The Sound of Being Human: How Music Shapes our Lives by Jude Rogers

Review by Liz Dexter

What role does music really, deeply play in our lives, from our first days to our last? Jude Rogers in her clever, educational and moving book uses twelve tracks to explore this question, consulting with musicians, neurologists, psychologists, sociologists and health practitioners but also weaving in her own family memoir. All encapsulated in under 300 pages, this is a super read, a jewel of a book. 

We know it’s about Jude and her dad from the dedication: “For my Dad, and for little me,” and we start the book with a picture of a front doorstep and a description of a morning burnt into her memory. She says goodbye to her dad as he sets off for what should have been a fairly routine operation for a lifelong health condition. |He asks her, “Let me know who gets to number one,” and he never comes home.  A mother herself, thirty years later, in the middle of a successful and nourishing career as a music writer, she realises the pull of music once more, seeing it in her young son: 

Music, I now knew beyond measure, was a truly remarkable thing. This realisation had me tunnelling back to songs that exploded like supernovas in the early years of my childhood, and others that tumbled me through my adolescence. I then arrived at songs that carried me through adulthood in moments of desire, despair, recovery and resolution; songs that still keep me stimulated, soothed, alert, afloat.

And she writes about those songs in this book. 

The chapters take a journey through her life, with a family photograph at the start of each, but then spiral outwards, from the particular to the general, pulling in theory and practice from all sorts of areas, consulting experts, making sure she’s got it right. She has a knack of explaining complex concepts succinctly and clearly, and it never becomes dull or academic (she has a particularly nice way of dealing with the references, always a slight obsession for me, working authors, titles and dates into the text so you don’t need a footnote or reference). 

Why does music mean so much to so many of us? Each expert or interviewee explains how music acts on us at various stages, giving us companionship, community, meaning, support. From small children finding a scaffolding to help them move towards language development, to teenagers finding role models and tribes, through adult women bonding over music and performance to the comfort of music in illness and at the end of life. 

Being written and published when it has been, Covid and the lockdowns inevitably make an appearance, mentioned in the same intelligent and intimate way. Jude’s experience, shared by others, of finding music not able to console them leads into a discussion of the approximately five per cent of people who don’t experience pleasure from music. So it really does cover all the bases. 

I loved the section on the music magazine Smash Hits with Miranda Sawyer confirming the mainly female staff’s commitment to presenting female musicians in a non-sexualised, celebratory manner; a chat with a friend and a fact-finding mission all in one. Everyone will be able to find something to identify with in this book; I was reminded of a university friend who switched from rocker to Madchester lad overnight in her description of a similar change in a college friend, and about so much more through the book, especially when she gets on to deeply mourned ex magazine, Word (“the best music writing, to my mind, always creates a community”) as I used to transcribe for a lot of its journalists. The intimate style encourages this and bonds reader with book. 

We end, tantalisingly, with Jude’s mum sharing more memories of her dad and music, and the realisation that “there were more songs I had to hear from her and from other family and friends, so many combinations of notes and ideas that revealed other sides of people I knew”.

A lovely book, full of information but also full of love and heart, a fitting memorial to Jude’s dad of course but also a great mid-career piece on what sustains the author and forms a framework around her life. 

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Liz Dexter loves to read about music, as well as loving reading and music. She blogs about reading, running and working from home at http://www.librofulltime.wordpress.com.

Jude Rogers, The Sound of Being Human: How Music Shapes our Lives (White Rabbit, 2022).‎ 978-1474622929, 293pp., ill. hardback.

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