One of the most common questions I get from the composition-curious is “I want to do [insert melody, chord progression, etc. here], does music theory allow that?”
The short answer is always Yes.
Music theory isn’t prescriptive. It doesn’t tell you what you can and can’t do.
Music theory is descriptive. It takes existing music and tries to explain how it’s put together.
Some music is less complicated to explain. Some is more complicated to explain. Sometimes more than one explanation is available. But the music comes first; the explanation comes later.
For example, consider the worst song ever written. I’ll add a lead sheet here so we can all look at the same thing:
By using this particular lead sheet, I don’t intend to imply this particular lead sheet/arrangement is a bad one. In fact, I chose this one because this is a good lead sheet for “Happy Birthday.”
My point is that even a good notation of “Happy Birthday” (as this one is) can’t save this abomination of a song, and music theory is powerless against it.
First things first: It doesn’t start on do (as in “donut”), aka the “tonic,” aka the “root,” aka “that one note everyone agrees should end and usually begin a song even if everyone sings like an owl trapped in a bucket.” Your ear knows what the root is even if your vocabulary doesn’t.
Here, the root is G. We know this from the key signature, which in this case is a single hashtag that has wandered away from Twitter:
Here, G is the note the song ends on, which you know if you’ve ever sung this thing in a bucket of owls. You know when the tune is over even if you know nothing else.
Sleeping through harmony class
The first chord in “Happy Birthday” is the root chord, aka “I.” The root chord, or I, is the chord whose lowest note (usually) is the root note, or “do,” or the “tonic” (it has a lot of names).
Here, we know the first chord is I because the music tells us so by putting the note name of the chord over the staff:
The G major chord is made of the notes G, B, and D. “Happy Birthday” starts on D, so that’s nice at least. But “birth” is sung on E, which isn’t even in the chord. So you’ll hear the root note but you won’t sing it, which is a terrible choice to make when writing a tune to be sung by people who usually avoid singing.
The root is in the hole and the hole is in the ground and SO IS MY CORPSE
Most simple well-known tunes begin on the root. “When the Saints Go Marching In” begins on the root, for instance. So does “Mary Had a Little Lamb.” So does “Frere Jacques.” So does “Twinkle Twinkle Little Star,” aka “The Alphabet Song.”
Simple well-known tunes that don’t begin on the root usually get there pretty quickly. Also, they usually get there in a way that makes sense with the lyrics. “Hot Cross Buns” gets to the root on the third note, which is also the last word of the first phrase (“buns”). (Insert “buns” joke here.)
The chorus of “Jingle Bells” takes a little longer to get to the root. But the journey makes sense with the lyrics. “Jingle bells” and “jingle bells” are all on the same note. The third “jingle” repeats that note but adds a new one, to signal that the next word isn’t “bells.” The next word, “all,” is a brand new word – and it’s also the one sung on the root note. So the tune gets more interesting as the words do. That’s what makes “Jingle Bells” both easy to sing and easy to remember. (Sorry, parents of five year olds.)
In both “Hot Cross Buns” and “Jingle Bells,” the root is also the lowest note in terms of pitch. This is good. The ear likes the root to be the lowest note. This is why we call it the root.
When you’re writing a tune to go with words, your audience will like the result better if the tune makes sense with the lyrics in some way. So of course “Happy Birthday” does not.
Great expectations…disappointing results
“Happy Birthday” starts on sol, aka the “dominant,” aka the “5th.” (In the lead sheet above, the root is G, so the dominant is D. If the root was C, the dominant would be G. Google “tetrachords” if you want to understand why.)
Starting on sol isn’t so bad by itself. After the root, the dominant is the easiest for the human ear to pick out. The ear loves it some movement between the 5th and the root, especially at the end of a song. (More on this later.)
Make it make sense
But even though the human ear loves it some do-sol slash 1-5 relationships, it also wants them to make sense. As you know if you’ve ever heard a toddler bang on a piano, the difference between music and noise is order.
In “Happy Birthday,” is the root easy to find? Is it somewhere below the beginning note? Is it placed on a word where it makes sense, like the first or last word of a new phrase? Is it, in other words, in some order?
Of course not.
ell oh ell, as the youths say
The first instance of the root note, G, is on “to.”
In the middle of a phrase. A phrase where the concepts “happy,” “birthday,” and “you” are all more important than the preposition “to.” In fact, if you were to say “happy birthday you,” the birthday person would still understand what you meant!
Does your ear even realize this is the root? Maybe, but let’s be honest, probably not, because it’s floating around in the air a whole perfect 4th above that D we all started on.
Well, not everyone comes out of the corner swinging. Let’s try this again. In fact, let’s sing the exact same phrase a second time, just so we’re all on the same pa-
Repetition makes sense, and we can’t have that
The second “Happy Birthday to you” has the same words, sure. But it doesn’t have the same melody. And just because birthdays are for crying, it’s not on the same chord, either.
Electrocuted with a frayed chord
The root chord, or the one with the root note at its bottom, is also known as I (that’s Roman Numeral I to you). The dominant chord, or the one with the fifth at its bottom, is also known as V (pronounced “five”).
I-V (“one-five”) is a pretty common chord progression. It’s the start of a I-V-vii-IV (“one-five-six minor-four”) progression, which is ridiculously popular in US music, across several genres.
Our ears dig that groovy vibe. More importantly for a song everyone is forced to sing several times a year, our ears know that groovy vibe.
I knew you were trouble when you plonked in
So does “Happy Birthday” give us that groovy vibe we dig so well?
NOT QUITE, BIRTHDAY MOPS.
Because this isn’t, strictly speaking, a V chord. It’s V7.
“So, what, like V-8 without the tomato juice?” I imagine you’re asking, even though you’re probably asking something much less silly.
