The Millennial Whoop: A glorious obsession with the melodic alternation between the fifth and the third

By Patrick Metzger

This week, The Lonely Island released a music video for a song that was cut from their new movie, Popstar. The deleted scene for the song, “Fuck Off,” shows Conner4Real (Andy Samberg’s Bieber-esque teen idol character) joyfully belting out the most over-the-top expression of teenage angst possible.

The song is an incredible parody, not least because Samberg and company have caught onto a melodic phenomenon that has plagued the airwaves for the past several years, which they use to great effect at the song’s 40 second mark.

I like to call this melodic snippet the “Millennial Whoop.” It’s 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 8th-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.

The musical figure is probably best exemplified by Katy Perry’s 2010 song “California Gurls” (featuring Snoop Dogg):

This song comes right at the beginning of “Peak Millennial Whoop,” when suddenly every artist (consciously or subconsciously) jumped on board to replicate this earworm. In “California Gurls,” we first hear it at 0:51 as a kind of foreshadowing to its more memorable usage within the chorus at 1:05 (and multiple times in every chorus thereafter).

The beauty of such a short melodic sequence (simply the repetition of two notes over and over) is that no one can own it. Last year, after Robin Thicke was taken to court by Marvin Gaye’s family for violating the copyright of “Got To Give It Up” with his song “Blurred Lines,” Reggie Ugwu at Buzzfeed wrote a great summary of how the legal system determines whether something really is “a ripoff.” While it would be easy to claim “substantial similarity” between songs that use the Millennial Whoop, in order to convince a jury that someone was ripped off, an artist would have to prove that this “Wa-oh-wa-oh” motif was their original idea. That would put them on thin ice indeed due to the scènes à faire defense, which basically says certain musical elements are just too common to be owned by any one entity.

Ally Burnett found herself in this very situation when she sued Carly Rae Jepsen and Adam Young (a.k.a Owl City), saying their 2012 song “Good Time” had infringed on the copyright of her 2010 song “Ah, It’s a Love Song” (which starts with a Millennial Whoop). Burnett got an out-of-court settlement from Jepsen, but Young fought the case and was awarded royalties after “Good Time” was deemed an original work.

For comparison, here’s “Good Time” (Millennial Whoop at 0:04):

If it wasn’t written by Ally Burnett or Carly Rae Jepson or anyone else, where does the Millennial Whoop come from? I would argue it has antecedents in teasing songs like “Nanny nanny boo boo” and “I know something you don’t know” that, as Leonard Bernstein pointed out in his lecture series The Unanswered Question, seem to transcend cultures across the globe. It’s the kind of musical phrase that we seem to know instinctively and that has a relationship to the overtone series embedded in every single note we hear.

Also, although the melodic intervals are different, the “Wa-oh-wa-oh” syllables surely have more recent roots in the Buggles song “Video Killed the Radio Star”:

It is, perhaps, no wonder that in the same year that “California Gurls” came out, Nicki Minaj was sampling “Video Killed the Radio Star” in her song “Check It Out”:

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. Between the formula of European classical scales and chord progressions that have gelled over hundreds of years and the driving heartbeat rhythms that stimulate our internal organs at the right decibels, listeners are immediately hooked in by familiar structure and themes that have likely been ringing in their ears since they were in the womb. And with the pervasive nature of pop music, where everything is a remix, a feedback loop has been created in which songs are successful because they are familiar, so in order to be successful, songs are created that play on our sense of familiarity.

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. You don’t need to learn the words or know a particular language or think deeply about meaning. You’re safe. In the age of climate change and economic injustice and racial violence, you can take a few moments to forget everything and shout with exuberance at the top of your lungs. Just dance and feel how awesome it is to be alive right now. Wa-oh-wa-oh.

Here are some more examples of the Millennial Whoop. Let me know in the comments if you find any others!

Fall Out Boy – “She’s My Winona” (2008, modified Millennial Whoop at 0:14)

BOY – “Little Numbers” (2011, Millennial Whoop at 1:04)

Stonefox – “All I Want” (2013, Millennial Whoop at 2:02)

Demi Lovato – “I Really Don’t Care” (2013, Millennial Whoop at 1:00)

[UPDATE: One reader pointed out that infant-directed speech (i.e. “Baby Talk”) often uses this same interval. And a band member from Cymbals Eat Guitars (one of their songs is listed below) noted on Twitter that Jesse Lacey from Brand New calls this the “mom calling you inside from the porch interval”.]

[UPDATE: The following songs have been identified by readers since I published this post.]

