If you’re one of those musicians who don’t like the popular Happy Birthday song, you’re not alone. According to this conductor it’s a terrible melody!
This short, fun video from medici.tv went viral some time ago. It features the Hungarian conductor Iván Fischer criticizing the well-known tune. “I think it’s a very poor melody” he says, “it’s not written well” and then goes on to recompose it. In this article we’re going to look at how he does it and why he made those decisions.
In order to have something to compare Fischer’s improvements to, let’s have a brief look at the original Happy Birthday tune. As everyone knows, it’s a very simple song. In fact, we only have 4 verses sung to a melody of 8 bars and every verse takes 2 bars. Notice that bar number one is the first full bar – the pick up, or the upbeat, is not counted as the first bar.
Later on in this article, you can listen to both the original and Fischer’s version to compare for yourself.
What’s so Bad with the Original Happy Birthday Song?
According to Fischer, there are 3 big defects:
1. The melodic curve emphasizes the wrong words. In the lyric “Happy birthday to you” the word “you” should be the most emphasized. “You” is the most meaningful and important word of the verse. But because the melody skips on the word “to”, it’s this word that gets highlighted instead. By this standard, the second instance of this line is even worse because the skip is even larger.
In fact, notice that both instances of the word “to” are the highest points of the melody. According to Fischer, this makes the melody unfitting to the words it’s supposed to complement.
2. The second defect is related to the first. The words “Happy birthday dear <name>” are sung to a difficult melody that skips way too high before it quickly goes back down again. Fischer says “nobody can even sing it, it’s always out of tune.”
3. And finally, that large skip is followed by a quick descent towards the person’s name. The conductor comments: “And after this big climax, coming down in this very poor way”. He thinks that there is no point to the high G – the highest note of the whole melody. In other words, the climax is aimless and disappointing.
So in general, Iván Fischer believes that the melodic contour – the way the melody goes up and down – is ineffective and inappropriate for the lyrics it accompanies and for what it’s supposed to express.
How the Conductor Fixes the Birthday Song
Now after breaking it up, Mr. Fischer takes it upon himself to rewrite the tune. According to him, the new version fits the words better and is easier to sing for everyone. Let’s see how he does it.
1. The first fix is that the melody now emphasizes the word “you” instead of “to”. Like the old version, the word “you” is sung to a note that is longer and is on the strong beat of the bar. In this version, however, it is also sung as the highest parts of the tune and this makes the whole difference!
2. Secondly, Fischer removes the large melodic skip of the third verse. Instead, he writes a smaller skip followed by stepwise movement towards a climax on the words “dear <name>”.
Now we might disagree with his solution here because the melody still goes up high. In the older version he said that it goes high and nobody can sing it properly. But there is an important difference in the new version: although it does go high, it does so in steps: from C to D to E. This makes it much easier to sing for everyone. Now we all have a shot at reaching that top note and stay in tune.
3. At the same time this also fixes the third fault we saw earlier. The melody doesn’t go down “poorly” to “dear <name>” but stays close-by ready for the final “happy birthday to you” phrase.
So here are the two versions for comparison. First is the original and then Fischer’s new and improved formula. Which one do you prefer?
Iván Fischer’s new version:
Personally, I really do think that the 3rd verse is way better. The way it goes up smoothly to the birthday person’s name is a nice touch – almost romantic!
So What Did We Learn?
The biggest takeaway is that when we set music to words, the music should enhance the meaning of the words not get in the way. The melodies and the rhythms should help the listener understand the text and what it’s about.
By the way, a great way to learn how to do this is to look at the examples of “Word Painting” in the lesson here.
Other Adventures with the Birthday Song
It’s really fascinating that all kinds of composers and musicians enjoy playing around with this short song. We just can’t leave a popular tune alone! Here are some of the best and most interesting re-compositions or arrangements based on the happy birthday song. It always amazes me how much fun a musical mind can have with a simple tune!
Stravinsky’s Orchestration Masterpiece
Probably one of the most favourite arrangements of the Happy Birthday melody is this 50-second long orchestral arrangement by Stravinsky. The composer wrote it to celebrate the 80th birthday of a conductor friend of his, Pierre Monteux. In turn, Leonard Bernstein conducted this recording for the occasion of Stravinsky’s own 80th birthday in 1962!
Happy Birthday Variations – but in Different Composers’ Styles!
This next video features variations on the Happy Birthday song but they’re not just any old variations. These variations are written in the style of famous composers’ great pieces. There are several versions of these but the earliest one is probably from 1951 played by pianist and comedian Victor Borge.
In this one we get Happy Birthday in the style of Tchaikovsky, Chopin, Brahms, Wagner, Beethoven, Strauss, Mozart (which is particularly beautiful!) and Shostakovich with a funny twist.
Happy Birthday Fugue
Here’s the Happy Birthday Fugue from YouTube channel Art of Counterpoint. In this one we get a fugue (a composition built on one subject coming in at different times and then elaborated together) with a cool and unusual ending.
Fischer’s New Version for Choir
It seems that the new version might actually be taking off! Here it is harmonized and sung by a girls’ choir in Nairobi.
What do you think?
What would you do with the Happy Birthday song? How would you have fun with it?
Can you think of any popular melodies, folk tunes, Christmas songs or nursery rhymes that you might rewrite or change a little bit? What would you experiment with? You don’t necessarily have to make it better – the idea is just to work out your ‘musical muscles’.