Why is this song making people so happy? It seems almost guaranteed to lift the mood. Is it delivering some kind of chemical fix? Certainly its catchy tune and beatific lyrics seem to be irresistible; the YouTube Official Music Video is getting a million hits a day, and has had a total of 37 million plays so far.
Apparently our brains start producing happy chemicals when we listen to music. No wonder we are all addicted to it. The experience of pleasure when listening prompts the release of the brain’s reward chemical, dopamine. And that response comes from the part of the brain that rewards our basic survival actions, so it’s very powerful. Dopamine is released when we satisfy our desires for food, sex and sleep, and now we learn that music is right up there too.
But this song appears to hit the spot so quickly. So why does it make us feel better, why do we feel our mood lifting?
It’s clearly got an upbeat tempo, fairly fast and full of rhythm. But Dr Alex Lamont, (Senior Psychology Lecturer, Keele University) says its major key is also a factor. Not all cultures write happy songs in major keys, but ours tends to, meaning that when we hear a tune in a major key we associate it with all the other similar tunes we know. And because they tend to be the ones with upbeat associations, we are pre-disposed to feel good when we hear it.
Not only that, we love songs that involve a certain amount of repetition, because our brains like to predict the bit of the tune that is coming next. So the verse, chorus, verse pattern of the Happy Song is exactly what our brains like. We expect the chorus to come, and then it does come we get an extra little shot of dopamine.
‘What makes music so emotionally powerful is the creation of expectation’ said Valorie Salimpoor of McGill University in Montraeal, Canada. It activates the part of the brain that is associated with expectations that could be rewarding, so when a song does what we expect it to do, our brain delivers the same reward hit as it would with any kind of achievement. She found that the greater the response-level in this part of the brain, the more people were prepared to pay for a song on i-tunes. Mind you, even a slow, sad song can deliver the expectation fix.
But in general lots of people will be drawn to the classic pop song, upbeat, repetitive and in a major key. It ticks all the boxes and delivers instant chemical gratification. But is that all there is to it? Is there nothing else that separates the Happy song from the crowd?
Well here’s another factor – a song that makes you want to dance gives you an extra buzz and movement makes us feel things too. Once you start jigging about, all the other happy chemicals start to appear, so it’s as if you were out walking or jogging or taking any other form of exercise. The Happy video is entirely composed of people reacting spontaneously to the song. And yes, they are dancing. The unedited version lasts 24 hours, by the way.
So what about the lyrics? Some people thing they have a huge effect, others report liking a happy song though they have no idea what the lyrics are about. Or liking a song UNTIL they find out what the lyrics are about. For example, I loved LOVE LOVE by Take That, when I thought it was a heart-felt message from Robbie Williams to humanity, telling us to stop being afraid of giving and receiving love, because life is so short. Then I found it was the sound track for a sci-fi movie. Things were never quite the same.
But the fact that the word Happy is repeated endlessly throughout the song must play some part in its appeal. On top of this, it seems that we pick up the emotion of Pharrell Williams while he is singing the song. Emotion is, after all, catching. In fact it is highly contagious. He’s not just singing about happiness, he IS happiness. He even sounds as though he’s smiling. And dancing. Just great.
Links: You can try a dry run first with the Lyrics Only Video
or go the full monty….