Uber’s Announcement of Self-Driving Cars in Pittsburgh (2016 — Sep 13, Millennial Whoop at 0:32)

Pavo Pavo – “Ran Ran Run” (2016 — Sep 14, Millennial Whoop at 0:51)

Skechers – “Twinkle Toes” (2016 — Aug 29, Millennial Whoop at 0:00)

—-Songs above this line were released after this article was published—-

Frank Ocean – “Ivy” (2016, Millennial Whoop at 2:53)

Dagny – “Backbeat” (2016, Millennial Whoop at 0:00 as part of longer melodic phrase)

AURORA – “Running With the Wolves” (2016, Millennial Whoop at 1:11)

AURORA – “Conqueror” (2016, Millennial Whoop at 0:23)

Berlin After Midnight – “All Night Long” (2016, Millennial Whoop at 0:52)

Oh Wonder – “Without You” (2015, Millennial Whoop at 0:31)

twenty one pilots – Ride (2015, Millennial Whoop at 0:48)

Dance Gavin Dance – “Stroke God, Millionaire” (2015, Millennial Whoop at 2:32

Tove Lo – “Habits (Stay High)” (2014, Millennial Whoop at 0:48)

Of Monsters and Men – “Mountain Sound” (2014, Millennial Whoop at 2:15)

Andy Grammer – “Forever” (2014, Millennial Whoop at 3:15 at the beginning of a longer melodic phrase)

Fifth Harmony – “Anything Is Possible” (2014, Millennial Whoop at 0:20)

CHVRCHES – “The Mother We Share” (2013, fragmented Millennial Whoop at 0:00, standard Millennial Whoop at 0:33)

American Authors – “Best Day of My Life” (2013, Millennial Whoop at 0:33)

Filter – “Burn It” (2013, Millennial Whoop at 1:10)

Imagine Dragons – “Monster” (2013, Millennial Whoop at 0:57)

One Direction – “Heart Attack” (2012, Millennial Whoop at 0:37)

One Direction – “Live While We’re Young” (2012, Millennial Whoop at 0:53)

The Lumineers – “Ho Hey” (2012, Millennial Whoop on the word “heart” at 0:58)

Conner Youngblood – “A Summer Song” (2012, Millennial Whoop at 1:13)

Rebecca Black – “Sing It” (2012, Millennial Whoop at 0:03)

Chris Brown – “Turn Up the Music” (2012, Millennial Whoop at 1:30)

Big Tree – “Storm King” (2011, Millennial Whoop at 2:24)

Outasight – “Tonight Is the Night” (2011, Millennial Whoop at 0:52)

The Head and the Heart – “Down in the Valley” (2011, Millennial Whoop at 1:48)

Macklemore & Ryan Lewis – “And We Danced” (2011, Millennial Whoop at 2:01)

Justin Bieber – “Baby (featuring Ludacris)” (2010, Millennial Whoop at 0:46)

Michou – “Growing Younger” (2010, Millennial Whoop at 0:37)

Alejandro Sanz – “Looking for Paradise (featuring Alicia Keys)” (2010, Millennial Whoop at 0:14

Kings of Leon – “Use Somebody” (2009, Millennial Whoop faintly at 0:02, louder 1:28)

Cymbals Eat Guitars – “And The Hazy Sea” (2009, elongated Millennial Whoop at 0:00)

Little Boots – “Remedy” (2009, Millennial Whoop at 0:51)

Mates of State – “Goods” (2007, Millennial Whoop at 0:20)

Green Day – “Are We the Waiting” (2004, Millennial Whoop at 0:34)

Death Cab for Cutie – “Lightness” (2003, Millennial Whoop at 0:32)

The Rasmus – “In the Shadows” (2003, Millennial Whoop at 0:12)

Yeah Yeah Yeahs – “Maps” (2003, Millennial Whoop at 1:24 on the word “maps”)

Smurfehits – “Tenker på deg” (1996, Millennial Whoop at 2:17)

The KLF – “Last Train to Trancentral” (1991, Millennial Whoop at 1:00)

Baltimora – “Tarzan Boy” (1985, Millennial Whoop at 1:11)

Madness – “Wings of a Dove” (1984, Millennial Whoop at 0:43)

Morris Day and the Time – “Jungle Love” (1984, Millennial Whoop at 0:38)

242 thoughts on “The Millennial Whoop: A glorious obsession with the melodic alternation between the fifth and the third

  1. The Whoop pops up in Left Alone off blink-182’s California at 1:53.

    Thank you for finally describing exactly what this pattern was. I’ve always just referred to them as “songs that go oh oh oh”.

  2. You will find the same lick with the addition of a higher harmony descending from the tonic to the 5th in Scottish 80s band hit Real Gone Kid. It acts as an intro/chorus hook.

  3. This is not unlike vocal fry – it had previously been mildly annoying, but once I discovered that there’s a name for this malady, I can’t -not- hear it everywhere!! 🙁

  4. The “baby talk” refrain is basically the entire melody in “I Wonder If I Take You Home” by Lisa Lisa and Cult Jam. The earliest use in popular music might be “Everyday People” by Sly and the Family Stone.

