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The Birthday CD: Basic Musical Concepts

    The concepts covered on this page are the three basic elements of music (melody, harmony, and rhythm), as well as stereo imaging. Please review these concepts before looking at the individual explanations of tracks 1-50, which follow.

Note: Clicking on hyperlinked words will show you their definition. After reading the definition, click your browser's Back button to continue reading.

The "Happy Birthday" Melody

    The "Happy Birthday" melody is made up of four distinct musical phrases. The first phrase is six notes long and corresponds to the initial words "HA-PPY BIRTH-DAY TO YOU," as they are being sung. I will call this "birthday melody phrase one" and it will be abbreviated "bmp1". This abbreviation will be used later on in the explanations of the fifty tracks. The second phrase is also six notes long and corresponds to the the second time the words "HA-PPY BIRTH-DAY TO YOU" are sung. I will call this "birthday melody phrase two" and it will be abbreviated "bmp2." The third phrase corresponds to the words "HA-PPY BIRTH-DAY DEAR MI-CHAEL" (any name would do, but why not use mine?). This phrase is seven notes long (if the person's name is two syllables) and will be called "birthday melody phrase three"--"bmp3" in short. The final phrase is six notes long and corresponds to the words "HA-PPY BIRTH-DAY TO YOU," as they are sung for the last time. I will call this "birthday melody phrase four" ("bmp4"). The following table illustrates the breakdown of the "Happy Birthday" song:

Words of the Birthday Song  

Musical Phrase Names  

Abbreviation

Happy birthday to you  

Birthday melody phrase one  

bmp1

Happy birthday to you  

Birthday melody phrase two  

bmp2

Happy birthday dear Michael  

Birthday melody phrase three  

bmp3

Happy birthday to you  

Birthday melody phrase four  

bmp4

 

Harmony

    Harmony is the blending of separate notes to form chords. When three or more notes sound together at the same time, they are called a "chord." A chord will supply the background sound behind a melody. When a chord is played, you hear the blending of the notes as a sound onto itself, rather than perceiving the individual notes separately. Much like if you say the word "cat," you hear the whole word as opposed to hearing the three letters "c" "a" "t" separately and distinctly.

    If a melody is played with a particular chord, it is important that the melody contain the same notes that are in that chord, or notes that blend well (harmoniously) with that chord. If the melody starts playing notes that do not sound well with the chord, then the chord must be changed to a different set of notes that will blend better with the melody as it moves along. In most songs, as the melody is being played, there will be a series of different chords being played along with it that blend with the various notes of the melody. This series of chords is called a chord progression.

    All songs contain a melody and a chord progression, and the song "Happy Birthday to You" is no exception. It is a simple melody with an appropriately simple chord progression to go with it. This chord progression uses the most rudimentary chords in music. If you were to play "Happy Birthday to You" in the key of "C," the chord progression would be:

    These three chords (C, F, and G) are the first chords piano students learn to play (probably because they are made up of only the white keys on the piano).

    On The Birthday CD, there are many instances where I substituted a different chord progression for the one that is normally associated with the "Happy Birthday to You" song. When I wanted to emulate a particular musical style, I would choose a chord progression that was typically used in that genre, and try to marry it to the "Happy Birthday" melody ("Hawaiian Birthday" and "Fifties Birthday" are good examples).

    In versions where I blended the "Happy Birthday" melody with another song (as opposed to another style of music), I often used the chord progression of that song in order to help compose the piece ("New Year's Birthday" and "Surfin' Birthday" are good examples). When the melody of a song is played with a chord progression that is different from the one it is normally associated with, it can take on a character and emotion totally different from what the listener might expect. It may almost sound like an entirely different song. To use an analogy: if you see a man in a clown suit, and a few minutes later you see him in a tuxedo, you will have a totally different impression of him, even though he's the same person.

 

Beats, Time Signatures, and Time

    Most music has some type of beat or pulse. A series of beats is similar to the constant ticking of a clock, or the beating of a heart. Music is superimposed over a steady beat in order to give it form and motion. This repetitive pulse helps give music a sense of rhythm. When people hear rhythm in music, they respond to it by tapping their feet or fingers, clapping their hands, or dancing.

