specific, different memories around them. I also like how these heirlooms will always seem timeless, forever precious, shining like the sun.

The Sound of Being Human is out now in paperback at £9.99, published by White Rabbit Books.

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