  5. Though not interested in pop music but this article inspires me to understand that folk songs,lullabies could be put in pop music as wee. brilliant show

  6. I can’t stand 95% of the songs on this list… BUT this song infected my brain so thoroughly when I first heard it that I had no choice but to like it. I even knew I was being played, I just didn’t care. I can’t believe it hasn’t been pointed out yet. It’s such a blatant use that it is almost tongue in cheek. I like to think that they did it on purpose as a joke just to get people hooked… Hell, I’m sure most of the songs above were written with that intention in mind, it just didn’t work with those other ones for me. In other words, “Not Today Satan… Unless you want to sing that Jimmy Eat World song… I might sing along if today’s apple is sweet enough.”

    But anyways, here you go. Starts at 0:23 and echoes in your brain for eternity.

  7. Fantastic article! I’ve always been fascinated by insights into musical DNA, whether from The KLF’s pop blueprint “The Manual” or Leonard Bernstein channeling Chomskyan deep structure in the afore-mentioned ‘Unanswered Question’ lectures (still some of the finest TV ever made).

    Now that these once quirky, carefree ‘Whoa-ohs’ have had the spotlight on them, I’m hearing them everywhere. Guess we’ll just have to wait for the TV advertisers to catch on and take the shine off (see also: punk fashion, jungle breakbeats, dubstep wub-wubs).

    Another one for your collection:
    KT Tunstall – Maybe It’s A Good Thing

      1. Perhaps. Nothing too under the sun. But “brats”? You sound like my parents re the Beatles et al 50+ years ago.

  8. The chorus of Maps by the Yeah Yeah Yeahs: “Ma-aa-aa-aa-aa-aa-aa-aa-aa-aa-aps” is the same alternating interval.

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  10. Suppose these songs or the songwriters subconsciously repeated the riff for most of these songs because some of them are very common. Or at least the one that started it was famous?

  11. a couple of off-the cuff observations –

    – part of the reason the “whoop” is so effective on the ears from a theoretical point of view is that the 5th/3rd alternating pattern implies the major tonality of the 1. basically it completes the major triad without having to just serve it up on a staid platter of “here’s 1, 3, and 5!” plus it’s a lot of fun to sing and most people have the capability of singing something like that and feeling like they can actually do it. i think the real key to its continuous use is that it has to be a vocal line. if it’s an instrumental line then it’s just another use of 1 of 12 intervals in the western tonal system and it’s not quite as memorable.

    – when i hum a 5 to 3 interval the first thing i think of is the “ole ole” chant in soccer.

    – i also think of “this old man”.

  12. Someone may have already pointed this out (apologies if that’s the case), but “Whoah-ohs” have been a staple in punk rock since the 70s (not always in the 5th/3rd), which would have inspired the Jimmy Eat World strain that’s been brought up.

  13. Jessie J’s Price Tag makes nice use of the pattern with lyric all the way through, which is the pleasing part.

  14. Is it just me or is the Millennial Whoop very clearly the first six notes of the “I love you, you love me” Barney the dinosaur song? Would explain its popularity with that particular generation.

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  16. All of today’s music sucks ass. However, great post. You definitely did your research, and it was thoroughly written. Theres no originality anymore, thanks to the telecomm act of 96, and social media.

  17. I get that there is nothing new under the sun, but how come other genres don’t grapple with this? Why is it that 9 times from 10 only pop music suffers from rip-offs? There needs to be some original, actual thinking going on, it can’t always be about the money and the 3 seconds of fame, find the music again.

    1. Usually music builds on itself. Jazz and songwriting built on Louis Armstrong and George Gershwin. Elvis Presley and Chuck Berry combined the great country and R&B artists to make rock and roll (despite Mussy Waters’ claim about the blues having a baby). wThe British bands of the 1960s took things to another level, while back here, Stevie Wonder, James Brown, Joni Mitchell, Paul Simon, Aretha, Steely Dan, Funkadelics, etc., were doing the same. Let’s also not forget Motown and the Brill Building.

      You’re right about the 3 seconds. If you dig a little deeper into today’s music, you’ll find some serious young people doing some serious music. They are the ones who have done their homework and done some building on their musical heritage. Uh-oh, uh-oh is mostly and notably absent.

      1. Ashley Dudukovich of Chasing Jonah is a great example of original material that connects on an emotional level.

    2. There is something new under the sun, there are millions of ways to combine melodies harmonies chords scales progressions rhythms dynamics arrangements etc ………… anybody who repeats that “everything’s been done” lacks imagination.

  18. Awesome post! It’s a subject that is floating in the back of my mind every time these songs come on. Now I’ll be listening for all the pattern familiarities! Thanks for the post :).

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