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Music to Make You Move: Syncopation, Body-Movement and Pleasure
May 30, 2014 4:58 PM   Subscribe

What is it about "Happy" by Pharrell Williams that makes you want to move? Why can't we sit still when we hear Ray Charles perform "I've Got a Woman"? Michael Jackson had it, and so did Stevie Wonder. "It," in this case, is syncopation, the gaps in the rhythm that your brain wants to fill in, as reported in the article Syncopation, Body-Movement and Pleasure in Groove Music (full article online).
posted by filthy light thief (70 comments total) 61 users marked this as a favorite

 
This is great, I look forward to digesting the whole thing over the weekend. This hits on something I have long thought central to contemporary musical culture (broadly speaking), groove. I try to explain this to my classically-trained colleagues and they look at me like I'm an alien, but the feeling of groove just absolutely permeates so much music of the past half century+ and I don't know how they can't hear that, and draw the obvious connections among, e.g., American minimalism to early electronica and funk, to electro and hip hop, through techno and EDM/IDM. And etc. It's everywhere. I love groove, and teach my ensembles that perception of a groove, and the ability to play in it, is an important skill (because groove is all over in composed music too).
posted by LooseFilter at 5:12 PM on May 30 [8 favorites]


I received a new terrestrial AM/FM band radio the other day. It works great, btw. As I was testing out the reception on the different stations I kept getting this song over and over.

There is a part of me that just wants to appreciate it for what it is and as a subtle subconscious reminder of this time.

Yet, the critical part of my mind keeps asking: "Why are all these different stations playing this same song?"

This life really is so short and it has so many things in it that you really need to pay attention to; especially if it's going to be meaningful in any way. Most of these things do not have any thing to do with the machinations of license holders, or those who have the money to power big towers.

Please enjoy this song if you will but also be mindful of where your money is going if you decide to purchase it.
posted by coolxcool=rad at 5:23 PM on May 30


I dunno. I find Happy just a wee bit irritating, and not because it's so overplayed (though that does add to the irritation). It strikes me as sort of being the Don't Worry, Be Happy of our times.
posted by Thorzdad at 5:25 PM on May 30 [2 favorites]


A room without a roof is a nice metaphor for feeling open and limitless, but it's also the result of a tornado.
posted by planetesimal at 5:34 PM on May 30 [13 favorites]


Honestly, this song makes me want to gouge my eyes out. I cannot believe that anyone thinks it's better than "Blurred Lines".
posted by unknowncommand at 5:43 PM on May 30 [3 favorites]


It strikes me as sort of being the Don't Worry, Be Happy of our times.

And this is bad because...? People are enjoying something that makes them feel good; be it long- or short-lived, it has value to many now, and that matters.

What worries me about "Happy" is that, as with much mass art, it may be indicative of what we're missing or need. "Happy" is making people feel light and carefree for a few minutes, and that's something a lot of people obviously are welcoming (judging by this track's utter ubiquity)...so that makes me think that things are really pretty shitty for a lot of people if this kind of feel-goodery is what's resonating so strongly right now. I read its popularity as a bad omen. (But then I've been kind of pessimistic about these things lately, you know, for the last 15 years or so.)
posted by LooseFilter at 5:46 PM on May 30 [12 favorites]


Blurred Lines makes incredible use of syncopation. It is enormously appealing to listen to even though I hate, hate, hate the lyrics.

Someone posted somewhere on the Blue recently about how the chord progression in Happy is especially compelling to the listener, but in a subtle way. Something about using diminished and minor chords resolving to a major chord. /pretending to know stuff about music theory.
posted by jeoc at 5:48 PM on May 30 [3 favorites]


Pharrell's song is okay, but C2C's "Happy" is better (and syncopates like hell).
posted by BungaDunga at 5:48 PM on May 30 [9 favorites]


that makes me think that things are really pretty shitty for a lot of people if this kind of feel-goodery is what's resonating so strongly right now.

