How 'The Happy Song' captures the imagination of an 18-month-old baby

‘The Happy Song’ is precision-engineered by a corporation to delight babies — and it works, says Mark O’Connell.

How 'The Happy Song' captures the imagination of an 18-month-old baby

THE song I listened to most this past year was ‘The Happy Song’ by the English singer-songwriter Imogen Heap. I didn’t play any other songs by Imogen Heap last year, or any other year.

I don’t think I’ve ever even heard any other songs by her. But this song, ‘The Happy Song’, I played every single day, often eight or 10 times in succession.

As music, I could take it or leave it. It’s not great. But from a strictly utilitarian point of view? From the point of view of sheer effectiveness?

Surely the greatest song ever recorded.

SOOTHING IN STEREO

The reason I play it so much is for the effect it has on my 18-month-old daughter.

She’ll be screaming her head off about something — tiredness, crankiness, being left alone for 10 minutes with a father who is incapable of breastfeeding her and is therefore of limited practical use — and at some point I’ll remember ’The Happy Song’ exists, and immediately put it on the stereo.

The song opens with the sound of a baby’s gurgling laughter, an introduction that never fails to capture my daughter’s attention. The correct description for what is going on here is: It gives her pause.

By the time the music proper kicks in, with its jouncing 4/4 strings and its sprightly whistled melody, she has invariably stopped crying altogether.

She turns toward the speakers, tears still rolling down her cheeks, and a smile starts to spread across her face, and she nods her head emphatically, fixing me all the while with a look of intensifying joy I understand to mean: ‘Let us take a moment to appreciate what an absolute banger this song is.’

By the time Imogen Heap starts singing very plummily about choo-choo trains and aeroplanes and rockets to the stars, the song has worked its affective alchemy on my daughter.

She raises a single plump arm above her head, swinging her little hips to some loose approximation of the beat.

Once it’s over, she will, without fail, give me a quizzical look and say: “App-EE?” — which I take to mean: “Is there anything to be said for giving the old ‘Happy Song’ another spin?”

SCIENTIFIC SOUNDS

The slightly unnerving fact about this song is that it was designed with this precise effect in mind. The London ad agency BETC, working on behalf of the baby-food behemoth Cow & Gate, wanted to engineer a piece of music to delight children between the ages of six months and two years.

There’s a video on the agency’s website that documents the creation of “the world’s first song scientifically proven to make babies happy”.

During a months-long testing period, the team — which included both a developmental and a musical psychologist — asked British parents to tell them which sounds made their infants happiest.

How 'The Happy Song' captures the imagination of an 18-month-old baby

They then gathered recordings of the most popular of these sounds, which they tested on actual babies, measuring heart rates and facial expressions and vocalisations.

The video includes footage of babies wired up to heart monitors, as scientists pore over complicated-looking data-modelling software.

The findings of all this research were eventually handed over to Imogen Heap, whose resulting song incorporates many of the sounds — beeping horns, ringing bells, meowing cats — determined to be the most captivating to the most babies.

CAPITALIST COERCION

What we are talking about here is, in some unavoidably literal sense, mind control. And the song is such an effective dopamine-delivery mechanism that

I sometimes wonder, as I cue it up for the ninth time in a row, whether I am unwittingly laying down the precise neural pathways in my daughter’s tender little brain that will ensure a lifetime of addictive behaviour.

There is something too, about the way the song attempts to achieve its ends, leveraging the emotions of babies to increase parents’ awareness of a baby-food brand.

How 'The Happy Song' captures the imagination of an 18-month-old baby

And you wouldn’t have to lean too hard into this interpretation to start seeing the song — which was conceived as a corporate-branding exercise, germinated in a mulch of data and audience testing, optimised for maximal engagement and delivered via algorithmic targeting — as a troubling intensification of existing trends in the production of culture under capitalism.

When I think about it like this, there’s a sense in which ‘The Happy Song’ flies in the face of my arguably quixotic parenting ethos, much of which boils down to: “Keep capitalism as far as possible from the children for as long as possible.”

But these are also somewhat abstract considerations — since ‘The Happy Song’ came into our lives, the total number of Cow & Gate products purchased by either myself or my wife remains zero.

Based on this admittedly small sample, the song is far more effective at making babies happy than it is at making adults buy stuff.

And that’s what is so joyous about the song: the fact it works. She’s unhappy, and then the song comes on, and then she’s happy. In its simplicity, it feels like a kind of magic.

The world is a complex and, in many ways, unthinkably dark place, and I am well aware that the window of time in which it is possible to transform my daughter’s unhappiness into joy by playing a jaunty little song is already closing.

If the ad agency’s research is accurate, my daughter remains within its target demographic for less than four more months. And it’s the knowledge of this ephemerality that makes the song, and its effect on her, so precious.

It won’t work forever, because she won’t forever be so small and innocent. But right now it works. Right now it’s the greatest song ever written.

 Mark O’Connell is author of To Be a Machine, €14

From New York Times Magazine

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