the song that levels us


The memorable, artless clarity of the Happy Birthday song is the essence of its genius. So with all its deliberate simplicity, it’s funny that the Happy Birthday song is a little bit hard to sing. We’ve all experienced this. As the end of each phrase gets progressively higher, you are, average singer, taken outside your comfortable vocal range, so that by the time you get to the third “birthday” (and it’s the “birth” note that’s the biggest problem) you’re practically in eunuch territory. Luckily, this high note happens quickly and only once so you can jump down from it safely and finish the song within the more gentle territory of the second line. (As opposed to “The Star-Spangled Banner,” for instance, a virtuoso song that nobody sings, a high-note holocaust which forces you to start really high from the get-go and keep singing higher and higher until you miraculously finish or implode.) We might think of this as the great flaw in “Happy Birthday to You.” To be fair, though, the “birth” note is not a problem inherent in the song. It’s starting “Happy Birthday to You” in a key that is too high which spells disaster. But here’s the thing: Because the song is always sung spontaneously, by a random group with (usually) uneven musical abilities, the key is always too high. The distance between the lowest note in the Happy Birthday song and the highest is eight steps and they happen, in that third line, right next to each other. That’s a whole octave leap. I’ve guesstimated that .0001 percent of the world’s population can make this octave leap. And yet we all sing it, time and again, debasing ourselves. Why? Because it’s funny. Every time. If you have Pavarotti in your gang, it makes no difference. “Happy Birthday to You” makes the collective sound terrible and, in doing so, makes everyone laugh. I’ve decided that the octave leap, the most curious part of the Happy Birthday song, is its finest element. “Happy Birthday to You” is disarming. It levels us.

more from Stefany Anne Golberg at The Smart Set here.