Why do all YouTube videos have the same music?

This photo credit doesn’t  have  to be here, but it  should . |  Sara Kurfeß  for  Unsplash

This photo credit doesn’t have to be here, but it should. | Sara Kurfeß for Unsplash

My favorite new-to-me podcast is NPR’s Rough Translation, which takes topics we talk about in the US and looks at how they’re talked about elsewhere. In a season one episode titled “The Apology Broker,” host Gregory Warner uses a YouTube video to compare the sparse vocabulary available for American apologies to Japan’s increasingly polite hierarchy of apologies. Where we have just one phrase to cover incidents from accidental bumps to presidential sex scandals, Japan has versions for family, teachers, bosses, strangers,

I was all the way to how to apologize to customers when I caught myself humming the background music.

If you’ve ever bribed a child with YouTube to get a few quiet minutes of writing time, you know this tune, too. It’s a favorite of unboxers from around the world, as at home in Play Doh Hamburguesa Papas fritas y Cola McDonald's as it is in DISNEY'S OLIVER & COMPANY (1988) HAPPY MEAL FULL SET. (Uncreative naming conventions transcend borders, too.)

The song has been used behind a three-crayon coloring challenge, water-balloon popping, surprise egg cracking, a lemon juice challenge, a food tour of Prague, a hamster hammock game, and a foot-baking tutorial.

What is this song? Who wrote it? And what does it have to teach us about good research?

The long, strange trip of “Bike Rides”

I grabbed my five-year old research assistant and went to YouTube’s audio library, where I played bits of different free children’s songs until he squealed recognition. We found lots of familiar songs, among them Kevin MacLeod’s ragtime “If I Had a Chicken,” Twin Musicom’s whistled “Carefree Melody,” and Riot’s chime-filled “Safety Net,” all of which confirm that I do in fact get a fair amount of writing time. We also found the song we were looking for: “Bike Rides,” by The Green Orbs.

Heather Hirschfield and Eddie Rosenberg III are the brother-sister duo behind “Bike Rides” as well as many other songs you’re likely to recognize from your kids’ favorite YouTube videos. You should take the time get to know their other songs for kids, too. Their video for “Mr. Mustache” earned the highest form of kid praise from my five-year-old: “Again!” Their latest video, “Suction Cup Shuffle,” off their debut album “Thumb Wrestling Champions,” received the same acclaim from my tiny music reviewer, as well as a demand that we cover our own house in balloons.

I checked in with Hirschfield and Rosenberg over e-mail to find out how their work became the anonymous backdrop to our kids’ lives.

Rosenberg explains that after being contacted by Google to create music for the audio library, he was under short deadlines: “If I was to complete 10 tracks in a month I would schedule 10 days to write the 10 songs, 10 days to record them and 10 days to mix them.”

Some of those tracks were easier to create than others. “Sometimes ideas would come quickly and easily,” Rosenberg says, “and other times it would feel like pulling teeth!” “Bubble Bath,” for example, was a struggle. “I just wasn’t feeling good about the sound so I tried a ton of different things. When I finally hit upon using the mellotron keyboard sound I was very excited!”

And so were a lot of YouTubers, because Hirshfield and Rosenberg’s work has appeared in unexpected places, like a German-language, English-subtitled Yakisoba review and a working dollhouse stove tutorial. A balut eggs challenge. A bedtime story. A recipe for chicken blood. A podcast episode about marijuana. Donut slime. Burger slime. Cereal slime.

“Splashing Around,” which Rosenberg also created for YouTube’s audio library, shows up everywhere. It plays loudly over a gender reveal cake cutting, such that when Mom asks “What color’s going to be inside?” you can barely hear the young boy give the only sensible answer for a true cake-lover: “It’s going to be brown!” The song might be unusually upbeat for yoga, but not yoga with kittens, and it’s perfect as part of the backdrop to an adorable squirrel pom pom tutorial. It’s also delightfully incongruent atop the Cops opening credits.

Invisible music

Although they do not have a formal tally of who credits their work, Hirschfield writes that “every so often I like to do a search and see who has recently been using the music.” She’s seen their work transcend genres and borders: “I have seen it used in so many different types of videos…in videos from so many different countries. I have heard it in random videos of YouTubers that my kids are watching.”

