happy song

The story of “The Happy Song” (or “The joy of musical manipulation”)

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“The Happy Song” is music that is scientifically engineered to make a baby happy. Is it freaky mind control or brilliant use of resources? Or a bit of both?

If art is a means of communicating ideas, observations, or emotions in ways that deeply connect with viewers and listeners, I suppose a cynical way of phrasing it is, “art manipulates its audience,” and good art does it better than most. A painting can modify or magnify reality, a stage production can expose and confront prejudice and social injustice, music can evoke an emotional response that words alone cannot. In that sense, a songwriter’s intent is to manipulate his/her listener’s emotions in a short window of time — particularly in popular music.

Consider where Pharrell’s “Happy” or the Beatles’ “She’s Leaving Home” transport you in the span of three-and-a-half minutes. A great song makes you feel what the songwriter wants you to feel, experience what they want you to experience, and go to places of their design.

British songstress Kate Bush explored the bleak potential of this in “Experiment IV,” a song she released in 1986. The song tells a dark story of scientists commissioned by the military to create a “sound that can kill someone from a distance.” Collecting recordings of the anguished cries of grieving mothers and screams of tortured souls, the story results in the fulfillment of the military’s aim and an unfortunate result for humanity.

The true-to-life creation story of “The Happy Song” involves strikingly similar elements, though it represents the polar opposite of the story in Bush’s song.

The Happy Song

As this story goes, the folks at Cow & Gate, a British baby food producer, sought to find a way to “promote happiness among babies,” as that “aligns with its brand platform.” It contracted with BETC London, an agency dedicated to helping companies “elevate their brands and businesses,” which determined that a campaign to create a song designed to make babies happy would result in the ideal tool to reach the maximum number of families and achieve its goal. BETC then formed a science team made up of baby psychologists and music psychologists and contracted with Grammy Award-winning songwriter/artist/producer Imogen Heap to create “The Happy Song.”

Heap, whose baby girl was 18-months old at the time, began with four musical ideas, following stipulations that included the piece be in a major key, be up-tempo to mirror a baby’s heartbeat, be simple and repetitive, and include a range of dynamics to keep babies engaged. BETC also wanted the finished product to have a female vocal track, recorded in the presence of a baby if possible.

The initial ideas were played to a focus group of babies from the thousand volunteer families who signed up to participate, and by gauging the baby’s responses, the team of psychologists and researchers homed in on which musical segments the baby’s were reacting positively to and reported this back to Heap, who continued honing the track.

In addition, parents were asked to supply a list of sounds that their babies reacted positively to, which were ranked in a C&G survey with the intention of including many of them in the final song. Sneezing, baby laughter, and animal noises were among the highest-scoring sounds that pleased babies.

Compiling all this information and feedback, Heap delivered “The Happy Song,” a track that is scientifically engineered to make babies happy. Or, if my cynical side wins the day, a song designed to manipulate babies’ emotions through scientific musical engineering.

The result is a very happy song that, if you’re an Imogen Heap fan (I am), includes some characteristically “Heapy” elements. I’ll admit, I found myself singing the tune long after the research for this piece was complete. Play it for a baby near you and share the results in the comments!

Unrelated, but important… every melody released to public domain?

While on the subject of manipulation and music, musicians Noah Rubin and Damien Riehl, who also happen to be a computer code-writer and lawyer, respectively, have set out to manipulate musical copyright infringement law in a novel and unpredictable way. Read “The Hard Drive With 68 Billion Melodies” in The Atlantic for an in-depth account, but the general idea is Rubin and Riehl have generated nearly 68 billion melodies using 12-note patterns from the western music scale and are attempting to release them all to the public domain to protect songwriters from being sued for copyright infringement. As The Atlantic articles states, the concept is provocative on many levels.


Professional songwriters offer advice on how to write a 
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