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Top 40 Philosophy: Pharrell, “Happy”

Posted in Top 40 Philosophy

We’ve got one more saxophone revival song left to do, but I’ve got a different issue on my mind today, so please forgive a quick analysis of “Happy,” by Pharrell Williams. (“Happy,” as you will recall, was huge last year.)

“Happy” is a gift to all philosophy teachers who  are reading Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics with their students. Aristotle claims that we all ultimately do everything we do for happiness. The question he then sets out to answer is what exactly happiness is.

Aristotle’s ultimate conclusion is that happiness is being awesome. If you’re awesome, you’re happy, and if you aren’t, you aren’t. But what does it mean to be awesome? For humans it means to be fully human, and thus to do the things that are appropriate to humans (rather than to dogs or cats) in the most excellent and mature way possible. While there is room for you to do you, and for me to do me (to paraphrase Cali Swag District), the true core of happiness is for each of us to “do human.”

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What’s particularly interesting about “Happy” from a philosophy of music point of view, however, is that the music itself is not happy. It’s in a distinctly minor key. Just listen to the mournful, “Happy! Happy! Happy! Happy!” line sung by the choir towards the end of the song. It’s really depressing.

But you don’t notice it if you’re not listening for it. The song itself is very happy even though it’s in a “sad” key. Why? Similarly, why does traditional Jewish music always sound sad to Western ears, even when the songs are celebratory and everyone’s dancing at a wedding? Is happiness and sadness just in the ear of the beholder?

I don’t think so. I think there really is an emotional difference between “major” and “minor” chords and keys. But I don’t think the difference is between “happy” and “sad.”

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Here’s my theory: minor chords and keys sound “serious” to the human ear. But you can take many things seriously. Perhaps it’s easiest to take sadness and depression seriously, but it’s also possible to take your happiness and partying seriously.

So, when you hear a minor chord or key, you feel serious, and that feeling can be channeled either into seriousness about something “upbeat” — like in “Happy” — or into something more tragic, like in “One of Us” One culture might tend to use the seriousness for happiness, while another uses it for sadness, but I think the seriousness is still there. (That’s why “serious” “artistic” music tends to be “moody” and “sad” in Western culture.)

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So, what’s the opposite of “serious”? If minor keys and chords are serious, what are major ones? I think something like “light” or “frivolous”

[ETA: but with no negative connotations; better: “comic,” in the Shakespearean sense] would be the term. Think about the relation between tempo and emotion. “Happy” is a fast song, and this signals to us that its seriousness should be channeled into dancing, rather than into moping. Contrast “Moving Very Slowly,” by (Homestar Runner’s/Strong Bad’s fake band) Taranchula.

So, while minor chords and keys are “serious,” major chords and keys are “light on their feet,” or perhaps “frivolous” [ETA: “comic”]. You can then combine both major chords and keys with a fast tempo (“Walking on Sunshine“) to be completely “frothy” or “bouncy,” or major keys with a slower tempo to be seriously happy, or minor keys with a faster tempo for a similar effect, or minor keys with a slower tempo, for a kind of tragic nobility (“Song of the Volga Boatmen“).

We might even be able to make a similar connection between high and low notes, but because of the strain and effort we have to put into singing higher, we hear “higher” as “more tense” and “lower” as “more relaxed.”

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So, I think Plato was right in the Republic to say that different “modes” have different emotional effects on humans, and even to think those effects were intrinsic to the tonalities involved. It’s not “just cultural.” But to really develop this theory and figure out how to deal with counterexamples, I’d need more than a blog post.

[ETA: Any full theory, furthermore, would have to take into account the fact that “Happy” sounds happy in large part because of its lyrics. A change of words can create a change of tone, whatever the tonality might be.]

2 Comments

  1. Allen Stairs
    Allen Stairs

    My instinct about the major/minor thing is like yours (though I wouldn’t use the word “frivolous”) but it strikes me that this is a question with a very large empirical dimension, and cross-cultural data would be really important. I can easily imagine having to give up my instinct.

    July 21, 2015
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  2. Good points! I don’t like “frivolous” either. How about “comic,” in the Shakespearean sense, to oppose the “tragic” sense minor chords and keys?

    What I need now is a huge grant and a team of psychologists who know how to construct and conduct cross-cultural surveys and experiments (on top of needing the flexibility to give up my intuitions if they turn out to be wrong.) 🙂

    July 21, 2015
    |Reply

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