Two of those YouTubers are JoJo Siwa and Miranda Sings, who used “Snack Time” and “Bike Rides” in collaboration videos like WEARING MIRANDA SINGS' CLOTHES FOR ONE WEEK!!! Quick!!! Someone go find JoJo and yell cheerfully about attribution!!! Or maybe sing at Miranda about it, because “Bike Rides” shows up on her dance tutorial with JoJo, too.

My little research assistant, always ready to sacrifice in the name of research, spent an afternoon clicking through his favorite videos and calling me over for every Green Orbs tune. He found uncredited use of their music everywhere: "Racing the Clock” in a water bead race; “Space Adventure” in a lesson about seasons, and a cover of “This Old Man” in a Genevive’s Playhouse episode.

Hirshfield’s daughters, who voiced the children’s parts in some of the band’s songs, have fun catching themselves in YouTube videos, too. “My girls love Shane Dawson and were watching a video of his when they heard their voices singing on there.”

Though it’s fun to hear their work in unexpected places, Hirshfield “would definitely like if more people would attribute the music to us.” Rosenberg finds it “fun to occasionally hear one of our songs in a video unexpectedly, but we always appreciate it when users will give us credit in their video descriptions.”

Hirschfield and Rosenberg aren’t alone in wishing for a little more attribution. Another contributor to YouTube’s Audio Library, Kevin MacLeod, is subject of the forthcoming documentary Royalty Free and the first of 5 people who run the world (you had no clue existed). During an AMA a few years ago MacLeod was asked “Do you find people are generally good about giving you credit for your work even though you don't demand it?,” he answered that he does demand it, but that demand often goes unmet: “If by ‘generally good’ you mean ‘more than 50%’... that's a tough call.”

YouTube added a “music in this video” section to its video notes in 2018 in an attempt to encourage more attribution, but it’s not a feature all YouTubers use, which is why you might know a song quite well without knowing who wrote it or even what it’s called.

Although The Green Orbs tracks—as well as the rest of YouTube’s audio library—is free for the public to use, we should not confuse “free” with or even “free to use without attribution” as license to ignore the very real, very cool people behind that music.

As consumers of YouTube videos, games, and other music-backed entertainment, we can ask our favorite content creators to include credits. We can do a better job of crediting others in our own work, even when it’s legal not to. We can get our kids in on this habit by remembering to read author and illustrator names to them at bedtime, and of staying through the credits of movies. These habits reinforce the idea that ideas don’t just come from thin air. They come from people. Creative, funny, people who also perform at birthday parties and teach songwriting workshops.

One more ride

I asked Hirschfield and Rosenberg about the most memorable uses of their music. Hirshfield said that “Bike Rides,” the same song that led me to The Green Orbs and this little tour through attribution, “has taken on a life of its own in Germany after someone added a few little words here and there and called it ‘Lügenlord.’ Then ‘Lugenlord’ was made into a rock version, a jazz version, and who knows what else.”

Thanks to my rudimentary German and a Lügenlord t-shirt, I learned a bit of that what else.

Lügenlord (“Lord of Lies”? “Lying lord?”) is a nickname for a YouTuber based in the small town of Emskirchen, Bavaria. That’s not his chosen nickname. He calls himself Drachenlord (“Dragonlord”).

His actual name, of course, is neither Lügenlord nor Drachenlord, but Rainer Winkler, and to say that he is controversial would be an understatement. “For one thing,” this article explains, “he describes the Holocaust as a ‘nice thing’.” I cannot stress the limits of my German enough, so perhaps this is a just a größe misunderstanding, but I think the alt-right-esque conspiracy theories that enrage his haters are really a sideshow to the headbanging, video games, and proclamations of sexual prowess.

Thanks to Google translate, we know that after Winkler doxxed himself a few years ago, protesters have been showing up in his small town in an attempt to yell at him, egg his house, and otherwise implore him to stop broadcasting, maybe? This has created an enormous strain on the local police force, who in October 2018 had to temporarily ban assembly after a social-media-organized group of hundreds came to protest.

We wouldn’t know any of this without a tip from a Green Orbs fan and one semester of college German, because the Lügenlord video does not include a music credit for “Bike Rides.”

Absent the invention of Shazaam for YouTube videos, we need to do a better job crediting music, because those credits can help us make amazing cross-cultural connections. In this case, one country’s cheerful playtime melody became another country’s counter-protest against hate speech. Or maybe cyberbullying. I’d need way more DuoLingo practice to figure it out. Maybe Rough Translation can pick this up for Season 3.