Things have been pretty shitty for a lot of people for all of human history. Let's dance anyway.
posted by justsomebodythatyouusedtoknow at 5:54 PM on May 30 [23 favorites]


Well I mean the drugs help
posted by angerbot at 5:56 PM on May 30 [3 favorites]


Dancing rhythmically for hours brings a kind of release that I've never experienced anywhere else. It's mind clearing and meditative and I completely love it.

Music is such a black box to me. The theory behind it (especially trying to understand *why* it has such a profound effect on humans) is truly fascinating. It would be interesting to analyse contemporary house music to see to what extent it follows the expected level of syncopation.

Only tangentially related, but I recently enjoyed reading the lengthy and quite physics heavy Harmony Explained which presents a pretty interesting take on how music and chords interface with our brain. For an engineer like me it was a pretty brilliant explanation of a lot of music theory without any of the confusing Italian.
posted by leo_r at 5:58 PM on May 30 [8 favorites]


that makes me think that things are really pretty shitty for a lot of people if this kind of feel-goodery is what's resonating so strongly right now

Chic's "Good Times" intentionally quoted "Happy Days Are Here Again", the Depression-era song, as a response to the inflation, gas shortages etc. of the 1970's, according to Nile Rodgers. I think he says this in his autobiography, which you should read if you don't believe me.
posted by thelonius at 6:03 PM on May 30 [3 favorites]


> "Blurred Lines makes incredible use of syncopation."

You really think so? It always sounded to me like the composing process started with Irving Cohen shouting out, "Gimme a C! A bouncy C!"
posted by kyrademon at 6:03 PM on May 30


Why can't we sit still when we hear Ray Charles perform "I've Got a Woman"?

Because the "off" switch is across the room.
posted by Wolfdog at 6:35 PM on May 30 [6 favorites]


Actually, there are three main things I personally like about Happy:

1) It's about happiness as an intentional act of defiance ("I should probably warn you, I'll be just fine/no offense to you, don't waste your time") and defiant happiness is the best kind.

2) The musicianship is great technically. Beats the ever loving crap out of the abysmal and insipid pop music that dominated the 90s.

3) Its appeal is crosscultural and generational.

But the subject here is syncopation, ja? I use it all the time as a musician, but damned if I really understand or care how it works. It just feels good.
posted by saulgoodman at 6:36 PM on May 30 [8 favorites]


I always hear "Come along" in Happy as "Karl Malone" so to me the song is about Pharrell trying to cheer up the Mailman.
posted by Ghostride The Whip at 6:51 PM on May 30 [11 favorites]


I love Happy because it is an enormously tight and funky song I can listen to with my 4yo and feel totally comfortable with the lyrical content.

I have seen a gaggle of 4th/5th graders spontaneously erupt in rapturous dance to this song. It's inspiring music.
posted by gnutron at 6:51 PM on May 30 [4 favorites]


I must admit that this is the first time I've heard the song as I've clearly been under a rock. I loved it, it's a great summer bouncy song.
posted by arcticseal at 7:01 PM on May 30


I just thought people were dancing and clapping their hands because they felt like happiness was the truth.
posted by Spatch at 7:07 PM on May 30 [5 favorites]


But Bootsy told us already that groove is in our hearts! Finally the scientists listen.

And I can't lie, the first time as a kid I heard the original Heimcomputer playing at the alterna-record shop near my grade school, damn. I mean, damn. It wasn't Ralf's "sprechsingen" (it never is), it was that beat, that syncopated motortik crossed with the groove and it still doesn't fail to make me want to dance 33 years later.

