The Swedish pop group ABBA scored hit after hit throughout the 1970s, charting songs that stood out among the heavy metal and disco groups of the era for the simplicity (some would say mindlessness) of the lyrics and the catchy (some would say annoying) melodies. The group, which had several U.S. hits, including “Dancing Queen” and “Take a Chance on Me,” has experienced a renaissance with the immense success of the Broadway play “Mamma Mia” and the film version (starring Oscar-winner Meryl Streep) of the musical, which is currently in theaters. The persistence of ABBA songs in the musical memory demands an explanation, and Jim Latten, assistant professor of music, obliges.
Q: ABBA’s songs are almost instantly forgettable in content and yet impressively memorable in melody. What makes a song stick in memory?
A: There is usually a musical riff or hook that is combined in some way with a rhythmic pattern that even the non-drummer can easily “play along” with by tapping their hands on the nearest table. These two elements are engineered in some way so that listeners can’t get the song out of their mind.
Q: What made ABBA’s songs so memorable?
A: Their melodies were good, but the vocal harmonies were a bit unusual and different from what other groups were doing (in the 1970s). They were perfectly engineered pop hits.
Q: What are some of the musical elements a hit song should or must have?
A: It should have one or more of the following: It should have a tempo that is easy to dance to; it should have a predictable structure that is similar to other songs; and it should have lyrics that speak to listeners — the “they’re singing about me” response.
Q: You once worked as a graduate assistant for the Penn State marching band. Do you think halftime audiences will be hearing more ABBA arrangements from high school and college bands?
A: The whole idea of marching band music is to provide a crowd-pleasing entertainment experience. ABBA’s music would be a good fit for that environment.
Q: You teach a survey of popular music at Juniata. Do today’s students have an appreciation for music of the past that previous generations did not?
A: I’m amazed at our students’ knowledge of songs from other generations. I think the music of the past is more accessible. They can sample a record by Elvis, the Rolling Stones or a blues musician. The current generation of students can hear the heroes and musical leaders of the past without having to buy an album or a single.
John Wall, director of media relations