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Why can’t Spanish people sing the tune to ‘Happy Birthday’?

As one Twitter user recently pointed out in a viral thread, if you don’t get the first note right of this seemingly simple song, all hope is lost

Next time, try to stay in tune from the beginning.
Next time, try to stay in tune from the beginning. Getty

In Spain, we all know Cumpleaños Feliz (Happy Birthday), the childish song composed by Americans Mildred and Patty Smith in 1893: “Cumpleaños feliz, cumpleaños feliz, te deseamos todos, cumpleaños feliz” (“Happy birthday to you, happy birthday to you, we all wish you a happy birthday”). There are other versions of it in Spanish which are popular in Latin America that change “cumpleaños feliz” to “que los cumplas feliz” (“have a happy birthday”). While Spanish people also know the song’s melody, singing the tune appears to be another matter...

I think that, deep down, people do not care if they are singing ‘Cumpleaños Feliz’ in tune

Author of Twitter thread José Antonio

At the beginning of December, a musician from Seville shared a thread on Twitter about how badly Spaniards sing Cumpleaños Feliz. His rant received more than 7,000 retweets. Our colleagues at the EL PAÍS English Edition have also noticed this phenomenon, confiding in us that foreigners are often surprised to hear that we can’t sing the song, despite the fact that we must sing it more than a handful of times a year.

“I decided to write the thread shortly after having listened to a group of girls singing the song in the Plaza de Armas Metro station in Seville,” says José Antonio, the author of the thread, over the phone. “As soon as I heard the first note I knew that it was going to end badly...”

What is it we’re doing wrong?

José Antonio says that if the first note goes badly, then the rest of the song is hard to fix. As he explains in his thread, the first note of the song, the syllable “cum” of the first “cumpleaños,” is the most important of all. “We come in here with great gusto, singing much sharper than we need to,” he says.

The problem is that people who don’t have singing training tend to have a very limited range. “Musical range is the notes that we are able to sing. Without training, it is normal to only cover an octave,” musician and producer Nahúm García tells Verne over the phone. “An octave is the interval between the musical note ‘do’ and the next ‘do’. That is, the same note but in two different pitches,” he adds.

The “se” syllable of “deseamos” is an octave and a half sharper than the “cum” in “cumpleaños.” If we start too sharp, it is impossible for us to reach “se” in the right tone. “This jump is Mordor,” says García. You can identify the exact moment of the jump in the melody at the 15th second of this video.

If we start with a sharp tone, the result will be similar to the one created by the audience in this Pablo Alborán concert.

“Another problem with Cumpleaños Feliz is that men, women and children sing it together, each with their own tone and volume. It’s very difficult to coordinate,” adds Antonio. To sing the song well, he recommends a man with a deep voice sets the tone of the “cum” at the beginning so that “it will be easier for everyone to reach the song’s octave.”

García points out that Cumpleaños Feliz is much harder to sing than other popular songs: “The majority of Christmas carols don’t cover an octave.” A person with some musical training can cover two octaves, while a professional can reach three.

According to Antonio, our difficulty in singing a song like Cumpleaños Feliz in tune is a reflection on Spain’s musical training: “In other countries, music is taught more, and better, in primary and secondary schools. We have less training than other leading countries. And I think that, deep down, people do not care if they are singing Cumpleaños Feliz in tune.”

In other countries, musicians also complain about how badly their countrymen sing this song: “Why does everyone sing Happy Birthday out of key?” an English user asks on the internet forum Quora. The song is also mentioned in this Reddit thread, in which members of the forum are asked which song is the hardest to sing.

Twitter thread

People of Twitter: today I am going to speak to you about something that really angers me, something that still separates us Spaniards from the rest of the civilized world, something that requires a serious change and an urgent solution.

WE DON’T KNOW HOW TO SING “HAPPY BIRTHDAY.”

And worst of all you are transmitting your sociopathy to younger generations. Every time you sing the song in a playground you make Bach cry in his grave.

What is the problem? If you know you have to run 1km but start sprinting in the first 100m it is very likely you are not going to make it.

Not howling like hyenas, letting yourself get carried away with mistaken excitement.

The ONLY THING YOU HAVE to do is start the song in a low tone.

English version by Asia London Palomba.

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