There’s a Reason Why “Happy Birthday” is So Hard to Sing

It’s one of the most popular songs to sing as a group… and also one of the most difficult

Photo by Becky Fantham on Unsplash

One of my favorite scenes in the 1999 classic film Office Space is the one in which the office workers sing Happy Birthday to Lumbergh, their boss. While most fans of that scene love the fact of Milton once again not getting a piece of birthday cake, the gem in the scene for me is simply the bland, joyless way in which the song is sung by the bland, joyless workers.

Because even in the cheeriest of circumstances, Happy Birthday almost always sounds terrible when sung in a group. Which, given that the song ranks among the most commonly-sung in history, can seem a bit odd. You’d think we’d have gotten it down by now, wouldn’t you?

But I contend that there is a reason why it is hard for a group of people — typically amateur musicians at best — to sing this particular song. The song is, quite frankly, darned near impossible to start properly. And given that the song takes a mere 20-ish seconds to sing, a bad intro can ruin the entire number.

When to sing that first note

For starters (pun intended) it’s difficult to get everyone to hit that first note at the same time. The metre of the song is actually pretty tough to get down. For the musically-uneducated, a song’s metre indicates the regularly-occurring pattern of notes or beats in each bar of the song. It’s related to the song’s time signature, the latter being a more specific form of the song’s metre.

Triple metre

Most songs have either a duple (two beats per bar) or quadruple (four beats per bar) metre — in other words, an even-numbered metre. The holiday classic Jingle Bells (shown below, with the chorus’ words in each line split into their beats) is a typical example:

1     2     3      4
Jin - gle Bell - s
1 2 3 4
Jin - gle Bell - s
1 2 3 4
Jin - gle all the
1 2 3 4
1 2 3 4
Oh what fun it
1 2 3 4
Is to ride in a
1 2 3 4
One horse op - en
1 2 3 4
Sleigh hey!

Happy Birthday, on the other hand, is in triple metre, which is an odd-numbered metre:

            Happy1       2      3
Birth day to
1 2 3
You Happy
1 2 3
Birth day to
1 2 3

While not rare per se, triple is metre is certainly less common than duple or quadruple metre. Moreover, dividing bars into an even number of notes feels much more natural than dividing them into an odd number. In fact, when counting off to begin a song, nearly all of us will instinctively count “one, two, three, four” (unless you’re U2’s Bono, in which case you’ll count off “uno, dos, tres, catorce”).

And therein lies the first problem: most of us will count off the song as if it’s in quadruple metre, whereas Happy Birthday is in triple metre. So then, to start everyone singing Happy Birthday, we should count off “one, two, three”, right?

The lead-in note

But there’s a second problem. The first two notes that we sing (“Hap · py”) are not on the downbeat; that is, they don’t begin the first measure of the song. In fact, they’re in the upbeat — the last beat of the song’s lead-in measure.

In other words, the first true measure of the song actually begins with the word “Birthday”. If we were to count off “one, two, three” to begin singing, the preceding “Happy” would actually be sung on the “three”.

So, one might argue that actually, we should simply count off “one, two” to get everyone singing.

Uh… sure.

Let’s imagine a group of our co-workers, all gathered around a cake, ready to sing. You’re leading the group; you take a deep breath, and emphatically exclaim, “one, two!” At best, you’ll hear (metaphorical) crickets, as your co-workers look around, wondering when “three” will arrive. At worst, you’ll hear everyone in the room, fumbling worse than ever to try to meet on the first note of the song.

In reality, we should probably count out five notes, with an emphasis on the first and fourth notes to establish the metre, like so:
one, two, three, one, two”
or perhaps
one, two, three, two, two”.

While that would more accurately get the group to the lead-in note and establish the downbeat, it’s unfortunately not what most people expect to hear. So even then, we’d probably need to pre-warn our group as to when to start singing… or at least, use emphatic hand signals to get the group started.

The actual rhythm of “Hap ∙ py”

As if all of that wasn’t enough, there’s the question of how to actually sing the word “Happy”. Because there are different ways to do it.

Some people will want to sing each syllable of “Happy” as equal-length notes, particularly when singing the first notes of the song.

But the first syllable “Ha” is actually held for longer than the second “ppy”. Most sheet music will show the first syllable as a dotted eighth note and the second as a sixteenth note, meaning that “Ha” would be held three times as long as “ppy”. I’ve found that many people tend to divide “Happy” into triplets — three equal parts — with “Ha” getting two parts to “ppy”’s one.

Even when everyone hits the first note at the same time, this mishmash of mismatched rhythms often confounds the intro to the song.

The tempo

Next comes the song’s tempo — how fast we sing the song. Tempos are measured in beats per minute (bpm). The fewer beats per minute, the slower the song. For example, the Righteous Brothers’ ballad Unchained Melody has a relatively slow tempo of around 90 bpm, whereas A-ha’s Take on Me has a much faster tempo of about 170 bpm.

Particularly when sung as a group, “Happy Birthday” has a somewhat slow tempo — typically somewhere in the low 90 bpm range. However, when counting off the song, our tendency is to be overly-optimistic — maybe around 140 bpm.

The result has the feel of a car moving along at a brisk pace, only to hit a deep patch of mud. Most people will try to start singing at the faster pace, only to realize that it’s way too fast. Others will have already begun singing at the slower pace. The group will be well into the song before any common tempo is established.

Playing conductor
If you’re leading a group of singers, you might want to act as the conductor to help define the tempo. If so, here are a few tips.

First, as a conductor, you’ll use your right hand to mark the tempo.

