Here’s our first suggestion: “DON’T WORRY, BE HAPPY”
Recognize the song? It was written by Bobby McFerrin, one of the most gifted musicians of our time.
We recently read an article on one of our favorite sites, Daily Good, that helpfully “unpacks” the lyrics to show how they reflect “neuroscience and psychology insights on happiness” based not on feel-good ideas but on “studies that offered lab-tested validation for McFerrin’s intuitive insight.” To read Maria Popova’s article, click here.
Her analysis stimulated us to add our own thoughts about this delightful anthem to well being. To get into the mood, watch Bobby McFerrin, with the comic geniuses Robin Williams and Bill Irwin, perform his song.
As Ms Popova points out, the lyrics are full of insights into true happiness.
But she omits other great riches in this song that give it even more neuroscientific and psychological value.
What really makes it so powerful is precisely that it is music. Let’s look at the perfect marriage McFerrin has created between the lyrics and the melody. In fact, unpacking the music as well as the words will help us really appreciate how McFerrin’s “true musician” brings “light into people’s hearts.”
Start by listening to the tune itself. It is remarkable for its utter simplicity. It is built on only 5 notes–like the 5 fingers on each of our hands. This is known to musicians as a Pentatonic (for 5) Scale.
This is something anybody can hear by playing the 5 black keys on a piano. Try it yourself by clicking on our virtual keyboard and tapping on only the black keys.
Simply put, the Pentatonic Scale is a basic building block of music around the world, linking what might seem to be very different songs, eras and cultures through a common music pattern.
Here are some familiar tunes using the Pentatonic Scale: Stephen Foster’s “Oh Susanna,” the hymn “Amazing Grace,” the folk song “Barbara Allen,” jazz’s “A Tisket A Tasket,” the opening phrase of Gershwin’s “I’ve Got Rhythm,” and the opening of Jerome Kern’s “Ol’ Man River.” This scale appears in many cultures, including the music of West Africans, ancient Greeks, Asians, Native Americans, and Celts.
Their songs built on the Pentatonic Scale all share the same musical DNA as “Don’t Worry, Be Happy”!
Well, the music is a major reason why the song stays with us. “Don’t Worry, Be Happy” may sound simple, even simplistic. But it really isn’t. Its vibrations are ancient and universal. We respond to them with our whole brain, resonating unconsciously to a deep structure that beautifully supports the psychological complexity of the lyrics.
Try listening again, with new ears, to savor Bobby McFerrin’s creation in its totality.
To jump further into the world of the fascinating Pentatonic Scale, watch Bobby McFerrin demonstrate it at the 2009 World Science Festival: