In my six months as a new parent, I can point to the one thing that has single-handedly saved me time and time again. It’s called “The Happy Song,” and actual science was used to develop this tune which has become a staple in my daily life. “The Happy Song” is an upbeat, contagiously catchy song written by British musician Imogen Heap — and it is my secret weapon to sane parenting. My son will be in full meltdown mode, but he immediately gets quiet once that song comes on. It’s his baby kryptonite, rendering him incapable of continuing his fit.
The song actually debuted several years ago (2016, to be precise). Still, for every mom I’ve mentioned it to that has asked, “What’s that?” it has clearly not reached the popularity level it deserves. The British company C&G Baby Club commissioned a creative agency to create a song using science that would make babies happy. That agency reached out to two expert psychologists from Goldsmith University, Dr. Caspar Addyman and Dr. Lauren Stewart.
Scary Mommy spoke to them about their experience making “The Happy Song.”
How It Started
Addyman shared that the idea for this song sprung from another area where music was used to target a niche audience: violinist Lori Anderson’s concert for dogs. Both he and Stewart were asked to take on this endeavor due to their previous experience and studies.
While Addyman specialized in child developmental psychology and had done studies on babies’ laughter (wait, does this man have the best job ever?), Stewart focused her work on how the mind and brain process music, and had previously done a co-study focusing on how parents can use their voice to help regulate their babies’ arousal. She also studied “earworms,” or songs that get stuck in your head — “The Happy Song” soon to be one of them.
The creative agency had a short list of artists they wanted to approach, ideally, all who had young babies. Imogen Heap was on the top of the list; her daughter, Scout, was almost two at the time. The little girl became Imogen’s collaborator, as a melody her daughter used to sing inspired this song’s beginnings.
What They Already Knew
Before Imogen began creating her test melodies, Addyman and Stewart shared their knowledge from previous work. “Babies as young as 4 years old can pick out, ‘This is a happy song, this is a sad song,'” Addyman shares. “They can actually match the music to the [happy or sad] face they’re seeing. Basically, that’s down to a major key or a minor key.”
They also looked through other research that had been done and used the guideline that the music should be much faster than you’d think it should be. Addyman explained, “Babies’ heart rates are about 50% faster than yours, so they have a natural rhythm of their own… the music should reflect that.”
Additional insight included the knowledge that babies prefer their mother’s voices over everything else, so the song should be something parents can sing along to. The song should be sung by a female vocalist in a higher pitch, having the qualities of “motherese” — the high-energy singsong tone we all naturally adopt when talking to babies.
Creating somewhat of a storyline throughout the song was also recommended as a way to keep the babies engaged. Dr. Stewart recommended singing the song in the presence of an infant (Imogen had Scout for that) with a smile and loving tone.
The agency even worked with Imogen’s Fan Club to survey the top funniest things their babies responded to, with dogs and cats, blowing raspberries, and laughing at yourself at the top of that list.
Bring in the Babies
Twenty-six babies were brought into the lab at Goldsmith University to test out four melodies Imogen created. The babies sat in a room that looked like a nursery, and from a soundproof booth, Addyman and Stewart gauged their reactions.
“We were filming their reactions, seeing what they think of it. We also got the parents to rate what they thought about each piece of music. Then, in our lab, we had a motion-tracking system; we tried tying little things on the babies’ hands and legs to see who would dance the most.” That last method led to some complications. “You can imagine if you strap some things to babies’ arms, they’re going to try to get rid of it,” Addyman explains.
Out of four distinct melodies, one was the obvious frontrunner. From there, Imogen took that melody (the one she had initially heard sung by her daughter) and ran with it. “It was composed for babies, by babies,” Addyman jokes.
Addyman played me a sample of some of the melodies, and I agreed with the babies — there was a clear winner!
The same babies came back for round two after Imogen had crafted two slightly different versions of a song with lyrics at varying (fast) speeds. The babies listened to both all the way through. “This time, we got even more ambitious with trying to capture their reaction. We dangled them in a baby bouncer to see if we could get them to dance to it,” Addyman shares. “We had little heart rate monitors on them to see if they got more excited and when their heart rate goes up.”
Presenting… “The Happy Song!”
Throughout this process, a documentary crew filmed the creation of the song. This eventually became a short “making of” video that C&G released.
It showed the babies who had been part of the research process reacting to the song in their homes. Addyman shares that along with this and the release of a separate music video of the song, “nothing really seemed to happen.”
According to Addyman, it was the website I Fucking Love Science that picked up a post he had written about their research. Once on their website, the video went viral: “I think the original video got up to about 15 million views.”
The comments on the original YouTube video prove that “The Happy Song” was indeed making kids and babies happy! However, the audio wasn’t exactly identical to Imogen’s original version (there were some added sound effects), so a few years later, Imogen rereleased the song with an animated music video.
Now, babies can also watch the story unfold. The adorable characters in that video are even available as stuffed animals for purchase.
What else makes babies happy?
As much as I could listen to “The Happy Song” all day long, I was curious if the scientists had any other tips for making babies happy. The answer was pretty simple: just give them attention. “To make them laugh, the thing that makes them so happy that they burst into laughter is when we are focused on them and giving them our undivided attention,” says Addyman.
Peekaboo is the ultimate game because it’s all about your connection to your baby. Beyond that, give them opportunities to explore the world. “You need to be confident in your own abilities as a parent — you are the expert on your baby, so trust your intuition on what will make your baby happy. Being confident in that reflects on the support you can give your baby.” Stewart adds that Sesame Street often does the trick!
So, bring, bring on the bicycle, and say goodbye to your baby’s tears.