The triangle you’ll “draw”, positioned as you (the conductor) would see it.

Second, since Happy Birthday is in triple metre, there is a specific pattern to use. Effectively, your hand should draw a right triangle in the air in front of you. Start at the top of the triangle (at angle B, shown above) and draw Line a during the downbeat. During the second beat, move your hand to your right, drawing Line b. Finally, during the third beat (the upbeat) draw Line c.

The tonic

Next is the question of what note should actually be sung. Because we’ll not only need to get everyone in the same tempo. We’ll also need to get everyone singing the same note.

To understand this, we need to understand the concept of the tonic. Nearly every song (at least, every Western song) has a tonic — one note that all other notes in the song tend to resolve towards. This tonic almost always matches the key of the song. If a song is in the key of C, then C is the tonic; if the song is in E minor, then E is the tonic.

Generally, if you’ve listened to enough of a given song, it’s relatively easy to pick out the tonic note (although some rock/pop songs don’t rigidly adhere to keys, making it more difficult to pick out their tonics). For example, sing the melodies to the following songs to yourself, and see if you can pick out their tonic notes:

In all of those songs, the tonic appears (among other places) in the last notes of the songs’ verses, and as the last note in the songs themselves. This is common of group sing-along songs. Now sing Happy Birthday to yourself. Same thing; the tonic is the last note of the song — the “you” in the final “Happy birthday to you” (it’s also the “you” in the second “Happy birthday to you”).

Happy Birthday begins on the tonic chord. We’ll assume that we’re singing in the key of C, so that means the song begins with an underlying C major chord. Interestingly, however, we don’t really sing the tonic note in the first few bars of the song. Instead, the song’s melody begins on either the dominant (the fifth note in the major scale) or the submediant (the sixth note in the major scale), depending on how you look at it.

What do I mean by that? Well, that first “Happy” — which appears in the lead-in measure — is sung with the dominant note. That means that “Happy” is sung as a G. But the following “Birthday” — which starts the first full measure of the song — is sung as the submediant note, which is A in the key of C.

Oddly, while the underlying chord that we’d play during that first full measure is the tonic chord — C major— the note A does not appear anywhere in a C chord at all (a C major chord consists of C, E, and G). So the note that we sing during the first full measure of the song don’t actually fit with the underlying chord.

Now, there’s nothing wrong with this; it gives the song a bit of musical panache. But it makes it hard to determine what note to hum to get everyone in sync. Do we choose…

  • the A — the first note of the first full measure in the song?
  • the C, which is the song’s tonic? Or
  • the G, which is literally the first note sung (albeit in the song’s lead-in measure)?

The climax

To whom are we singing?

So we’ve finally begun singing “Happy Birthday”, and after stumbling around at the beginning, we’re finally (mostly) in sync. Now we get to another unique attribute of the song. At its climax, we wish happiness to the person-of-honour by name.

The first problem here is whether to use the common appellation “dear” before the person’s name (a problem evident in the Office Space clip, in which we can hear some singing “Dear Mr. Lumbergh”, and others simply “Mr. Lumbergh”).

The second problem is whether we all agree on whose birthday, in fact, we’re celebrating. I’ve celebrated birthdays in which some of us have forgotten who the birthday boy or girl actually was. Or we’ve disagreed on what form of the person’s name to use. Or, if we’re celebrating multiple birthdays (say, all of the February births), in what order to sing the names.

And so, we usually wind up with a cacophonic mess at that point in the song.

How long do we pause?

Maybe we’ve all agreed that we’re wishing birthday happiness to “Dear Jenny”. There’s still one more hurdle to get past. Because we don’t simply sing straight through the song as we sing the person’s name. Instead, we pause at the end of the name (as if, perhaps, to give everyone a chance to catch up with each other).

So the question arises, how long do we pause before we sing the final line?

Choose a two-syllable name (such as “Tony”) and sing that part of the song to yourself:

“Happy birthday dear Tony…”

One extra beat feels sufficient. Now try a four-syllable name:

“Happy birthday dear Katarina…”

We probably want at least two extra beats in that case.

In reality, I’d argue that in all cases, we should pause for an entire measure. Given that the song is in triple metre, this means three beats. Of course, that last “Happy” still needs to be sung on the upbeat.

Try it in each of the cases above (it helps to count out the beats with your fingers as you sing):

1      2      3
1 2 3
Birth day, dear
1 2 3
To ny
1 2 3
1 2 3
Birth day to
1 2 3

The problem, of course, is that there is no universal agreement on how long to pause. So once again, we’ve hit a point (with mere seconds left in the song) in which everyone is stumbling to try to get in sync with each other.

A final note… to you

We sing Happy Birthday to celebrate and have fun. So really, who cares if it sounds like a jumbled mess? That’s part of the joy.

But if you’re really trying to make the group of well-wishers that you’re leading sound as good as possible, here are a few things to keep in mind:

  • First, sing at least part of the song in your head first.
  • Pay attention to the actual tempo in your head. Remember, it’s going to be slower than the tempo at which you’d typically start people off.
  • Get that first note (the dominant, the G) in your head.
  • Remind people who they’re singing to (perhaps even provide an additional clue such as “remember, we’re singing to Dear Jenny 😀 !”)
  • Count off five notes with emphasis on the first and fourth (“one two three one two”), while actually singing them in that dominant note
  • Use lots and lots of hand signals!

And above all, don’t despair if the singing still sounds horrible. Because hey, unless you’re Milton, you’re about to get cake!

Software architect, engineering leader, musician, husband, dad

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