ABBA gets in the brain

July 24, 2008|By Sarah Rodman | Sarah Rodman,The Boston Globe

It only takes a single exposure, and in an instant, your whole day can change. The infection is rapid and feels potentially unending. One minute you're minding your own business and the next you find that you can't stop thinking, humming or singing "Dancing Queen."

Friday n ight and the lights are low...

No matter what you try, you can't shake it. In fact, once you start thinking about ABBA, you're a goner. Next thing you know, you've moved to this: If you change your mind/I'm the first in line...

And like the lyrics to "Waterloo" remind us, you couldn't escape if you wanted to.

What triggers this phenomenon isn't always obvious, but it's no doubt about to happen on a widespread scale.

Mamma Mia!, the film based on the Broadway musical built around ABBA songs, is playing in theaters now. As people leave the cineplex belting out the tunes sung by stars Meryl Streep, Pierce Brosnan and Colin Firth, the ABBA invasion will begin anew.

Mamma Mia, here I go again/My, my, how can I resist you?

ABBA's songs continue to endure as what scientists have dubbed "earworms" 35 years after the band's first album was released. Like those little bugs, the tunes burrow into our brains and keep hitting the repeat button.

With all this renewed interest, we wondered if it was possible to break down scientifically why the music is so irresistible. Because even those who profess to dislike the cheery pop of the Swedish masterminds can't block its infiltration into their inner jukebox.

Of course, what makes ABBA songs catchy is to an extent what makes most music memorable, from Bach to the Beatles.

But, says Daniel Levitin, author of This Is Your Brain on Music: The Science of a Human Obsession and associate professor at McGill University, there are some individual factors.

"For one thing, the way their songs are performed and produced, quite apart from the underlying composition, gives them an overall catchy sound," says Levitin, a musician and former producer whose forthcoming book, The World in Six Songs: How the Musical Brain Created Human Nature, further explores the music-mind connection.

The multitracked harmonies of singers Agnetha Faltskog and Frida Lyngstad awaken the part of our brains in which our inner caveman is still enjoying a Paleolithic hootenanny with the rest of his clan.

"If you look at the evolutionary biology of the species and the chemical reactions we have to events in the world, for tens of thousands of years when we as a species heard music we heard groups singing it, not an individual and not an individual standing on a stage," says Levitin. "So the ABBA model of the multiple voices ... is much closer to stimulating these evolutionary echoes of what music really is, fundamentally - closer than, say, Frank Sinatra or Miley Cyrus."

In other words, if a caveman encased in ice were to be thawed out, revived and immediately given a full iPod, he would respond more immediately to ABBA or a gospel choir than, say, free jazz.

The glossy production and compositional patterns of Sweden's fab four also set off different neurological reactions that have medicinal powers. In the most upbeat of the group's songs, like "Money, Money, Money," the simplicity of ABBA's lyrics makes them easy to sing along to. In addition to the fizzy melodies, that participation, says Levitin, gives listeners "an even more powerful hit of happy juice in the brain from dopamine." With sad songs, listeners' brains produce an opposite but equally enjoyable reaction.

And the main piece of the brain puzzle is the simplest of all: repetition, repetition, repetition. In the grand tradition of everyone from Beethoven (and his hook-filled Fifth Symphony) to the dude who wrote "Who Let the Dogs Out?," ABBA songwriters Benny Andersson and Bjorn Ulvaeus recognized the power of telling us something as often as possible.

"If you really want to know what makes a song powerful, I would say look at how the memory works," says physiologist Harry Witchel, a senior research fellow at the Medical School of the University of Bristol in the United Kingdom who was in no way surprised that "Waterloo" ranked as the all-time No. 1 Eurovision song contest winner for the BBC. "Memory works either through strong emotions or through repetition - that's how we normally teach. And ABBA songs allow for both of those things to occur."

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