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4 May 2022

How music helps us to feel

Two new books about our relationship to song prove there will always be new ways to write about music.

By Ellen Peirson-Hagger

Music, Jude Rogers realises towards the end of her perceptive and moving book, The Sound of Being Human, is a “portal”. The term, borrowed from Nina Kraus, an academic who studies the biology of auditory learning, has a scientific meaning: a portal is the part of an organism where things enter and exit, often with transformative effects. Music does that too. “It is a grand, exhilarating entrance to something,” Rogers writes. It allows us to access and express our innermost feelings, and to communicate with others when alternative channels are unavailable.

Music is also a portal to memory. Rogers opens with a story about her and her father that anchors the whole book. In 1984 Rogers, a music journalist and broadcaster, was five years old and growing up in south Wales. She remembers standing on the doormat of her family home on a cold January morning, saying goodbye to her father, who was going into hospital for an operation. He tells her he loves her, that he’ll see her on Friday, and then holds her chin in his hand and says: “let me know who gets to number one.” Two days later Rogers’s father died in hospital aged 33.

At the top of the charts that week was “Pipes of Peace” by Paul McCartney, but that particular song is not so important. More intriguing to Rogers is the relationship she and her father shared to music, and the way she now watches her young son respond to what is playing on the radio. She wonders how songs function as historical objects, how music changes us in the moment and both jogs and warps our memories in the long term. “A song can be a means of seduction as well as a sedative, a dagger to the heart, a buoy, an escape hatch. It is something we can turn on and off, but it can also catch us by surprise,” she writes, always searching for the truest answers to elusive questions.

The book is treated like an album, featuring 12 songs, plus a hidden track, each a lynchpin for a chapter on how music relates to a certain part of life. Adam and the Ants’s “Prince Charming” leads Rogers to look back on the role that pop fandom played in her childhood; Martha Reeves and the Vandellas’s “Heat Wave” is her way into romance. Unlike the mercurial nature of love, songs “have always felt like solid, fixed things” to Rogers. Blending memoir, incisive music criticism and scientific analysis – with the help of psychologists, biologists and academics – Rogers anatomises the powerful effects of music on its listeners. 

The experience of being a teenage music fan, Rogers observes, is particularly thrilling. Obsessions hit hard. You go to every gig possible, watch endless videos of your favourite bands, dissect every quote in every interview they give to the press. There is a reason for all this, she discovers. During your teenage years different parts of your brain are developing at different speeds: parts of the subcortical structure, which deals with emotions, are maturing, while the prefrontal cortex, which helps us to regulate our feelings, can’t always keep up. Having a teenage brain therefore feels like driving a fast car without a steering wheel, according to the neuroscientist Sarah-Jayne Blackmore. The dopamine pathway that connects the subcortical structure with the prefrontal cortex is also developing quickly, and plays a crucial role in feelings of pleasure and obsessive love. This pathway has been shown to be activated by music.

In her mid-teens in the 1990s, Rogers spent whole days in her bedroom listening to REM, the alt-rock band’s lead singer Michael Stipe “whispering feverish things into my little pierced ears”. She filled notebooks in an attempt to decipher the “murky poetry” of the group’s lyrics, spent all her pocket money from her paper round on their back catalogue, and even ordered biographies of the band from her local library. Later, aged 19 in 1997, Rogers found herself dancing to Kraftwerk in a field outside Luton. She was a “geek in an anorak”, surrounded by ravers, trance hedonists and techno heads. But those differences didn’t matter. “As the machines pounded, fluttered and palpitated, it felt like we were all pressing, jamming, slotting together.”

The feeling of euphoria that comes from dancing in a crowd can also be explained by science – in psychology, dancing is known as a “joint action”, an act in which people coordinate their movements to perform a task together, a process that has long held importance for work and military purposes. But understanding the neuroscience behind such experiences does not diminish their significance. There’s a magic to the way that music makes us feel, and Rogers’s fascinating research only intensifies it.

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Rogers found liberation in the communal experiences of music, but not every music listener does. In her essay “Fan Girl”, the Booker Prize-winning Irish novelist Anne Enright writes of her long-time admiration of the avant-garde artist Laurie Anderson, and the phenomenon she calls the “Fan Thing”: how meeting a celebrity can make us act bizarrely in front of them. “I can’t tell you how difficult I find the music conversation,” she writes, “the one where people gather into tribes, swap favourites… Music undoes me. It does not tell me who I am. It is something I listen to on my own.”

Enright’s piece is one of 16 essays in This Woman’s Work, a collection edited by Sinéad Gleeson, an author and former music journalist, and Kim Gordon, a visual artist and founding member of the rock band Sonic Youth. With one exception, the all-female contributors to the book – which is named after the 1989 Kate Bush song – are authors or journalists. (Megan Jasper, who started at the legendary Seattle record label Sub Pop in 1989 and is now its CEO, is the only non-writer.) Many, including The Argonauts author Maggie Nelson and the novelist Rachel Kushner, are not known for their writing on music. 

This Woman’s Work is an overdue corrective to an industry and establishment music press that has long been dominated by white men. The book puts women’s voices and stories front and centre, without insisting that every essay focus on “gender” or some variation thereof as a main theme. The result is an embracing collection that varies wildly in tone, subject matter and lucidity. The Pulitzer Prize-winning Margo Jefferson’s essay on Ella Fitzgerald’s propensity to sweat, a trait that “threatens to drag her back into the maw of working-class black female labour”, is a thought-provoking highlight. The poet Simone White’s essay on trap music is fascinating, but only if you sit tight and tease out the academese of each sentence.

Gordon’s contribution is an interview, via a translator, with Yoshimi Yokota, the Japanese musician best known mononymously as the main drummer in the experimental rock band Boredoms. Yoshimi is an accomplished instrumentalist who speaks modestly about her entry into music. When she first started playing she did not know that the height of a drum kit could be adjusted. She would sit down in a venue following another (presumably male) drummer, and think, “Wow, these drums are so hard to play.” But she would also be thinking: “I can get different nuances out of the drums that I couldn’t before.” Such a practical limitation is not an element of gender inequality in music that is often considered. Yet Yoshimi, in her inventive way, makes it a point of real creative interest. Later she describes her approach to musical expression as being about “becoming friends with an instrument”, a winningly sensitive characterisation of talent.

These two books have been published into a lively contemporary music-writing market, yet both bring a freshness. Rogers and many of the This Woman’s Work contributors offer readers a level of intimacy that seems possible only because they are writing about song – something that, by its very nature, is intangible. Together, these books are exciting and deeply reassuring proof that there will always be new ways to write about music, and offer stories showing that it is bound with memory, love, pain, work.

And the rapture of a music obsession can be all-encompassing, as the novelist Ottessa Moshfegh (Eileen, My Year of Rest and Relaxation) captures in her essay “Valentina”, named after her piano teacher: “one becomes addicted to the intensity of the experience of music, and everything else seemed so stupid.”

The Sound of Being Human: How Music Shapes Our Lives
Jude Rogers
White Rabbit, 304pp, £16.99

This Woman’s Work: Essays on Music
edited by Sinéad Gleeson and Kim Gordon
White Rabbit, 368pp, £20

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This article appears in the 11 May 2022 issue of the New Statesman, Stalling Starmer