“Happy” by Pharrell Williams is the perfectly constructed pop tune and is the most downloaded song ever in the UK.
Williams had already collaborated with Daft Punk on a big hit in 2013 so he wasn’t exactly unknown. He also featured on the sound track of Despicable Me 2 which earned him an Oscar nomination and couldn’t but help him in terms of exposure when he performed it at the Oscar ceremony.
People say his influences range from Tamla Motown and Michael Jackson and include hip-hop to maximise cross-generational appeal.
According to psychologist Lauren Stewart (who researches ear worms – the phenomenon where you can’t get a tune out of your head) it ticks all the right boxes that make it addictive. Gospel choirs, kids clapping, workers breaking into song and dance. Handclaps are both a social and musical signal and as most live performers know getting people to clap along is one way to get the audience on your side.
It is also highly repetitive so it requires minimum listening effort with no chance you will forget the words and you know what’s coming next. if the music stopped you could fill in the gaps and carry on singing (and how often have you seen performers like Queen and Sting doing just that with an audience?)
A study of tunes, which listeners to Radio 6 described as their earworms, was carried out by the Music, Mind and Brain Group at Goldsmiths, University of London, which found that they shared certain characteristics. The notes were of relatively long duration with only small steps in the way the melody changed. (In Happy the changes are made by the gospel choir singing harmonies). It’s also been noted that several current hits have started with that 4-beat introduction.
So it might only have the lyrical and musical content of a jingle but that’s the secret of its success. It’s the only song since the 1950s to reach the No 1 spot on three separate occasions.
Here it is.