Rhodri Marsden: Birthdays would definitely be happier with the tricky song

Life on Marsden

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You'd have thought, what with it being the most recognised song in the English language, that we'd have got the hang of singing "Happy Birthday To You". But we haven't. It's been around for more than a century, but its melodic leaps and poetic scansion continue to defeat us on a daily basis. I've witnessed renditions of "Happy Birthday To You" that aren't so much a celebration of the anniversary of someone's birth as an experimental tone poem that Yoko Ono phoned in a bit earlier.

The song was supposedly written in 1893 by two sisters, Patty and Mildred Hill. Patty was the head of a kindergarten, and she reckoned that children would find it easy to sing. But this song is far from easy. There are two potentially catastrophic stumbling blocks in "Happy Birthday To You", the first coming right at the beginning, as someone walks slowly into the room carrying a blazing cake as if it were made of hazardous waste. The first note is generally chosen by the most enthusiastic singer, but this is the worst person to be left in charge of this crucial task. Anyone feeling vaguely excitable will choose a note that's way too high. Nota bene: the first note of "Happy Birthday To You" is the lowest note in the whole song. Pitch it too high, and by the time you reach the third "Birthday" everyone will be squealing like they've had a tureen of hot tea thrown in their face.

And just as everyone's reeling from this shock to the larynx, they only have the word "dear" to recover before being thrust into the next calamity: how to fit the name or names into the two notes that have been provided for this purpose. If you're celebrating Rhodri's birthday, you're fine. If you're at Srinivasaraghavan's 60th, it's more tricky. If you're at a joint birthday party for Alexandria, Oluwadamilola and Maximilian, you might begin "Happy Birthday To You" in the most joyous of spirits, but by the third line a grim cloud of doubt and uncertainty will have descended over the assembled throng.

Everyone will mumble the three names in a different order, the song will lose momentum, candles will spontaneously extinguish and the cake will sink in the middle. My advice: hire a pianist to turn up with a portable keyboard and some song sheets. My rates are reasonable.

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