Happy reminds me of being very small, and hearing my older relatives' Motown records. They had "deep soul" music too, which is even more "groove-y". I wish I could remember some of those tunes by name. Anyway, Happy's got that same sort of Motown feeling that so many people under 80 like, I mean, the guy's been a producer for 20 years and he pops these off like popcorn. I also noticed the minor resolution into major, which I like, too, though I also don't know enough music theory to talk about with any authority how it works to such pleasing results.
posted by droplet at 7:07 PM on May 30 [3 favorites]


I don't know if music theory really can explain why one groove is funky and another is lifeless. Maybe I am just content to leave it a mystery, like blues.
posted by thelonius at 7:18 PM on May 30


Pharrell is good at songs.
posted by frenetic at 7:25 PM on May 30 [2 favorites]


What I like about Happy is this:

Say you're the type to blindly follow instructions in songs (as I am), and you hear the lyric "Clap your hands..." You start clapping your hands, and the lyric continues, "if you feel that happiness is the truth." But you're already clapping your hands -- the truthfulness of happiness manifests self-evidently from participation in the song.

At least if you're a foolish, perpetually-adolescent idealist, like myself.
posted by malapropist at 8:03 PM on May 30 [8 favorites]


The "syncopation" link is a clip from How Music Works, which is available in a watchable (but not great) format on YouTube: Melody, Rhythm, Harmony, and Bass.
posted by filthy light thief at 8:09 PM on May 30 [3 favorites]


I wonder if the audio is still up somewhere? They give notation of 50 drum grooves from their test. It has ones the experimenters wrote, mixed in with some very heavy actual drum parts from funk records, which seems kind of weird from the standpoint of trying to do a really scientific study, which they seem to be wanting to do.
posted by thelonius at 8:16 PM on May 30


Sometimes I wonder if I'm brain-damaged or something, because I have never in my entire life felt any urge to dance and, in fact, simply do not understand why anyone would bother.
posted by aramaic at 8:28 PM on May 30


Aramaic, I am so, so, sorry.

This is not snark or sarcasm. You have not been able to experience what is probably the greatest joy in my, and most of my friends', life.
posted by flaterik at 8:39 PM on May 30 [4 favorites]


Happy is a well-wrought song, undermined by cultural supersaturation, such that I don't care if I never hear it again.

* Gallic shrug *

What can you do?
posted by sandettie light vessel automatic at 8:51 PM on May 30 [2 favorites]


"Superstition" is one of my absolute favorite songs, and I was fascinated to discover and read a musicological analysis of it as part of "Groove and Flow, Six Analytical Essays on the Music of Stevie Wonder," Tim Hughes' 2003 doctoral dissertation at the University of Washington. It's a fascinating dissection that reveals the subtleties-- and intentionality-- of a groove that feels spontaneous and natural. It made me appreciate Stevie Wonder so much more.
posted by underthehat at 9:20 PM on May 30 [6 favorites]


If Happy really annoys you, this might be the antidote: minor keyed, slow version of Happy
posted by Noisy Pink Bubbles at 10:12 PM on May 30 [2 favorites]


That minor key version is actually quite lovely. I also see no shame in loving the original.
posted by maudlin at 10:21 PM on May 30 [2 favorites]


Is this something I'd need a radio to know about?
posted by signal at 10:29 PM on May 30 [1 favorite]


"Superstition" is a clever Voight-Kampf test. If you hold totally still, you're not human.

One thing I've noticed about "Happy," and "Blurred Lines" too, is how the sound seems muted, almost. Controlled. Is there a name for this?

(It very subtly sounds the way photos with old-look filters look. Maybe I have a touch of synaesthesia?)
posted by cmyk at 10:32 PM on May 30


"Superstition" is a clever Voight-Kampf test. If you hold totally still, you're not human.

(sad voice) ... I am too a real human!

I wonder what the range is for what level of syncopation want to make us move. Happy is cute, but I've never actually made it through the whole video. Nor does Superstition hit me. But Got to Give it Up? I can't keep still. Same with a lot of Prince, and progressive house (but that might be due to social conditioning, id est doing enough bumps)

Friends in a band used to call Brown Eyed Girl the "white girl national anthem," because when they wanted to get the party started they would play the opening riff, and all the white girls would scream and rush the dance floor.
posted by kanewai at 10:55 PM on May 30 [1 favorite]


Music is the greatest human creation. Seriously if Aliens landed tomorrow I'm sure we'd quickly realize that our skyscrapers and stadiums and wifi are not going to impress them compared to our Mozart and Miles and Prince and Pharrell.
posted by chaz at 12:22 AM on May 31 [6 favorites]


* Gallic shrug * What can you do?

