Positive Emotions & Pharrell Williams’s “Happy”

by Menchi L

We take for granted that music promotes emotion, but it is difficult for anybody to explain why. The purpose of the paper is to identify aspects of music that might explain the variety of positive emotions experienced by listeners. I will begin with an investigation of the relationship between music composition and happiness will be conducted using the example of a famous song “Happy” by Pharrell Williams. The song’s structure will be used to illustrate how music may elevate emotional, physical, and physiological moods. I will analyze quantitative research regarding how music serves individual and social functions in its ability to manage and regulate mood and relationships. These findings indicate causal relationships between music and well-being.


With 5.6 million units sold in the U.S. alone, Pharrell William’s catchy tune “Happy” is arguably one of the most popular songs of 2014 (Caulfield). Its success may be attributed to its unique mix of genres as well as particular features of its musical composition designed to elevate listeners’ emotional state. Though it may fall under the general umbrella of R&B, the integration of various musical genres and the cross-generational elements of “Happy” appeal to the taste of a wide audience. According to the album review in iTunes, the song mixes soul and pop with elements of R&B from the late 60s, 70s, and 80s, creating a fresh combination with mass appeal (Williams). Lauren Stewart argues that “Happy” transcends different genres, and people may be more inclined to accept it (Forde).

The repetitive and instructional nature of the lyrics also contributes to the success of “Happy.” The chorus “Because I am happy… Clap along if you feel like that is what you wanna do” is repeated six times and the bridge “Bring me down, can’t nothing… Bring me down, I said” is repeated three times, all in less than four minutes of music. More than half of the song consists of repetition in the last two minutes (Jamison). Gabrielsson suggests that recognition of musical quotation—lyric is a pleasurable practice for many listeners, and repeated musical listening showed a tendency of increased satisfaction (Hallam et al. 152). Elizabeth Margulis suggests that the lyrical repetition in “Happy” (i.e., “clap along”) in the chorus has the ability to entrain our bodies physically (Forde). This would seem to indicate that the repeated lyrical processing of the song becomes involved in individual experience, stimulating psychological excitement.

The upbeat tempo of “Happy” could also contribute to a positive mood among listeners. Tempo, or “the perceived pulse rate” of a song, is a melodic factor that affects emotional expression (Hallam et al. 143). The 160 beats per minute (BPM) tempo of “Happy” is considered to be in the fastest tempo category (150-170 BPM) (“Pharrell Williams-Happy-160 BPM”). According to Eric Clarke, Oxford professor and author of Music and Mind in Everyday Life, a fast tempo tends to increase the level of physiological energy, which is identified as one form of happiness (Gibsone). Hodges and Gabrielsson support the idea that music stimulates depended on its tempo by causing pulse rate to increase and by activating feelings of excitement, pleasantness, potency, and surprise (Hallam, 1 22, 143). Furthermore, Sloboda, Lamint and Greasley suggested that personal use of music accompanies with physical activities since music has the capacity of physical energizing and entrainment. Energizing is regarded as maintaining arousal and task attention, and the task movement are timed to synchronize with the pulse of the music in entrainment (Hallam et al, 431). They explored the function of music in-depth and found that faster beats per minute were preferred for higher intensity exercise (Hallam et al, 434). It indicates tempo has a consistent relationship with exercise setting for primarily arousal and motivational reasons. Given that physiological changes can influence emotional states, it is not surprising that the physiological excitement induced by the fast tempo of “Happy” could result in a sense of joy. Based on the aforementioned analysis of “Happy” by Pharrell Williams, the relationship between structural features of music (i.e., genre, lyrics, repetition, tempo) and perceived happiness can be explained as the fulfillment of musical preference and elevated physical and physiological response.

Work Cited

Caulfield, Keith (2014). ‘Frozen,’ Pharrell Williams Lead Mid-Year SoundScan Charts [online]. Available at http://www.billboard.com/articles/news/6143254/frozen-pharrell-williams-lead-mid-year-soundscan-charts-2014 (Accessed 12 July 2014).

Forde, Eamonn. (2014) happy by Pharrell Williams: why this song has grabbed the nation. Available at http://www.bigissue.com/features/3498/happy-by-pharrell-williams-why-this-song-has-grabbed-the-nation (Accessed 29 July 2014).

Gibsone, Harriet. (2014) How Pharrell Williams captured the essence of happiness [online]. Available at http://www.theguardian.com/music/musicblog/2014/apr/08/pharrell-williams-happy-single (Accessed 29 July 2014).

Hallam, Susan, Ian Cross, and Michael Thaut. “The relationship between musical structure and perceived expression.” The Oxford handbook of music psychology. Ed. Alf Gabrielsson. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009. 141-150 Print.

Hallam, Susan, Ian Cross, and Michael Thaut. “The relationship between musical structure and perceived expression.” The Oxford handbook of music psychology. Ed. Donald A. Hodges. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009. 122-130 Print.

Hallam, Susan, Ian Cross, and Michael Thaut. “The relationship between musical structure and perceived expression.” The Oxford handbook of music psychology. Ed. John Sloboda, Alexandra Lamont and Alinka Greasley. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009. 431-440 Print.

Jamison, Carly. (2014) Songwriting Analysis – Pharrell Williams – Happy [online]. 2014. Available at http://www.carlyjamison.com/2014/03/15/songwriting-analysis-pharrell-williams-happy/ (Accessed 28 July 2014).

“Pharrell Williams – Happy – 160 BPM.” Workout Music. Run Hundred, n.d. Web. 27 July. 2014.

Williams (2013) Happy. iTunes [Download], Available at https://itunes.apple.com/us/album/g-i-r-l/id823593445 (Accessed 17 July, 2014).

One thought on “Positive Emotions & Pharrell Williams’s “Happy”

  1. Pingback: I was cited in an academic paper. » Carly Jamison Carly Jamison

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