Monday, January 14, 2019

Where are all the birthday songs?

Today happens to be my birthday. Which got me thinking: how come most people in the world sing the same birthday song?

photo by Ed g2s

Where are all the other songs for birthdays?

the original happy birthday song

Happy birthday to you is (according to the 1998 Guinness World Records) the most recognised song in the English language.

The origins of the song date back to at least the 19th Century when two sisters Patty and Mildred J. Hill, introduced the song Good Morning to All to Patty’s kindergarten class in Kentucky.

It is very likely that the Hill sisters copied the tune and lyrical idea from other popular and similar nineteenth-century songs that predated theirs.

The melody soon gained the familiar Happy birthday to you lyrics. The first published version of the song with the new lyrics was in 1911.

birthday songs from other cultures

It can get a bit tiresome singing the same old song at birthdays. Especially if you’re in a choir since Happy birthday to you is a bit lame and people only ever seem to harmonise on the last few notes. Not very challenging!

Over the years I’ve sought out songs which different cultures sing to celebrate birthdays. About 90% of the time it’s simply the Happy birthday to you tune with foreign lyrics!

Here’s a sample:

Belgium and the Netherlands come up with something different. Then you hit Eastern Europe and lots of different songs pop up. My favourite is Poland’s: Stolat. But mostly it’s the same old tune.

In my choirs we’ve learnt Stolat (great, rousing song) and we’ve also used Mravalzamier from the Republic of Georgia (“may you live for many years”). Other than that I’ve drawn a blank.

alternative birthday songs in English

There are alternatives out there. You could always sing Stevie Wonder’s Happy birthday for example. And there are plenty of simple birthday rounds.

But if you want to have a ‘different’ birthday song you’ll need lots of people to know it or nobody will join in.

If you’re in a choir, one option is to learn a new birthday song (or two) and use it whenever it’s someone’s birthday. A bit like learning Christmas songs, it won’t get wheeled out that often, but at least it’ll be in your repertoire.

I’d love to hear what solution you’ve found, or do you sing the same old thing each time?

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Chris Rowbury



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Chris Rowbury


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