Skip to comments.Anatomy Of A Dance Hit: Why We Love To Boogie With Pharrell
Posted on 05/31/2014 5:38:06 PM PDT by nickcarraway
There's no doubt Pharrell's "Happy" is the biggest hit of the year so far. It spent 15 weeks at the top of the Billboard 100 and inspired hundreds of fan videos on YouTube.
Just a few weeks ago, six Iranian teenagers got arrested for posting a video of themselves dancing to the catchy song.
So what is it about "Happy" that triggers a nearly uncontrollable need to tap your foot, bob your head or move to the rhythm in some way?
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Last month neuroscientists at Aarhus University in Denmark published a study showing that danceable grooves have just the right amount of gaps or breaks in the beats. Your brain wants to fill in those gaps with body movement, says the study's lead author, Maria Witek.
"Gaps in the rhythmic structure, gaps in the sort of underlying beat of the music that sort of provides us with an opportunity to physically inhabit those gaps and fill in those gaps with our own bodies," she says.
A few years ago, Witek set out to figure out which songs got people onto the dance floor.
She created an online survey and gave people drum patterns to listen to. Some had really simple rhythms with regular beats. Others had extremely complex rhythms, with lots of gaps where you'd expect beats to be. Finally there were drumming patterns that fell in the middle of those two extremes. They have a regular, predictable beat, but also some pauses or gaps.
Witek says that people all over the world agreed on which drum patterns made them most want to dance: "Not the ones that have very little complexity and not the ones that had very, very high complexity," she says, "but the patterns that had a sort of a balance between predictability and complexity."
These rhythms offer enough regularity so that we can perceive the underlying beat, Witek and her team reported in the journal PLOS ONE. But they also need enough gaps or breaks to invite participants to synchronize to the music.
Jelle van de Wall/YouTube So which popular songs on the radio today have this optimal amount of complexity?
"I think the recent single by Pharrell, 'Happy,' is a very good example," Witek says.
The song is layered with predictable beats and complex, syncopated ones. The drums, the piano, the clapping and even Pharrell's voice create inviting gaps, she says.
But Pharrell isn't the only one who knows about this trick. Classic dance tunes in disco, funk, hip-hop and rhythm and blues also hit this sweet spot of syncopation, Witek says.
"Michael Jackson, Stevie Wonder those guys have a lot of tracks which seem to have this balance between predictability and complexity when it comes to the rhythmic structure," she says.
And don't forget about Ray Charles. His 1950s hit "I've Got a Woman" made everybody want to hit the dance floor.
But it's not just a song's syncopation that gets you to go from tapping your foot in your chair to standing up and full-out dancing. It's also the song's layers of rhythm, says neuroscientist Daniel Levitin at McGill University.
"In 'I've Got a Woman,' the drums are keeping a very steady rhythm. The piano is syncopated and the vocals are exquisitely nuanced in time," Levitin says. "It's very difficult to sing along with him [Ray Charles] exactly the way he does it."
So we don't sing with Charles. Instead we want to move with him.
"The more rhythmically complex the music is ... the easier it is to engage different body parts," Levitin says, "because they can be synchronizing with different aspects of the music."
So you're swinging your shoulders with the snare drums. You're bobbing your head with the piano. "And you might be wiggling your hips in half-time or something like that," he says.
Before you know it, you're up out of your chair and doing the twist.
But thats it.
It's a black thing.
It should have won the Oscar, much better than that song from frozen.
i love it, it’s like a throw back song to the 80s or something.
It is a catchy tune. It has a retro vibe that makes me think of the song “Crazy” from a few years ago.
That was cute.
I’ve never heard it before, but it’s catchy.
I think it throws back to the ‘60s and Motown.
This is the secret of afro-cuban and samba rhythms.
I HATE that song. And I hated it the very first time I heard it. Juvenile and gay.
It's a damn rare thing to feel joyful these days.
There’s no doubt Pharrell’s “Happy” is the biggest hit of the year so far
If you say so.
Never heard of Pharrell or the song..........
I would be willing to bet that ignorance is bliss in this case.....
It ain’t that pretty at all.
It’s got a nice beat and you can dance to it.
Of course, Pharrell also sang on the other huge song of the year, “Get Lucky”, which introduced this generation to the greatness that is Nile Rodgers.
Agree on all points. This is the kind of stuff we need more of.
You should give it a listen...you might be surprised.
I think that about the tenth time I heard it I realized it’s not about someone who is happy, but rather someone who is profoundly depressed desperately trying to convince himself he’s happy.
That song is destined to be a standard.
google “pharell GQ tea party” if you want to see what an ignorant schmuck he is in reality.
I disagree. "Frozen" is an inspiring song. Something I'd like to tell my sons. Sarah Bareilles album with that song is full of really good songs.
Yes he support the Hildabeast for President and consider Tea Party Members as RACIST. That is enough for me to consider him a douche bag no matter how HAPPY is song is.
Thank you for your thoughtful and nuanced review.
Pharrell who? What song?
So you give it a 78? :—)
I always enjoy complex songs with many layers, attacks, pauses, rests, key changes, crescendos, etc. They always keep you guessing. One of the best in recent years is the the Opening Titles song to "John Adams" by Rob Lane. Very martial music. Sends chills down my spine every time.
Absolutely. That's why it is such a nice surprise to see this particular song be such a big hit. Maybe people are getting a wee bit tired of twenty years of rap garbage.
Fighting words to my 8-year-old daughter and her gang of friends who belt out "Let it go" in its entirety at least once a day.
LOL, I’m sure! My own daughter (who is grown up) says “Let it Go” grows on you, for your sake I hope that’s right!
To my grand daughters also. I’ve lost count of how many times I have heard that plus Do You Want To Build A Snowman.
(P)resident Obama has already bookmarked that video for use in the event there is another terrorist attack anywhere in the world.
I have to admit that this song makes me break out in a great big smile and makes me want to dance every time I hear it.
That and I have triplet great nieces and their parents, who refer to them as the Minions put together a Despicable Me themed dance party to celebrate their 6th birthdays along with their 7 year old older sister who has her birthday a week later. They rented a fire hall, made some of the food themselves including Minion cookies and a Minion themed birthday cake and also ordered many, many pizzas and had a friend of theirs who is a professional DJ, DJ the party. Each kid got to invite 3 of their friends from school so along with all their cousins and the neighbors kids and their step sister and two of their cousins who are half black, and my oldest great nieces very best friend who is Japanese; there were probably about 30 kids in all.
I got such a kick out of watching all these little kids dancing and having fun; dancing from everything from the chicken dance and the hokey pokey and YMCA and the Pennsylvania Polka and the Electric Slide and the more recent Cha Cha Slide and even an Elvis song, and the theme song from Frozen, Let It Go and other songs from that movie. But the very best part was at the very end of the party, watching all the little kids and all the adults, including me and the parents and the grandparents all dance to Happy. : ), It was great fun : ),
Chic Good Times. Another song played at just about every wedding Ive ever been to since the early 80s along with I Will Survive. LOL!
I agree that while Good Times was considered a big disco hit at the time, Rodgers is a great funk guitarist - much more funk than disco.
My eldest great niece who is 20 years old loves and is a huge fan of Daft Punk and has gained an appreciation of the classic funk of the 70s as a result.
Yep, sounds like fun alright!