Wow In Music – Happy
Editor | On 20, Feb 2019
Earworms. Yes. And no. Earworms are songs that you’re unable to get out of your head. Sometimes that’s a good thing, and sometimes it isn’t. Scientists at the University of St Andrews have named the Top 20 official earworms in a study as to what makes songs addictive. The team of researchers at the university’s School of Philosophical, Anthropological and Film Studies also developed a mathematical formula for explaining what makes an earworm.
Researcher Bede Williams said an earworm needs five key components: surprise, predictability, rhythmic repetition, melodic potency and receptiveness (how the listener feels about the song).
The formula is expressed as Receptiveness + (predictability-surprise) + (melodic potency) + (rhythmic repetition x1.5) = earworm. The most addictive earworm was named as Queen’s ‘We Will Rock You’, with the band having three songs in the Top 20, the other two being ‘Bohemian Rhapsody’ and ‘We Are The Champions’. ‘Jingle Bells’ was the oldest song in the list.
At number two in the list is our Wow choice for this month. Happy. “Happy” is a song written, produced, and performed by American singer Pharrell Williams, from the Despicable Me 2 soundtrack album. It also served as the lead single from Williams’ second studio album, Girl (2014). It was first released on November 21, 2013, alongside a long-form music video. The song has been highly successful, peaking at No. 1 in the United States, United Kingdom, Canada, Ireland, New Zealand, and 19 other countries. It was the best-selling song of 2014 in the United States with 6.45 million copies sold for the year, as well as in the United Kingdom with 1.5 million copies sold for the year. It reached No. 1 in the UK on a record-setting three separate occasions and became the most downloaded song of all time in the UK in September 2014; it is the eighth highest-selling single of all time in the country. It was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Original Song. A live rendition of the song won the Grammy Award for Best Pop Solo Performance at the 57th Annual Grammy Awards. The music video for “Happy” was nominated for Best Male Video and Video of the Year at the 2014 MTV Video Music Awards. It also won the Grammy Award for Best Music Video at the 57th Annual Grammy Awards. The song was Billboard’s number-one single for 2014. So, probably the ‘good’ version of an earworm.
While the song may sound effortless, the singer has revealed that its fruition was far from easy: “It was actually nine versions before I got to the 10th,” he told US talk-show Good Morning America yesterday. “I got to point zero, and I just said to myself, ‘How do you make a song about a guy who is so happy and relentless in doing so?’ That’s when I realised that the answer had been sleeping in the question all along.”
But what does that mean? What makes Happy work so well? The Guardian newspaper asked some experts to deconstruct the global pop phenomenon. Here’s what they had to say:
Andrew Fisher, Head of Commercial Composition, University of Southampton:
“[There’s] something inherent in the music’s composition. It is an elusive combination of ingredients that makes any song appeal widely, but for this song what I think helps is a very clear form and a very strong chorus hook. The structure is a well-known verse/chorus form, but it’s very well judged; the simpler verse anticipates a more sophisticated chorus (Principle 37, Relative Change), which contrasts in terms of harmony, arrangement and instrumentation (37 again). The chord progression in the chorus – F minor 7 to Bb to F major – cleverly maps the word “happy” onto the harmony. The instrumentation, arrangement and mix are very important here, [with] classic soul and R&B instruments like an electric piano, bass and handclaps, but [it has] modern and slick production values to give it a timeless classic feel that has a contemporary edge.”
Paddy Bickerton, professional party and wedding DJ
“I think part of its big impact has been that it sounds so inviting, as nowadays everyone from indie boys to Beyonce are trying to make music that sounds weird and alien. But Happy is stripped back (Principle 2) with a good groove and a cool-sounding 60s Motown feel, so its success is down to the fact that it is pop music in its most fundamental state. It’s interesting in BPM terms, too: Happy is quite fast, and most pop songs that people [have recently requested] when I was DJing were at house tempo, which wasn’t as immediate. The way it starts is great too: a high impact beginning that is a quick way to get people on the dance floor. People instantly recognise the four stabs, and they are off (Principle 21, Hurrying). It stands up to repeated plays too, so as a wedding DJ I am pretty happy about that. I’ve had people pick the song for their first dance, which is a rare thing, as people tend to go for less modern or more slow songs.”
Eric Clarke, Oxford professor and author of Music and Mind in Everyday Life
“One pervasive idea is that the sound of music in some way conjures up or conveys a sense of human behaviour or action … In very crude terms, [the single] has an upbeat type of tempo, so it distinguishes itself from those lugubrious and sad-sounding pieces. Upbeat music tends to convey high energy, and one form of high energy is happiness. When most people are happy [they] tend to, in quite physiological terms, have high muscle tone; they are in an active state and are aroused. Perhaps what makes Happy sound happy is that it not only has high energy, but it uses what has become a very culturally common association between major and minor in music. It uses mainly major chords which have a long history in western music as being associated with positive emotions. [Note: the song is actually written in the Fminor key, so part of the attraction is how the upbeatness originates from the contrast with the minor chord foundation (Principle 12).] Also it’s noticeable that it uses comparatively high-frequency sounds (Principle 35). Pharrell Williams’ own voice is high and light, rather than deep and heavy. There’s a female backing chorus, all of which are these high and light sounds that are associated with a sense of lightness rather than darkness, and therefore sadness.”
George Ergatoudis, head of music for BBC Radio 1 and 1Xtra
“Happy came out during a bleak time of year when people were feeling lower than they already were, given it was the tail end of a recession (Principle 36, Phase Transition) … [People] want songs that really give them a good feeling. The hit of elation is key to [Happy’s] success. It’s important for songs to really connect at this level. You have to have the artist’s brand in a great place, as well as a great song. People who know who [Williams] is know he’s really cool and appreciate that. We test our top 25 songs per week with our audience to find out how they’re reacting, and Happy has had the highest “Passion Score” [percentage of the audience who love the track] of any song in the past 18 months.”
Or, how about this, from a source somewhat closer to the horse’s mouth, mix engineer Leslie Brathwaite:
“…the arrangement for ‘Happy’ is positively Spartan by modern standards (Principle 2), and this is reflected in the session screenshot at the head of this article. There are just five programmed drum tracks — kick, snare, hi‑hat, claps and percussion — a bass track, one keyboard track, a track containing a ‘hmmm’ sample, eight live handclap tracks, four lead vocal tracks, six Pharrell backing vocal tracks, and a multitude of tracks with the rest of the backing vocalists. Just two tracks of what’s known as “the music” — ie. bass and keyboards — must surely count as a new record for minimalism in a 21st Century production. Moreover, it turns out, Brathwaite himself is similarly minimalist in his use of plug‑ins, using the same de‑esser, compressor and EQ on each of the vocal tracks, and also using several instances of a few other plug‑ins on various other tracks.”
(check https://www.soundonsound.com/people/inside-track-pharrell-williams-happy if you really wanto to geek-out on the technical details).
From my less-well trained musical perspective, what keeps me coming back for more are the handclaps. Two things in particular stand out for me, the first is the combination of both ‘human’ and drum-machine-originated claps (Principles 3 and 5), and perhaps more-so, the periodic shifts between one-per-beat and double-time claps (Principle 19).
At the end of the day, though, I’d have to concur with the majority, the true genius of Happy is its a less-is-more, Principle 2 masterclass.