Shrug along if you feel like that's what you want to do?
posted by justsomebodythatyouusedtoknow at 12:35 AM on May 31 [4 favorites]


Blurred Lines makes incredible use of syncopation. It is enormously appealing to listen to even though I hate, hate, hate the lyrics.

Oh man. No song that I can remember has ever made me feel so guilty about loving it.

I drive a carpool with eight kids and can testify that Happy (totally unobjectionable, in contrast) is an enduring favorite. For a while there, my 10yo daughter could switch from station to station and pretty reliably find it playing somewhere (arrggggggh--I think one time we listened to it four times in one drive).
posted by torticat at 1:21 AM on May 31 [2 favorites]


I like the minions
posted by 5_13_23_42_69_666 at 1:26 AM on May 31 [4 favorites]


Is this something I'd need a radio to know about?


An internet, at the very least.
posted by louche mustachio at 1:30 AM on May 31


Of course, I had to go look up the video for "Happy" because I really do like the song. I have WFMU rolling in the background because I am supposed to be editing all the things, and they are playing King Tubby. There was an interesting clash of rhythms happening.


OH shit. Now they are playing Brave Combo Hosa Dyna. I am still listening to Happy. Do not try this at home.
posted by louche mustachio at 1:50 AM on May 31


I'm still vaguely bitter at how much air time this song has gotten. It sounds like a watered down version of stuff jamiroquai was doing 10 years ago. I mean i get that it's a right place/right time thing, but this isn't the kind of decades away time shifting that say, get lucky was. It feels like something that would have been a hit around when that annoying gnarles barkley "crazy" track was, with a flavor-shot of funk.

If Happy really annoys you, this might be the antidote: minor keyed, slow version of Happy

this sounds like an outtake from the eternal sunshine soundtrack.
posted by emptythought at 3:06 AM on May 31 [1 favorite]


I love happy because it sounds like something that would have been on Sesame Street in the late 70s, when I was watching it. The production also happens to be flawless.
posted by empath at 3:43 AM on May 31 [2 favorites]


Here's a curious anecdote. A few years ago I had pneumonia and an overnight stay at the hospital. One doctor visit included the attending and a flock of inters. One lucky intern was asking me questions (and generally deflecting my questions). As they were leaving the room the attending critiqued this intern, saying he just experienced syncopation in his conversation me--a halting, and mutually interrupting conversation. I just thought it was interesting someone taught this doctor to understand doctor--patient conversation in this way.
posted by xtian at 4:15 AM on May 31 [1 favorite]


Pharrell has a few songs on his new album that are almost as catchy as Happy. He has a ton of talent. And he seems like a good guy, too.
posted by persona au gratin at 5:22 AM on May 31


empath: I was watching SS at the same time, and I totally can see Happy on it.

And speaking of Superstition, it was on SS.
posted by persona au gratin at 5:26 AM on May 31


Pharrell has a few songs on his new album that are almost as catchy as Happy.

People may not realize this, but Pharrell is one of the most prolific producers and song-writers in the music industry, and had multiple Grammy's before Daft Punk and Happy. He's as close to a Quincy Jones as anyone in Hollywood has been for a while.

Here's his personal discography.

Here's his discography as half of NERD/The Neptunes.
posted by empath at 6:28 AM on May 31 [1 favorite]


I love music, but I'm one of those people with no musical abilities. Zero. I have unasked questions here because I don't have the vocabulary to explain what I'm asking about, but you've hit on the two words I do have: groove and syncopation. I cannot wait to dive into this, thank you!

Is this something I'd need a radio to know about?