A standard good old-fashioned chord is built by starting on whatever note the chord is named for and skipping every other letter (give or take) until you have three notes.
In the case of D, we start on D, skip E, add F (actually here it’s F# because this is D major but let’s just keep moving, this song isn’t going to trash itself), skip G, and add A.
If we numbered all this, we’d start on 1, skip 2, add 3, skip 4, and add 5.
A seventh chord takes one more skip and adds the seventh note up. For D major, that’s adding E.
Seventh chords are very popular, but for an unpopular reason. They’re popular because they add dissonance, or that sense that something isn’t quite right.
In any other standard folk song intended to be easy to remember and sing, I-V would make total sense. But this is “Happy Birthday,” a song everyone needs to sing at least once a year. So let’s just slap in that troublemaker 7th chord. It’s fine, the birthday child is not actually on fire.
And then things get weird
Here’s the thing about 7th chords: They’re actually kind of a pain to play.
That’s because a proper 7th chord requires four notes, and four notes can be hard to squeeze out on some instruments.
Whether they’re easy for you on a piano depends entirely on the size of your hands. I have wee pixie fingers that haven’t grown since I was in fifth grade. The proper 7th chord on piano is my mortal enemy.
Fortunately for us digit-length-impaired individuals, there are many ways to fake a 7th chord. One of the easiest, when you’re going from I to V7, is to play I again but move the middle note from 3 to 4.
In this case, I’d play that G chord: G-B-D.
Then I’d move my middle finger a bit and play G-C-D.
It’s a lot faster and easier than moving my baby fingers of fury from G-B-D to D-F#-A-C. Trust me.
There is an impostor among us
In this hot mess of a “song,” however, there’s just one problem: G-C-D isn’t officially a D7 chord.
In fact, it’s not a D chord at all. It’s what we call a “sustained” chord. This one starts on G, so it’s G sustained, or Gsus (sometimes Gsus4).
So the options here are trainwreck the fingers or fake a task and hope no one notices. (You’ll notice I chose to vent.) Happy birthday to you indeed.
Oh, and why do we need that D-related chord at all? Because the first “you” ends on F# and the second “to” jumps to A, so that the second “you” can find the root note like we’ve been begging this song to do since it began.
If you’re even more confused now, you’re doing it right
“But wait,” I hear you say. “If that D7 chord is there to accommodate the F# and the A, why is it a D7 chord? There is no C? Which is the thing the D7 chord has that the D chord didn’t? In fact I don’t see a C in the first two lines at all? What is going on?”
Congratulations! You are now better at music than this song is.
The third “happy” lets us stay on that nice solid I chord. It feels like a victory. It is in fact a false sense of security intended to lull us into complaisance – sure, I’ll finish the song, how bad can it be? – before presenting us with the worst thing that can possibly happen to non-singers:
The leap between “happy” and “birth” is an entire octave.
I hope you didn’t come here to sing
Octave jumps are easy to hear but hard to sing. “Over the Rainbow” was an instant hit the moment Judy Garland went for that octave leap between “some” and “where” and absolutely nailed it.
And “Over the Rainbow” had the decency to start on the root note. “Happy Birthday” thinks you should just jump between sol and sol. Go on, it’s fine. It’s not like you’ll ever need to sing this twice, right?
All music theory can do is watch this happen
We switch chords again on the hapless birthday person’s name. But not back to D, even though there’s a big fat happy F# just sitting there waiting for us. Nope, we’re going to C, which in this case is the IV chord.
Do you see an F# in there? No, you don’t. Because there isn’t one.
I, V, and IV are in basically every song Western music has produced since the days of rugged manly wigs, heels, and silk stockings. But not like this. Dear God, not like this.
Somehow you’re also supposed to squeeze that IV out above I, even though your fingers are also trying to hold that E for as long as the piano’s sustain pedal will allow. Don’t ask me. I didn’t write it.
Maybe it sounds better upside-down
The next super exciting chord change is marked “G/D.”
Anyone want to guess? No? Isn’t music fun?
Lead sheets, aka “fake books,” often use the / to indicate an inversion.
Remember our nice solid ordinary chord, which is made up of the note the chord is named for, the third, and the fifth?
An inversion is the same three notes, but it moves one or both of the bottom two up an octave to sit above the others.
Here, G is where we’re going to start: G-B-D. D is the note that wants to be on the bottom. So we’ll spread the fingers out a bit and grab D-G-B instead. (This is a second inversion, for those of you with dreams of appearing on Jeopardy! one day.)
Is this easy to get to from C? Eh. It’s not rocket surgery.
The worst part is that D-G-B tends to emphasize D, while the whole thing is sitting over a B. At least that B is in the melody.
Also, that G in the middle of the chord? You’re going to need that for the second note. While you’re already plonking it for the chord.
Unless you’re not, because you’re already getting ready to hit that next chord, which is D-F#-A-C if you’re feeling proper and you probably are because you’re pretty much already right there.
…Wait, did this song almost do something right?
No. No, it did not. Enjoy your one beat of D7 before you scramble back down to An Actual G Chord. I’d skip the whole thing if I were you.
Finally, the root note, “do,” the one note we’ve been looking for the whole time thank you it is finally over thank you.
Musicians do not get paid enough.
What was the point of all this?
Music theory could not prevent this.
Believe me, music theory wanted to.
Music theory dreams of the day it can yeet this abomination into the ocean and produce a birthday song that is actually singable – maybe something that sticks neatly to do-re-mi-fa-sol and only uses real live I and V chords, in a neat pattern even the most deeply embucketed owl can sing.
Alas, that day will never come, for music theory can do nothing. Music theory can only describe what it sees. Even when what it sees is…this.
Now go compose something.
If this mess can become the world’s best-known song, imagine what your music can do.
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