Written by Erin Lobner. Media by Paige Lunde.
“Once you hear it, you can’t unhear it. It will be forever with you. Just a warning.” Quartz uses this caution in reference to the Millennial Whoop, a series of interchanging notes that are appearing in a copious amount of recent pop songs.
a sequence of notes that alternates between the fifth and third notes of a major scale, typically starting on the fifth. The rhythm is usually straight eighth notes, but it may start on the downbeat or on the upbeat in different songs. A singer usually belts these notes with an ‘Oh’ phoneme, often in a ‘Wa-oh-wa-oh’ pattern. And it is in so many pop songs it’s criminal.”
You’ve undoubtedly heard this pattern in pop songs before. Metzger recorded a list of songs in his original article, including “She’s My Winona” by Fall Out Boy, “I Really Don’t Care” by Demi Lovato, “California Gurls” by Katy Perry, and “Ivy” by Frank Ocean.
Although this Millennial Whoop has become more prominent in recent years, repeating sequences of notes is not anything new. Many of Beethoven’s piano compositions included similar patterns as well as 1980’s songs such as The Buggles’ “Video Killed the Radio Star” and Baltimora’s “Tarzan Boy.”
However, the similarity of these songs has led to some copyright disputes. In 2012, Allyson Burnett accused Carly Rae Jepsen and Adam Young (Owl City) of infringing on her track “Ah, It’s a Love Song” with their hit “Good Time.” Jepsen chose to settle out of court but Young was awarded over $500,000 when the court determined that “Good Time” was an original work. More recently, Marvin Gaye’s family took Robin Thicke to court claiming his song, “Blurred Lines”, violated the copyright of Gaye’s “Got to Give it Up”.
Buzzfeed writer, Reggie Ugwu, wrote an article explaining the legal reasons a song could be considered a “rip-off”. Ugwu said, in the event of a trial, the person claiming infringement (the plaintiff) has to prove two things: “access” and “substantial similarity.” Access simply means that the defendant likely heard the original song before writing their own song. Substantial similarity is more difficult to determine because of subjectivity on the listener’s part. To prevent that issue, the judge in the “Blurred Lines” case required that only “stripped-down tracks, restricted to disputed elements of the original compositions, could be played in court.”
However, Metzger doesn’t seem to think the Millennial Whoop is a problem. He commented,
The beauty of such a short melodic sequence (simply the repetition of two notes over and over) is that no one can own it.”
Many people believe that the Millennial Whoop is an annoying phenomenon. But, it makes sense that popular songs have similar structures. Metzger explained,
Humans crave patterns. The reason pop music is successful to begin with is because almost every song is immediately familiar before you get more than 10 seconds into a first listen… So it is that the Millennial Whoop evokes a kind of primordial sense that everything will be alright. You know these notes. You’ve heard this before. There’s nothing out of the ordinary or scary here.”
The next time you hear a song with the familiar “wa-oh-wa-oh” pattern, think about how the song makes you feel. Is it catchy, easy to learn? That might be because you have, in part, heard it before.