As it turns out, many of our favorite songs are products of Sweden, but you’d never guess since so many are sung in English, played in bars, or on Top 40 lists! Here, music expert Akornefa Akyea takes us on a catchy, musical journey as we discover the incredible sounds of Sweden.
Pop & Rock
Growing up, I spent a lot of time in my parent’s basement listening to music, as they had quite an impressive collection of Bob Marley, West African and African-American musicians from the 70s, 80s, and 90s, and more. There was also an ABBA CD (specifically, the ABBA Gold, Greatest Hits album), which I remember vividly thanks to the curious Bs that mirrored each other like butterfly wings. The moment “Dancing Queen,” the first song of the album, came on, I was hooked. And there wasn’t a single song that followed that I wanted to skip over.
Many years later, I now listen to music from my reliable laptop speakers, and one day, I came across that ABBA album, only to realize that the group’s four members are all Swedish. And as it happens, they aren’t the only ones: Ace of Base (“The Sign”), Europe (“The Final Countdown”), Robyn (“Call Your Girlfriend”), Avicii (“Wake Me Up”), Icona Pop (“I Love It”), Roxette (“Listen To Your Heart”), Eagle-Eye Cherry (“Save Tonight”), and even Britney Spears’ hit “Baby One More Time,” written by Swedish song writer Max Martin, are all Swedish artists! The list goes on and on.
How is this all possible? As so many Swedish songs make it to the top of Top Ten music lists, it seems accurate to call this a phenomenon. For founding member of Ace of Base, Ulf Ekberg, Swedes are such talented musicians because, “[melody is] number one and has always been.” I think back to those ABBA songs and to how quickly it was able to learn all of their melodies. They were simple—but never basic—and sweet. You can’t help but sing along.
So how long has, melody been number one in Sweden? Ever since Sweden has been playing instruments, so, quite a while now. Folkmusik is the Swedish word for the traditional music of Sweden and is most recognizable by its sounds of the fiddle, traditional harp (called the nyckelharpa), accordion, and voice. Simetimes, songs will feature wind instruments like the clarinet, recorders, flutes, and Swedish bagpipes. As is common in northern Europe, polka, waltz, mazurka, and polska traditionally accompany this style of music. For those musicians well versed in music theory, this article explains the different rhythmic beats of polska and waltz.
In the Folk & Instrumental playlist, you’ll hear the modern folk group Folk och Rackare, who sings old ballads traditionally sung by women who herd cattle in the high mountains. The melody is straight forward, haunting, and beautifully accompanied by the stringed instruments. Next, virtuoso fiddler and composer Hjort Anders Olsson expertly develops the motif without losing sight of the theme. “Gardeby Laten,” composed by Anders Olsson, might be one of the most pleasant pieces of music I’ve ever heard! It’s melody is catchy and somehow sounds familiar, like a nursery rhyme from childhood. Accordionist Calle Jularbo’s song “Lyckobringarden” is easily recognizable as a waltz with its characteristic bom-bip-bip. Of all the music in this playlist, you should become familiar with “Gubben Noak”—it’s a popular, biblical Swedish drinking song!
Sweden’s folkmusik juxtaposes crystal clear melodies with funky rhythms. When listening to folk revival group Väsen, for example, it’s hard to find a down beat to tap along to. This is intentional, as the number of beats per bar change spontaneously. It drives the music forward and keeps listeners on their toes. In fact, this spontaneity is similar to jazz. So it’s no surprise that Swedish jazz pianist Jan Johansson has been able to so effortlessly combine traditional folk songs with the new jazz style.
The emphasis on melody in traditional Swedish music is, unsurprisingly, nothing new. What is astonishing is how this value on simple and beautiful melodies has sustained overtime to propel Swedish music into the international, popular music arena. From classical and folkmusik to pop and rock, it’s a recognizable melody that draws the hearts of music lovers, including me: an unsuspecting Ghanaian-American girl from Wisconsin who knows all the words, harmonies, and hooks to every ABBA song.