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I am planning on surprising my wife for her birthday, with a montage video of all of her friends and family singing "Happy Birthday" from their own homes.

To do this, I need to create a video they can sing along with.

The song has a one-octave range, with the lowest and highest note being the fifth of the key. I've recorded it already in C major, going from low G to middle G, because I'm a bass and that suits me. I'm concerned that female singers and young male singers would have trouble with it.

What key should I use? Or, to put it simply, what's the safest octave that everyone can sing?

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    The key I often hear it sung in is slightly off key...
    – Tim
    May 2 '20 at 9:39
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    @Tim Indeed... If the video is pitch-perfect, it won't sound very realistic, will it? :) Gotta have some fuzziness to trigger those associations with all one's other birthdays... May 2 '20 at 14:50
  • Everyone could pick their own key and not bother sticking to it. They could the same for tempo.
    – badjohn
    May 3 '20 at 14:07
  • 12-Part harmony would be the way to go, keeping in mind ,as @LukeSawczak said, how realistic it sounds, try picking where people in the group speak. Don't restrict octaves, just take a key and let the singer chose their octave. May 3 '20 at 16:49
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    @badjohn - that would just sound - too authentic!
    – Tim
    May 3 '20 at 16:55
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Either F or G are the keys I've played it in, with many different bands. That takes the high note - the one that's hardest for some to reach - a D, when in key G. However, since the lowest note is ony an octave below that, and not as hard to reach, I prefer to play for people to sing it in key F.

One very good reason for that is the fact that after 'Happy Birthday', often it segues into 'For s/he's a Jolly Good Fellow. And that, in the same key, goes up an extra tone on its highest note. In key G, it's pushing!

And bear in mind that 'Happy' is the ancrucis, and the accompanying chord needs to be the V of the key. Thus C7 in key F.

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    Agreed. When I'm occasionally forced to play this at a birthday party, I always choose F. (I've actually never seen sheet music for Happy Birthday -- always just picked it out by ear. I don't know if there's a key it tends to be written in.) Other keys around F are of course possible, but most players don't like the accidentals. Among non-trained singers, you'll always have a few basses who strain on the high C and a very occasional soprano or tenor (or teenager) that can barely get down to low C, but the C-C octave (or close) range is probably the best happy medium for crowds.
    – Athanasius
    May 2 '20 at 18:15
  • This answer would be improved by giving out some reasons why D-D is a good range for a random group of non-singers. I know very few men who'd be capable of that, and all of them sing much more often than people usually.
    – JiK
    May 3 '20 at 14:38
  • @JiK - most people, singers or not, have a range of more than an octave. It wasn't me who said D-D is a good range. Further to my answer, I think E is a good key to be playing for it on guitar, taking it down a touch more. What would be your 'ideal' range, therefore key?
    – Tim
    May 3 '20 at 15:01
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There's no foolproof answer, as people have all kinds of vocal ranges, and "Happy Birthday" is actually a relatively difficult song for novices to sing because it contains a full octave leap. You may enjoy this article by a music professor at Penn State:

As part of our work, our colleague Peter Pfordresher, of the University at Buffalo, shared some data with us on college students singing “Happy Birthday.” Some of the students started the song high in their vocal range, more started lower in their vocal range, but many of them failed when it came to the big ascending leap: the third “happy birthday.”

This is what makes this universal song so difficult for people around the world to sing. The third “happy birthday” has an octave leap, meaning a seven-note jump in the musical scale. It can be hard for people to manage, especially if you started too high in the beginning and have already topped out your range.

Having said that, since the range of the song is the octave from low sol to high sol, a key like F major or G major should minimize discomfort for the greatest number of people.

In G, men can sing in the lower octave and the highest note will be D above middle C, which is at the high end of my range but doable. Women would sing an octave higher, and the high D doesn't seem to be a problem for most women either. Of course, those with vocal training will sound better.

I have heard anecdotally that "there was a study" in which groups asked to sing the song tended to converge on G or G♭ major, but I couldn't find a reference.

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    Anecdotally, I have discovered empirically - ie by having been to a lot of birthday parties in my time - that the non-signers will start perilously high & the singers try to pull them back to something sensible by the 2nd line. If they fail, then of course the singers have no issue with the 3rd line, & the non-singers all squeak [or yell!] along as best they can. Such is life ;-)
    – Tetsujin
    May 2 '20 at 10:22
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In my experience, it's normally played in G (first melody note D below the tonic; highest melody note D above the tonic).

In fact — rather like the British national anthem — if you ask people to sing it, they will actually start somewhere around there.

D–D is usually safe for all voice parts: a top D might not be particularly comfortable for low basses or altos, but is generally considered to be within the range. And certainly for tenors and sopranos/trebles, that's perfectly reasonable.

I have experienced it played in F (range C–C) and that sounded and felt distinctly low¹!


¹ And I'm a low bass, very comfortable with a bottom D.

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  • D-D is good for native English speakers, but e.g. for Finnish, C-C is better. It's not genetic, it's in the culture. It's just an observation I've made that I think is interesting. May 2 '20 at 12:41
  • @piiperiReinstateMonica - interested as to why in Finnish, it's better lower. Is it the actual words sung?
    – Tim
    May 2 '20 at 13:01
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    @Tim Finnish speakers generally can't reach high notes quite as easily as English speakers. I'm not sure why that is, but I think they've learned a different way of forming sounds, a different posture for muscles etc. Finnish is more monotonous when it comes to pitch changes in the spoken language. If hymns sung in church in Anglican and Finnish Lutheran services are an indication, there's a difference in typical vocal ranges. For example "All Creatures of Our God and King" is in D in Anglican hymnals or even Eb like in the famous Mr Bean episode, but in Finnish hymnals it's in C. May 2 '20 at 19:37

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