It’s one of the most common cultural songs used in the English-speaking world today, and probably has been for well over one hundred years. Happy Birthday is thought to have evolved from a song used as a morning greeting in an infant school setting during the 18th century. Over time “Good Morning to You” evolved into the song nearly everyone sings at birthday celebrations.
Until recently, several large companies laid claim to its copyright, but in 2016 a US judge ruled that the latest company to hold those rights—Warner/Chappell Music—did in fact not have valid claim to the song.
That said, no-one from a big music publisher was ever going to storm a kids’ party and demand a payment for a crowd singing Happy Birthday to the happy child. The ruling did, however, mean the song finally, officially, entered the public domain and could be used commercially and in public performances as well. For free.
Anyway, you are probably here because you want to learn how to play the song on the piano or keyboard. Look no further, here’s the sheet music, MIDI and audio files, plus some short suggestions on playing it.
Happy Birthday: Single Note!
The song is so well known that you probably don’t need to play it at all in order to allow people to sing it. What may be important is that starting note. Because there is quite a large jump towards the end of the song (an octave, in fact) if you start the song too high it can be very difficult for most people to sing it successfully. Then again, start it too low, and the song becomes a dirge — not what you want at all during a celebration!
Having listened to some recordings of the song, as well as personal preference, I’ve found that starting the song on Middle C will often suffice. If that seems a little high, this could be taken down to B flat or A.
If there is a well-tuned piano or keyboard nearby when the celebratory singing is about to start, give one of these notes a firm press in order to give people a starting place. Alternatively, someone with a decent pitch perception can simply start the song and others will follow.
Happy Birthday: Melody
I suspect everyone knows how to sing the melody to Happy Birthday, but playing it might need a little more care.
The piece is in 3/4 time, and here is written in F major, meaning there is one flat (B flat) in the scale.
Starting on the C, the first of six notes follows the pattern of two notes on C, then a rise to D and back to C, followed by a perfect fourth jump to F and back down to E. The second run of six notes is similar, but jumps up to a G and then down to F. This is followed by seven notes which start with an octave jump up, followed by an arpeggio down to A and F, with a final E and D. The piece concludes with two Bb notes, followed by A, F, G and F.
It’s worth noting in all cases we have used the pause mark to add ad dramatic pause just after the particular “name” is sung. How long you leave this is up to you, but it does sound hurried if you don’t include it.
Here’s the piece written out:
Here are the downloads for you:
Happy Birthday: Melody and Bassline
Adding a simple single note bassline to the melody adds a little depth to the piece. We only use three different notes: F, C and Bb. All but one are dotted half notes and fill the duration of each bar, with the exception of the half note and quarter note in bar 8.
Here are the downloads:
Happy Birthday: Left Hand Chords #1
Adding chords to the left hand provide greater fullness. These are all standard triad chords but in different inversions.
We start with an F major chord in first inversion, followed by two C major chords in second inversion, back to two F major 1st inversion chords, Bb major in root position, then F major 1st inversion, C major second inversion, and F major first inversion. You will notice that this allows for less movement of the left hand transitioning between chords.
Here are the downloads:
Happy Birthday: Left Hand Chords #2
Here’s an alternative set of left hand chord positions. They are the same chords as above but the lower note has been raised an octave, thus changing the inversion. So first inversions become second inversions, second inversions become root position, and root position become first inversions.
Here are the downloads:
Happy Birthday: Right Hand Chords
Finally we have chords in the right hand plus alternative single bass notes in the left. The bass notes could be played as octaves if desired.
Most right hand chords hold for the duration of the measure with the exception of measure six (quarter notes), seven and eight (half followed by quarter notes).
It is definitely worth employing the sustain pedal in this piece to help smooth out chord transitions.