    If you were to tap your foot to each beat during a three minute long piece of music, you might end up tapping the floor hundreds of times. In order to keep their place in a song, musicians like to bunch this seemingly endless series of beats into groups of three or four. If there are four beats to a group, the first beat (the "downbeat") in each group of four gets "tapped' a little harder than the successive three. If there are three beats to a group, the first beat in each group of three gets "tapped' a little harder than the successive two. You will soon feel quite awkward if you try "tapping in three" to a song written in four. These groups are called "measures" in musical lingo, and a piece written in three is said to have a time signature of 3/4. A piece written in four is said to have a time signature of 4/4.

    The "Happy Birthday" song is traditionally sung in three. Consider the first word of the song ("Happy") to be a "pickup" before starting to tap your foot. If you start tapping on the first syllable ("Birth") of the second word of the song ("Birthday"), you will be able to comfortably "tap in three" throughout the rest of the song.

    All waltzes are in three, whereas rock 'n' roll and pop music are usually written in four. Very occasionally, you will find a piece of popular music written in five. The "Theme from Mission Impossible" falls into the latter category. Most of the pieces on The Birthday CD are in four because the musical styles they are derived from are usually written in four.

    Musicians can count measures and beats in order to identify particular sections of a musical piece. However, counting groups of beats can be a tedious proposition for those who are not used to doing it. Fortunately, a layperson can keep track of particular sections of a musical piece by looking at the passing seconds on a CD player's digital display. So, in the following pages which describe the fifty individual tracks, if I were to say the "Happy Birthday" melody enters at 05 seconds, then the listener would know that when the number 05 rolls by on the CD player display, it is time to start listening for that melody.

 

Stereo Imaging

    Picture yourself on stage, standing on a podium, facing the orchestra you are about to conduct, with your back to the audience. Let's say that the violins are on the stage to your left, the percussion are in the center of the stage, and the trombones are on the right. If you, as the conductor, close your eyes and the orchestra begins to play, your mind will perceive that the violins are to the left of you because most of the sound from the violins is going directly to your left ear. The percussion instruments will seem like they are directly in front of you because their sound is hitting both ears equally. You will imagine that the trombones are to the right of you because most of the sound coming from them is directed at your right ear.

    Likewise, if you were to sit in front of a pair of stereo speakers, and listen to a recording of the same orchestra (recorded in stereo, of course), you would hear that most of the violin sound was coming out of the left speaker; the percussion out of both speakers at an equal volume; and most of the trombone sound would be coming out of the right speaker.

    This concept of placing different musical sounds so that they seem as if they are coming from the left, right, or center, is called stereo imaging. It helps create the illusion that you are standing in front of a live band, because the sounds of all the different instruments are coming at you from all angles. It also helps the listener distinguish one sound from another more easily. If I were to make a recording, and had a clarinet coming out of the left speaker, and an oboe coming from the right, it would be easier to separate the sounds of the two instruments in your mind than if the clarinet and oboe sounds were coming out of both speakers equally.

    In the individual explanations of tracks 1-50 that follow, I will frequently refer to a sound as coming from "stereo left" or "stereo right," to make it easier for the listener to locate it in his or her mind.

    It is important to note that if you are sitting in front of a set of stereo speakers, the further apart they are placed from each other, the more effective the stereo imaging. If the speakers are placed right next to each other, there will be no noticeable stereo imaging. The stereo imaging effect is most distinguishable when wearing a set of headphones, because all the sound from the left earphone enters the left ear, and all the sound from the right earphone enters the right ear.

    If you are reading the explanations to tracks 1-50 while listening to The Birthday CD, it is crucial that you have your stereo speakers wired correctly. The wire coming from the output jack marked "L" on your receiver should be connected to your left speaker. If your wires are reversed, then, when I say "the guitar is playing the melody coming from 'stereo left,'" it will actually be coming out your right speaker instead, which would be very confusing. Also, if wearing a headset, make sure the earphone speaker marked "L" is placed on your left ear. If you are using computer speakers, the speaker connected directly to your computer is the "left" speaker.

 

If you want to discover all the musical "ins and outs" of The Birthday CD, then carry on by clicking here.

 

***Click here to download The Birthday CD MP3 Edition for only $9.95***
(you can also listen to 30-second audio samples of ALL 50 tracks on
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