In honor of all of the Earth Day babies, let me tell you a little bit about the song and how to sing it.
The 1998 Guinness World Records states that “Happy Birthday” is the most recognized song in the English language. According to the wide world of Wikipedia, the melody of "Happy Birthday to You" comes from the song "Good Morning to All", which has traditionally been attributed to American sisters Patty and Mildred J. Hill in 1893, although the claim that the sisters composed the tune is disputed. The melody and lyrics of "Happy Birthday to You" first appeared in print in 1912. The Summy Company registered a copyright in 1935, crediting authors Preston Ware Orem and Mrs. R. R. Forman.
You can read all about copyright disputes of this song and what it’s worth here. Results?
In 2016 the court declared that "Happy Birthday to You" was in the public domain.
One of the more surprising things in my teaching career is how often clients have asked help with learning the “happy birthday” song. After analyzing it, I saw a couple of reasons why it may be difficult to sing.
For one thing, “Do”, or the home base of the key, which usually gives our ears a guideline of where to go, is elusive in this song. We land on “Do” once in the middle and then not again until the very last note of the song. It’s quite clever really. For a short song, each of the three phrases make us yearn for the final phrase that brings us home, on the final “you”. The first line starts on the 5th of the scale and ends on the 7th, where our ears desire a resolve to the 8 (also the 1- “Do”). But, instead of resolving, the second phrase goes back to the 5th. You don’t have to know what any of that means, but if you can’t quite tell where home base is, this is why.
Then, the next tricky part for many people is that the 3rd line jumps an octave! Depending on what key somebody starts this song, that could make it very high for men or women. And most of the time when this song is sung, somebody in the crowd is starting it a cappella (without musical accompaniment). Any key is game! Jumping an octave can be challenging for people who aren’t used to singing large intervals (the distance between pitches). And this is a song for everybody. Even those people who don’t sing or don’t like to sing, end up singing this song.
I share my birthday with a few people I know, one being my college music theory professor, Dr. Paul Nitsch. My final exam of my undergraduate college career was in my Sight-singing and Ear-training class, which also happened to fall on mine and Dr. Nitsch‘s birthday. He plucked out “happy birthday” on the piano and told us to write a melodic and rhythmic dictation on staff paper and left the room. Just so you know, that wasn’t easy!
Here’s a little video tutorial on different keys. Hopefully with these guidelines, you’ll be more confident about singing happy birthday at the next family dinner or office party!
Happy Birthday to you Earth Day babies! Let’s be kind to each other and the planet!