When You Sing Happy Birthday

My boyfriend’s family recently celebrated three birthdays in one week. (They weren’t the actual birthdays; they celebrated because his parents were visiting.) It was the first time I heard people sing Happy Birthday with everyone singing in a different key. It clashed! I know sometimes it takes a while for everyone to converge on the same key, but this group didn’t even bother. They went through the whole song with everyone singing in their own key.

The first time, I thought they were just taking a long time to converge. Two days later, they started when I was in the restroom so I wasn’t around for most of it, but it still ended with everyone singing in different keys. The third time, I was confused. I tried matching someone else’s pitch at first, but halfway through I could hear myself clashing, so I brought it down to match his brother’s key. Everyone else continued singing in their own key. I thought that was strange but I haven’t been to enough birthday parties to know what is normal. Meanwhile, my boyfriend was used to it. He knew it didn’t sound good, but he didn’t know why.

Usually in my family, my aunt would start and since she’s loud and has a higher pitched voice, we’d all go along with the key she’s singing in. It’s higher than what I’d prefer, but I can still do it, and will, for the sake of these 19 seconds not sounding terrible.

I wonder if this has to do with differences between collectivist and individualistic cultures. Perhaps people from individualistic (primarily Western) cultures will sing in their own key even if it clashes with the key other people are singing it in. Meanwhile, people from collectivist (primarily Asian) cultures will try to all match? Or maybe it has to do with his family’s lack of music training? However, I didn’t have formal music training until I started band in 7th grade. We did sing in elementary school and most kids sang in the same key as the teacher, except for the few who were off tune.

I was curious about what other people do, so I watched three videos of families singing Happy Birthday on YouTube. (I know it’s a small sample, but there’s only so much I can take….) One family took some time to converge, but eventually did. The other family sang it all the way through with most people singing in their own key. The third family was a mess; even the timing was off. So does that make my family the unusual one? 😀 I’m interested in knowing what your experiences have been when singing Happy Birthday with other people.

When you sing Happy Birthday with a group of people, do you:

a) try to match the key most people are singing in
b) sing in your own key, without paying attention to what other people are singing
c) What’s a key in music??? :/

The times when you have sung Happy Birthday with a group of people, they generally:

a) eventually converge on the same key
b) sing in their own key the whole way through
c) What’s a key in music??? :/


2 thoughts on “When You Sing Happy Birthday

  1. lol, interesting observations. I guess the key is secondary to the fact that they want to celebrate. Funny story though!!

  2. To the first one, I sing low most of the time so no one can hear me LOL
    Most sing in a similar key but since it’s a celebration song, I don’t think anyone would really care one way or another. I’ve been in places where it sounded like NO one was in tune or in the same key. LOL. Still it was a good song b/c of the celebrating.

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