Nope. Date a drummer.
posted by Room 641-A at 6:47 AM on May 31


OK, I just heard the song "Happy" for the first time, and I don't really see anything special at all. It's OK, I guess, but doesn't really make me "want to move". It's certainly much less groove-ey than Prince, James Brown, et al. Maybe you have to be saturated by it, as it seems some people here have been, to get it.
posted by signal at 9:16 AM on May 31 [1 favorite]


I like the minions

My nephew calls Despicable Me 2 the movie where they go, "Bee bo! Bee Bo!"
posted by dirigibleman at 9:18 AM on May 31 [1 favorite]


OK, I just heard the song "Happy" for the first time...

As did I, only a couple of days ago.

...and I don't really see anything special at all.

Neither did I. It mostly just made me think: "I wish he'd done this with a human drummer instead of a loop."

Maybe you have to be saturated by it, as it seems some people here have been, to get it.

Maybe so. Or maybe you just have to have really lowered expectations about what a really funky groove is all about. Maybe you need to have just not heard all that much James Brown or Sly and the Family Stone. I dunno.
posted by flapjax at midnite at 9:23 AM on May 31


... or maybe you have heard and loved James, Sly et. al. and still really like this, too? I've given up worrying if I like or don't like any very popular music. While Happy is getting a little played out for me, I love the mere existence of new tribute videos like this one from Antarctica. I still have a soft spot for Gangnam Style covers/remixes, too.

So are the people creating some of these tributes and georemixes just cynically appropriating something popular for their own purpose, or do any of them sincerely love the highly produced commercial hit music that forms the base for their efforts?
posted by maudlin at 9:41 AM on May 31 [1 favorite]


Maybe you need to have just not heard all that much James Brown or Sly and the Family Stone.

I find that when I don't compare everything I encounter to the Best Version of That Thing, Ever, that I enjoy many more things, to a much greater degree.

Maybe I just like liking things.
posted by LooseFilter at 9:53 AM on May 31 [8 favorites]


This is a great thread. I've been listening to various songs mentioned here as I've been reading comments. I started "I've Got a Woman" and got back to reading. Within about 20 seconds, I started utterly involuntarily making my mouse dance and only realized it several seconds after I staretd doing so. It made me laugh heartily.
posted by Conrad Cornelius o'Donald o'Dell at 10:34 AM on May 31


Stevie did a couple of songs with the Funk Brothers that were pretty funky too. Check out the rhythm section on "I Was Made To Love Her". That bass line would make your momma blush.
posted by RobotVoodooPower at 12:16 PM on May 31


Hearing "Happy" makes me want to punch someone in the face. What would really make me happy is Grumpy Cat pissing on Pharrell.
posted by mike3k at 1:31 PM on May 31


Save your punches for "Hunter". That damned cheesy falsetto probably ought to be retired.
posted by planetesimal at 1:47 PM on May 31


It strikes me as sort of being the Don't Worry, Be Happy of our times.

I think if you watch this video of Bobby McFerrin demonstrating the near-universality of the pentatonic scale, you might forgive him.
posted by straight at 5:53 PM on May 31 [2 favorites]


flapjax at midnite: "Or maybe you just have to have really lowered expectations about what a really funky groove is all about. Maybe you need to have just not heard all that much James Brown or Sly and the Family Stone."

Or maybe you must just have different tastes. I don't like Happy very much (okay, my kids like it, and I like seeing them when they're happy, but the song doesn't do anything at all for me personally), but this habit of saying "I like this, so people who don't like this must be musically ignorant or have bad taste", or "I don't like this, so people who do like it must be musically ignorant or have bad taste" is horrible and I wish it would fucking go away.
posted by Bugbread at 6:08 PM on May 31 [3 favorites]


It mostly just made me think: "I wish he'd done this with a human drummer instead of a loop."

