Today I want to talk about Pharrell Williams’s infectious chart topper, Happy.
What makes Happy a “happy” song, and how can a song that so closely follows the old Motown formula still inspire us to “clap along”?
First let’s have a look at the chord progression:
Verses: F7 / F7 / Fminor7 Bb / C Bb /
Choruses: DbMaj7 / Cminor / Cminor7 / F /
Break downs: Pedal on F7
This song is heavily influenced by the traditional Motown sound and it follows the standard form of verse, chorus, verse, chorus, bridge, chorus, although a second bridge was added in, probably to stretch the duration of the song.
Let’s have a peak at the overall arrangements of the song:
Verse 1 begins with a catchy r&b bass line played by the organ, providing a stripped down background to William’s sultry vocals, and driven by a laid back beat
Chorus 1 introduces two male back up vocals, old-school handclaps on 2 & 4, and an electric bass complementing the organ
Verse 2 adds a female vocal to the mix, which punctuates the verse with quintessential “yeeahs”
Chorus 2 brings us richer background vocals with two extra female parts
Gospel bridge breaks the song down while lifting its spirit
Chorus 3 remains the same with a slightly busier e-bass.
Bridge 2 is nearly identical to bridge 1.
Song ends on the repeated chorus.
Pretty straight forward so far, yet there isn’t a dull moment in this song. It is dynamic and uplifting. I find it hard not to sing along when it comes on, even if I’m not feeling particularly “happy”. Something about it seems to somehow manage to disable my cynical spirit. Could it be because of those lush backing vocals?
I love a tight vocal section and Williams layered Happy with rich harmony parts, in keeping with the spirit and soul of traditional r&b and gospel. In fact, they don’t only belt out that nice minor7th on the third and seventh measure of the chorus, the vocals also bring back sweet memories of choir days and old soul records. That 1960’s retro sound brings the right amount of maturity to the song, as if saying: I am happy because I’ve been here long enough to have figured things out!
Truth be told, 40-year old Williams brilliantly reinvents the wheel. It might not sound new, but he found his sound and I think that under the guise of another love song this is his message: be grateful, appreciate what you have, find what makes you happy. “Clap along if you know what happiness is to you. Clap along if you feel that that’s what you wanna do”.
So what is it about Williams’ song that we find inspiring? I suspect that it is that old familiar Motown sound combined with the infectious energy of a powerful vocal section delivering a positive message. Not so simple after all. But it sure makes us want to clap along.