Pharrell Williams & the 3 riddles of Happy

None of the words in Pharrell Williams’ songs are long or difficult, but there are often a lot of them. If you’re going to sing a cover of Happy, you need to give each word time and space.

Happy needs to feel relaxed and expansive. If you’re racing, blurring and stressing your way through the verse or the bridge, the song’s effortless mood will slide away from you. If English isn’t your first language: please don’t just sing the word happy loudly, every so often. Every word is important to the song.

Pharrell builds and boosts the light, upbeat feel of Happy by choosing and placing each word with precision. How does he fix them into place? We’ll look at his technique for framing the airy vowels, then at the first verse and the bridge. Watch the live video and ask yourself these 3 questions:

  • Pharrell adds a sound to the end of most lines. What and why?
  • Where does Pharrell take a breath in the line I’m a hot air balloon that could go to space? And where does he put the stress – hot, air or balloon?
  • What do you hear when he sings Bring me down, can’t nothing? What does the th of nothing sound like? How about the ng?       

You noticed the uh sound that Pharrell adds to the end of most lines, didn’t you? Why is that uh important when you sing Happy? It does 3 things:

  • It’s repeated, line after line, so it frames and contains the springy, regular rhythm of the song.
  • It stops Pharrell getting bogged down in the vowel line endings of say, space, way, truth, roof etc.  The uh helps him mark the end of each line neatly. It helps him bounce back up again for the next.
  • The uh sound echoes the claps that punctuate Happy.

When you sing Happy, take care to end each line neatly. Use an uh like Pharrell’s, if it suits you. Otherwise find your own way to end your vowel sounds clearly and crisply. Airy vowels are important to the song, but don’t linger too long on any of them. Think of yourself as a rubber ball, bouncing from sound to sound as you sing.

Try adding an uh at the end of a line. If it works for you, great. If an uh doesn’t suit your style, think about how you’ll end each line cleanly when there’s no consonant to help you mark the end of words. Crisp, clear line endings frame the spacious vowels of Happy in sharp relief.

Next question: Pharrell takes a breath after a in the line I’m a hot air balloon that could go to space. Why take a breath so close to the beginning of the line?

Because that unusual breath break stops the stress from falling, as it naturally should in English, on hot or air. Hot and air aren’t the Most Important Words. The long, airy oo vowel of balloon is the important sound.

The breath Pharrell takes after a helps him to reach the oo with plenty of breath and energy to spare. The unusual break’s enough to make the audience pay attention.

If English isn’t your first language – notice that Pharrell uses schwa sounds to help him speed through words that don’t need to be stressed. I, a, to and the a of balloon are all schwa sounds in this line.  Each schwa shaves a millisecond off the time it takes to sing a word. Those milliseconds add up. If you sing full vowels instead of schwas your words won’t fit the notes of the song.

Now then. Let’s take it to the bridge: Bring me down, can’t nothing. What can you hear? Bring me down is clear enough, but it’s hard to hear the t of can’t.  The vowel sound tells you that it’s can’t not can. You can’t hear the final g of nothing and the th in the middle has turned into a soft double t.  So, how do you sing the word nothing, if you’re not Pharrell?

Don’t sing nuttin. The tt will sound too precise. Don’t sing nuddin. Nuddin’s not a word, and that dd sound is too thick for Happy.

The meaning of Can’t nothing bring me down is important to the song. Remember:

  • Don’t blur or mumble a version of nothing. Be clear with the way you choose to sing the word.
  • Don’t sing the sounds you think you hear. Pharrell doesn’t sing ‘Canna’.  He’s not Scottish.
  • Be creative. A cover is your version of a song. Stay true to the meaning and the mood, but play with the sounds to suit your own interpretation. Be a human, not a parrot.

Listen to  Pentatonix dealing creatively with the challenge of Can’t nothing. They honour the meaning but make it comfortable to sing. Listen at 2.00 to hear them build their own bridge section. Listen at 3.00 to hear them substitute their own words for can’t nothing:

It works, doesn’t it? When you sing a cover, don’t be a parrot. Be a nightingale.

Foxes leaves can’t nothing out entirely – and Pharrell liked her cover version so much he asked her to join him on tour. Be creative. You never know what might happen:

When you sing your cover of Happy, stay true to the mood and meaning of the song. Do whatever you need to do to make the words fit and float – add sounds (as Pharrell does), substitute sounds (as Pentatonix do) or leave sounds out (as Foxes does).

Enjoy yourself. Be happy.

© Sing Better English, 2014

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