The Search for Happy Music

Some years ago I signed a contract to become a library track composer for a company in New York. They wanted one thing: happy music.

The task did not seem too difficult. I had written happy music before. Unfortunately, such works had always been in conjunction with visuals or words, which tended to inform the listener that the music was happy. So, while I attempted to produce such stimuli for myself, the resulting compositions were not really "happy". There was melody, sweetness, sincerity, harmony, beauty, but happiness proved elusive.

Since then, I have scored many promotional films. The nature of film production inevitably includes some stages of revision, but the only suggestion ever made for my music is that it should be more upbeat / happy. These two experiences - in promos and library composition - have aroused my curiosity about what precisely makes music “happy”.

Happiness in Music

Although you can put sugar into a recipe and be sure that the cake will therefore taste sweet, composing is not like baking. The happiness someone feels when listening to a particular piece of music is not the consequence of the happiness being “put into” the composition - whether it is the happiness in the heart of the composer or the happiness of the subject matter.

It is easy to evoke sadness within music. A wistful melody over weeping strings, a sympathetic roll of the harp, a Wagnerian yearning for something better in the harmony. Sadness is relatively straightforward to evoke. But happiness - just like in real life - is much more elusive. 

We might adopt the opposite musical style to that named for sadness, but more often than not a tune in the major key, with uplifting transpositions, can sound as cheesy as a Eurovision song. That is unsuccessful, because in music as in life, when someone overtly tries to make us feel happy we usually refuse!

Happy songs are seldom happy because the music is comic. Think of Donald O'Connor and Gene Kelly singing Moses Supposes in "Singin' in the Rain". They transform a fairly generic and predictable little song into something light and amusing. Take away the dancing, the faces and the words and ask yourself, does it still say "happiness"? No. That's fine, as long as the composition is destined to be used within a drama. 

But what about the library track and promo scores?

A library track is - by its nature - written in isolation of any subject matter. You might like to suggest something by the title, but in the end the composition will be judged entirely by how well it communicates all on its own.

The score of a promotional video is usually seeking to elevate the mundane to the exceptional. Companies want to promote themselves in so many mundane capacities and the composer's responsibility is to make the viewer consider the product / service in a new and better light. So the composer is not stimulated by a wonderfully happy subject - but actually has to project something beyond what is really there.

Which brings us back to the same problem: how to meet the demand for happy music.

What makes us feel good?

When people say they want “happy” music what they really mean is that they want music to make people feel good. 

It is impossible to write music to make people feel good when those people can differ so widely. Some people "feel good" when their ears are stroked by a calm Chopin Nocturne. Other people "feel good" with the violence of Beethoven in full swing. Other people "feel good" with the safety of a tame Mozart work like the Clarinet concerto. Other people "feel good" if their ears are assaulted by Stravinsky. Over the course of the 20th century, people learned to take pleasure in a topsy-turvy way. My former composition tutor once enthused at an avant-garde concert that left me suppressing giggles. Judging by the concert hall reaction, his ecstasy was unnatural and my derision commonplace.

There is a compositional need to find a common language that can be interpreted as "feel good" and we find it in popular music. In the late 19th century, happiness was in the whirling waltzes of the Strauss family and Lehar. In early 20th century England, happiness was in long-forgotten musicals, with vivid stories and characters. Within 20 years, England was moving to jazz instead, then towards swing, rhythm and blues and the pop song. 

The music that any given generation adores and uses for its relaxation and entertainment, is the music that makes that generation "feel good". The solution therefore to writing music that makes people happy, is to adopt the most recent popular musical style that achieves this goal.

The problem then is what style? After jazz / blues / and light pop came Folk, Rock (in every form from Psychedelic to Punk Rock), Heavy Metal, Country, Rap, Hip Hop, House. None of these styles has gained universal appeal. None of these styles can claim to be entertaining or "feel good". In fact, they are largely characterised as angry, aggressive or depressing. 

Compromise and Compromise

A few years ago I was commissioned to score a “THIS GIRL CAN” promo. The group of ladies (keep fit and homemade soup) wanted to use the song from the advert (Missy Elliot song "Get Ur Freak On"). My sound-alike-but-not-too-close sounded like this:

It works because the vibe of the track is what people expect. But it is not what I would have chosen for ordinary young mums exercising together and learning how to cook. The music gives a background colour of "modernness" but it communicates nothing because the musical style is not designed to communicate. It is a soundtrack of culture. It is not a medium of thought. It does not possess the finesse to express something that could be heard and understood. 

Earlier this year, I scored another promo with great care. I hit the important moments, with minute tempo changes to make sure the timings felt natural. There was structure in the score, so that the video's pacing was kept under control and the middle section was differentiated from the first and last. The feedback was given and once more - could it be more upbeat? The rescored soundtrack achieved its goal by the following means:

  1. Constant tempo throughout (no hit points, except by accident).
  2. Unchanging tonality - removal of the middle section transposition, which gave a lift to the finale.
  3. Restricted harmony - not quite chords I, IV and V, but almost.
  4. The same melody throughout.
  5. The addition of a strumming guitar line and drums for lift at the end.

By the time the piece was completed (3 almost exact repeats of the same 8 bars), my well scored composition sounded like a cheap and generic library track. 

Once film music was a refuge for the trained composer who shunned the avant-garde Classical sphere. But things are changing fast. The reliance on library tracks has made people perceive the use of music very differently. If the musical score now plays an active role in certain promos, it is intrusive and deemed wrong. 

Finding Happiness (sort of)

Music which makes us feel good today has its roots 50-100 years earlier. Alan Menken's Beauty and the Beast owes a lot to Lehar's Merry Widow. I satisfy the contemporary need for upbeat and sassy modern promo music by writing with jazzy syncopation and blue notes. It is a never-never-land musical style which evokes 1950s American fun-ness (ironic, if you read this on Accents). It is the only way I can make a client believe that the music is "feel good". If I write in my own English musical style, I am deemed melancholy and wistful. So I write and play like this instead:

The snobs of Classical Music do not care about this predicament because they would never allow music to a mundane application and happy music has rarely entered the Classical repertoire. There used to be non-snobs, ordinary people, who were unaffected by highbrow trends and just liked music that could be interpreted by the way it sounds. But so many of those people have adapted their ears to every icon of popular music and spent the better part of 50 years learning to call ugly beautiful and angry hopeful. 

In short, my search for happy music has revealed an ever-widening gulf in our ability to communicate through music. It is not that music is dead or has changed out of all recognition (that's an entirely different conversation). It is us. We have changed. We listen but we do not always hear. We are confused. We are rapidly becoming unable to hear the beauty anymore. We want cruder brush strokes. We interpret any real craft and skill in composition as wrong.

That does not just make a composer's task difficult, but impossible.