Tuesday, July 26, 2022

The Sound of Being Human

My book of the year so far - brilliantly done.

I’ve long held the view, that when writing from experience — be it for books, blogs or essays — it’s the inner story, rather than any outer narrative, that’s the true test of quality. From great epics to country diaries, readers find meaning not so much in the sequence of events as the struggles, discoveries and growth of any protagonists along the way. This is what separates literary from pulp fiction; biography from CVs; life writing from journalism…. It’s also, somewhat ironically, what makes stories universal.

Jude Rogers’ The Sound of Being Human does all this and more. Mixing deeply personal memoir with career expertise and a sprinkling of academic research, she explores how music (and particularly popular songs and their artists) shapes our sense of self, binding moments to melodies that become the soundtrack of our lives. What’s especially remarkable is that she does so with a playlist that though essential to telling her story, isn’t necessary to ours — indeed, I’d not heard of many of the tracks she chose to hook her chapters — for in truth, her choices are proxies to personal equivalents we cherish just the same.

All that’s required to appreciate the book’s central theme, is that we associate music, of whatever genre, with times and events of significance in our lives. Rogers begins with a childhood memory of her father’s parting words before going into hospital: Let me know what gets to number one. He died, aged 33, two days later... And the song that made the top spot that week — Only You, by the Flying Pickets — becomes an anchor in the storm of emotions that might otherwise have wrecked a five-year-old child, metaphorically lost at sea. More broadly, its lifelong resonance becomes a base note of the book: that music can heal and help us make sense of the rhythms and refrains of our lives.

And so the chapters continue, like verses in a song: from adolescence to coming of age; leaving home to finding love… and friendships, career, parenthood, illness...  Music accompanies us on all of these journeys — sometimes centre stage; sometimes playing in the background — and by processes we don’t fully understand, becomes so cemented to our memories that it's capable of triggering the most vivid of recollections. I especially liked the section in which Rogers lists songs as substitutes for former boyfriends; a sort of mix tape of — on the whole — generous memories that she can smile at and sing along to. Her chapter on why so many of us feel grief when famous musicians die also resonated, taking me back to seminal losses (not always musically connected) of my own.

But it was the last chapter, based on an interview with Paddy McAloon (leader singer and writer of the band Prefab Sprout) that intrigued me most. For not only is McAloon my favourite pop artist, his albums the backing track to my twenties, but the interview took place during the Covid lockdown, a period I found so severely disconnecting that only now am I (slowly) coming to terms with its impact. I should mention that Rogers interviewed me at that time, for an article in the Guardian, not about music, but about living on the border between England and Wales during the severest restrictions. She found solace in music, and particularly in McAloon’s composition I Trawl The Megahertz; I searched for it in the landscape, access to which was a chief prohibition of those terrible months.

Reading McAloon's thoughts got me wondering how (in some parallel universe) Rogers — or indeed all of us — would have coped if music had been what was forbidden?  How would we have fared without the sounds that buoy us up and soothe our souls? How many of us would have found the melodic silence unbearable: no tunes; no dance; no hymns or communal singing (indeed that was banned)…  I recalled how little music I listened to in lockdown; how I stopped playing my saxophone too. And how to me, place and music are more connected than I realised.  

I’m not sure what that says, but I suspect it’s linked to the deep anxiety —and anger — I felt at the time – and how sensory denial, especially of that which feeds our being, leads to consequences we can’t consciously control.

Of course, this is all open-ended pondering on my part. But in a sense, that’s the point of the book — and the mark of its quality. For ultimately, it's not about Jude, or her back story, or the hundreds of interviews she’s conducted as a music journalist…. Nor is it about the artists, their genius or otherwise, or the academics and musicologists whose research she summarises so well. Rather, the Sound of Being Human is about all of us and each of us alone. The soundtracks of our lives are as personal and private as they are shared and universal, as much inner as outer story.  Like the Flying Pickets' aptly acapella (literally ‘unaccompanied’) cover of Yazoo’s original, they are…  all I ever knew… only you.

The Sound of Being Human – how music shapes our lives
By Jude Rogers
Published by White Rabbit / Orion Publishing Group Ltd
ISBN: 978-1-4766-2292-9


  1. I don't listen to a lot of music and when I do, I prefer to listen to it alone. I can't stand having music on in the background while someone is talking. I can't pay attention to either properly. There is a young woman at work whose playlist is from the seventies and eighties and that music sends me back in time. And when I'm angry, I blast music at top volume. It used to be opera music but now it's Queen. It helps.

  2. The enduring success of the radio programme 'Desert Island Discs' is surely that it taps in to the themes you discuss so eloquently here.

  3. I can so relate to it and the power of music and memories. Whilst reading it records were going through my mind and pinpointing many significant moments in my life, in every decade, that I often think about. I am particularly low at the moment and reading your words has brought tears to my eyes and perhaps given me a way of coping with some of the bad things going on right now via music. Thank you.

  4. I've just suggested that Suffolk Libraries buy a copy as it sounds like a good read

  5. Fascinating topic! And one I've considered often. I have had times when music has saved my life, quite literally. And other times when it made life bearable. Music is one of the holiest parts of being human, I think.

  6. And the depth of that connection is shocking. I saw it happen again and again. Patients deeply so deeply lost in the fog of Alzheimer's that they had become seemingly unaware of the outside world, nonverbal. Yet a familiar tune had the power to cause them to go still, to listen intently, raise their heads. They usually mouthed the words, but sometimes they actually sang in voices gone creaky with disuse. My sister played a favorite song for my mother as she lay comatose on her death bed. Her head turned to the source of the music and her mouth began to move. We did not hear her voice one last time, but it was a great comfort to know that she hear ours.

  7. 'The Lark Ascending', still brings that absolute thrill of almost stopping my heart. Commonplace, most of Britain loves it but I think English classical music manages to capture the essence of the countryside. John Tavener does it as well with 'The Protecting Veil', capturing the mood of our church music that has devolved over time. Also Radio 2 of course, and only recently, three years later after the death of my partner did I play Jon and Vangelis's 'I'll find my way home' which was played at the service... You could almost say - facing up to the music ;)

  8. How interesting. I was only writing last night that since my husband has been ill, I have stopped playing the CDs that I used to enjoy at our old house, singing along at the top of my voice. I suppose I am grieving for our life as it used to be, as a couple, and now, as his carer, I feel somehow disconnected. Music accompanied feeling happy and that is an emotion which has been overwhelmed in recent months.

    Like Thelma, The Lark Ascending lifts my spirit to another plane entirely. Or it used to.

  9. I started off thinking about the 'inner narrative rather than the outer story' observation and immediately thought of a book which was recommended reading in a workplace bookclub some years ago. I hated it. It was like reading a shopping list, or a travel itinerary...today here, tomorrow there, this meal in the evening, ..... dammit... tell me how you felt about those experiences. Give me something to identify with, or be challenged by.
    The author of that book clearly had no music.