There are three ways to have a good birthday.
Except to kids. Kids don’t care. (Photo by Thanh Tran)
- Don’t invite people you don’t like.
- Have your favourite dessert whether or not it’s cake.
- Don’t sing “Happy Birthday to You”.
The Agony of ‘Happy Birthday to You’
Singing “Happy Birthday” feels bad. The notes feel awkward, the pace feels awkward, the whole situation feels awkward. The song lasts 20 vein-tightening seconds, seconds that stretch out like Zeno’s paradox, and you can feel every moment like you’re in bullet time:
- -0:05. Someone brings out the cake. The crowd shuffles closer and gives each other excited looks, while eyeballing the cake to check that it will feed the whole group. Everyone looks to the person with the cake to start the song, even though that’s the one person already doing a job.
- -0:02. One person starts singing and everyone fades in, trying to find the note and the tempo at the same time, because while this is the best-known song on the planet it’s impossible to start in sync, unlike, say, “One Week” by the Barenaked Ladies.
- 0:00. Now everyone has joined in. From here, everyone else will slow down to match the schmuck who came in last.
- 0:01. Everyone completes the word “happy”, but not all at once, because they’re still syncing up.
- 0:03. About now, the birthday person starts getting in her head. Where should she look? Is she grinning enough? Why isn’t this song over yet? If you plan on commenting that no one panics like this when people sing them “Happy Birthday to You”, then answer this: Why else do some birthday people start singing along?
- 0:05. The first line is finally over. The birthday person has settled for making brief, almost apologetic, eye contact with each guest.
- 0:06. If you’ve managed to sing any faster than this, someone now decides to add a little flair by shouting “Hey!”
- 0:07-0:11. General dread.
- 0:12. Another scramble to set the tempo, as we climb up the third line. The birthday person is choosing where to look when her name is sung, and every option is terrifying.
- 0:14. BIIIIIRTH-NO-ONE-CAN-HIT-THE-NOTE
- 0:15. Everyone slows down for the exciting bit – hey you, that’s your name we’re singing! Your name is in a song!
- 0:17. The crowd hits hard on the name, since that should be the climax of the song, but it’s at this weird low note. Or at least they should hit hard. God help you if your name comes out quieter than the rest of the song.
- 0:18. Everyone pauses, why would you pause we’re so close to ending this, to congratulate themselves on singing the name.
- 0:18-?:??. General dread.
Why It’s Objectively Bad
Why does this song feel like being transported into a hell dimension, tortured for a thousand lifetimes, then sent back to the second you left? I asked composer and musician Jason Oberholtzer to name the reason. Turns out there are SEVERAL REASONS.
The first few notes are awkward, Oberholtzer says: “The downbeat of the first measure is really cumbersome and makes people confused about what key we’re supposed to be in or where the momentum is, because the first two notes are pickup notes, arriving at the third note (the downbeat) which is the 6th of the chord it arrives on.”
And it doesn’t improve. “The melody proportions are all over the place. The climax is just hurled (in the form of an octave) into the third phrase.”
The melody doesn’t fit the lyrics, emphasising different parts of the same line each time. “It leaps up for unimportant words: ‘Happy birthday TO you.’ ‘Happy BIRthday.’ We’re on a mechanical bull of importance, and nobody knows how to phrase the lines.”
The BIRthday is the worst, says Oberholtzer, because it even breaks the pattern set by the TO, which would imply an emphasis on DEAR. But that wouldn’t fix it. “A sane person would find a way to make it:”
Happy birthday to YOU
Happy birthday to YOU
Happy birthday dear NAME
Happy birthday to YOU
Then the ending provides no strong resolution. “We land on the most simple, common conclusion ever and are just… done.”
The tune worked a little better with its original lyrics: “Good morning to you, good morning to you, good morning dear children, good morning to you.” Oberholtzer points out that unlike “happy BIRTHday,” “good MORning” follows a common speech pattern. “Properly phrased, it’s a playful bit of writing, very appropriate for children and mornings.”
But the birthday version is so awkwardly phrased, “people lean into the wrong parts, and we have a monster. We’ve ruined a perfectly good, graceful morning song by trying to turn it into screaming party song.”
What to Do Instead
Look, I’d prefer we just don’t sing anything, because bad melody or not, I loathe sitting mute while people sing to me. But most of you degenerates probably enjoy this experience, so choose whatever song you want. Our sister site Splinter has a solid list of alternative songs.
At my Christian school we would sing one that says Jesus’s name, but not the birthday person’s, which seems fair. I mean, sing the weird heavy-metal birthday song from Aqua Teen Hunger Force if you want, at least it’s bad on purpose. “Birthday” is the worst Beatles song, but at least it’s a Beatles song.
Or just sing some non-birthday song together. Just some song that you like. Pull up a karaoke track on YouTube and go for it. Compared to “Happy Birthday to You”, even “Bohemian Rhapsody” goes by quickly.
And hey, if you want to sing “Happy Birthday to You” because it’s tradition, fine. But don’t pretend you actually like it.