Funny, when I hear a nice live drummer, I tend to think, "This would make a good loop."
posted by empath at 6:23 PM on May 31 [3 favorites]


Oops, my mind has returned. If this post is about what makes a song all syncopation and danceable and stuff, please watch and listen to the magic happen here.
posted by breadbox at 7:10 PM on May 31


Sorry to offend you, Bugbread. The musician in me can't help but make comparisons. That the comment rubbed you so seriously the wrong way, though ("fucking go away" and all that) leads me to believe that you've read into it a hostility toward other people's taste in music that I in fact do not actually possess. Or perhaps someone just peed in your cornflakes this morning.
posted by flapjax at midnite at 8:13 PM on May 31


The whole G I R L album sounds like it was made in Pharrell's basement in his special chamber where he shits out earworms, so don't bemoan the lack of live instrumentation. He'll pay some guy to play the drums along with a live performance.
posted by planetesimal at 8:42 PM on May 31


I just heard the song "Happy" for the first time, and I don't really see anything special at all.

It's the lyrics. They're not deep, it's definitely crowd-pleaser writing, but I am capable of being in a crowd and I feel pleased when the song comes on.

Remember a couple years ago when "Pumped Up Kicks" was the song KROQ couldn't go fifteen minutes without playing? I actually really like Foster the People, but that song is about fucking shooting up your school.

I love that the overplayed song of the moment asks me to move in a celebration of pure positive energy. I've been stuck in traffic twice now and had this song come on and completely change my mood. I'm usually really pretentious about pop culture, but this song does not have to be deep to profoundly connect with me.
posted by malapropist at 1:23 AM on June 1 [1 favorite]


I've heard a ton of James Brown, Sly, Bootsy, etc. Happy isn't that quality, but it's a good song.
posted by persona au gratin at 2:28 AM on June 1 [1 favorite]


And I like Hunter, too.

My evening music consisted of Fun House followed by Never Mind the Bollocks, and was topped off by Pink Flag. And I think Hunter is a good song. It ain't Marvin Gaye. But what else is?
posted by persona au gratin at 2:33 AM on June 1


flapjax at midnite: "That the comment rubbed you so seriously the wrong way, though ("fucking go away" and all that) leads me to believe that you've read into it a hostility toward other people's taste in music that I in fact do not actually possess."

Not hostility, but disdain? I can't think of the right word, but 上から目線, in that the two options you give for people liking it are "lowered expectations" and "lack of familiarity with other musicians", not admitting the possibility that you could have decent expectations and like James Brown or Sly and the Family Stone and like this too.
posted by Bugbread at 4:15 AM on June 1 [2 favorites]


上から目線

Condescending is the word you want.
posted by empath at 6:36 AM on June 1 [1 favorite]


Thanks.

Feeling stupid now.
posted by Bugbread at 7:28 AM on June 1


Uh, also, in case it's not obvious, because its hard to express nuance in text: Flapjax, I'm not hoping you go away or anything. I was just talking about that attitude. You, yourself, are cool.
posted by Bugbread at 7:32 AM on June 1 [3 favorites]


Count me in the camp that counts Happy as a little slice of contemporary pop genius. It's so very simple and so very clever at the same time. It does have a certain calm to it, it's not showy or bombastic. Just feels kinda lovely!

FYI. There are essentially just 3 tracks of "music" - programmed drums, 1 channel of bass and 1 channel of keyboards and the rest of the song is built from vocals and hand claps.

You can read the gory, geeky details in the Sound on Sound Inside Track piece on it. Music geeks will notice how simple the mix is as well... Very few special tricks or esoteric plugins or hardware.

The other thing that's fascinating for me is that Pharrell has a 'real' voice. It isn't technically perfect, it isn't tuned into meaningless, it's full of personality and soul and very very human. I saw an interview where he talks about how he actually feels unconfident as a singer fronting a song but he knows that it's that humanness that can actually make a pop song work and connect and he knows exactly when to use that for best effect. Reading about how he worked with Miley and made a feature of that record that the listener gets her 'real' voice - no autotune, minimal editing, trying to get her to get something that feels real at the heart of this mainstream pop.

I find his work fascinating. He seems absolutely driven to make great pop music and he seems to do so without ego and with a humbleness towards the song and artist that I find very refreshing. He enables artists to do something unique and that's something that pays of in great records when you're a producer with taste and understanding.

I'm fascinated to see what he does next.

[claps hands]
posted by Mr Ed at 6:06 AM on June 2 [3 favorites]


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