I would like to share an analysis of Pharrell Williams’ song Happy, a hit single composed for the movie Despicable Me 2 that has sold over 4 million copies and is incredibly catchy (sing out loud catchy!). I have analysed the song in variations audio timeliner but before you see that there are three elements of the song that I would like to address: loops, stereo field and tonality.
Williams has made use of everything Pro-Tools has to offer in the way of non-linear editing and has obviously looped parts of this song, there is an audible click in the drums on the last beat of bar 4 that repeats in various sections and the chorus and bridge have been cut and paste (to save time?).
There is limited stereo field in this song with the majority of parts being in the centre of the mix, the exceptions being the reverb tail, back-up vocals and claps. Perhaps the limited stereo field has helped make this song a hit and the fact that it will sound quite similar on a smartphone or your home stereo has helped to make this song instantly recognisable and ubiquitous.
Why does this song make us feel happy and why is it so catchy? The short answer, Key. The majority of the interest is held in the bass hook and Pharrell’s voice which are both making use of the F minor pentatonic scale (Williams almost always starts his vocals on C which gives the impression of C Phrygian but at the end of the day it’s still F minor pentatonic). So how does it sound happy when he’s using a minor pentatonic? If you can imagine most funk and soul instrumental solos and vocal lines then that’s the tonality of a minor pentatonic (the name may suggest that it a ‘sad’ key but it’s actually more ‘funky’ sounding). Another interesting point is that Williams moves from the F minor pentatonic to F major in the chorus, the back-up singing resolves on a major 3rd whilst Pharrell and the bass line remain in minor pentatonic. With this clever use of tonality I believe that Williams has nailed the ‘happy’ feeling and given musical interest that immediately catches the interest of the the ‘first-time’ listener.
Happy – Pharrell Williams
F minor pentatonic hook in bass and keyboards. Last beat of bar 4 has click and slightly out of time (production error!) Vocals use F minor pentatonic although usually starting on C which could be classed as C phyrgian. (0:00.0)
Rising riff in bass. Claps enter. Harmonies in vocal very memorable and are as follows: Perfect 5th (F+C), Perfect 4th (F+Bb), Major 2nd (F+G), Perfect 4th (F+Bb), Major 3rd (F+A). Its important to note that Williams moves out of the key (Ab major/F minor) when he resolves to the major 3rd, the major 3rd can only be achieved by raising the 3rd making it an A natural instead of A flat, this adds to the musical interest because the bass is still using the F minor pentatonic whilst Williams back-up singing moves to F major. (0:25.5)
Hook returns in bass and keys and back-up singers give ‘Yeahs’. (0:49.6)
Exactly the same as first chorus, Williams isn’t afraid to cut and paste! (1:13.5)
Conga or similar percussive instrument add to rythym with claps. Back-up singers are in F minor that sing ‘happy’ repeatedly, this may seem strange but Williams is singing ‘dont bring me down’ which adds to the emotional aesthetic. Having a minor key (F minor) just before the chorus makes it seem even happier when the chorus hits in F major. (1:37.7)
F major in harmonies, Williams lead vocal and bass remains in F minor pentatonic. Chorus played twice. (2:01.6)
A shortened version of the original bridge which has been blantantly copied and pasted. (2:49.6)
Another double chorus that hammers in the ‘Happy’ theme. (3:01.5)