"Happy Birthday" melody formed from tones

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A PRC graduate student in Chinese literature at Indiana University sent along this clever arrangement of "Happy Birthday":

For the record, here are the usual tones for the spoken Mandarin version of "Happy Birthday":

Zhù nǐ shēngrì kuàilè


I've sung "Happy Birthday" in Chinese hundreds of times, and every single time I have felt uncomfortable about how to fit the tones with the melody.  I suspect that others must feel the same way too.  They seem to do it in a warbling, wobbling sort of way, or just capitulate to the Western melody — regardless of the Mandarin (Cantonese, Taiwanese, etc.) tones.

Selected readings


  1. Antonio L. Banderas said,

    November 5, 2022 @ 4:16 am

    We'd appreciate it so much If only you could add a recorded enunciation in this kind of posts…

  2. Victor Mair said,

    November 5, 2022 @ 6:24 am

    Who are the "we" you are speaking for?

    You know the tones and you know the tune, so do it yourself.

  3. Rob Grayson said,

    November 5, 2022 @ 6:38 am

    For non-sinophones like me, it's not at all apparent why this particular arrangement of Happy Birthday is "clever".

  4. Aaron said,

    November 5, 2022 @ 7:01 am

    Since the plausibility of this is evidently not obvious to all, I will add that I do not know the tones either and would also have appreciated an audio demonstration.

  5. Victor Mair said,

    November 5, 2022 @ 7:03 am

    It uses the four tones (description and audio clips for non-sinophones here) to simulate the tune.

  6. Bob Ladd said,

    November 5, 2022 @ 7:53 am

    @VHM: I do know the tones, and I know the tune to Happy Birthday, and I have even published articles on the matching of tones and melodies in tone language singing, and I don't understand why this arrangement is clever either. Obviously, as the person who posted this, you are free to leave things obscure, but perhaps you can at least accept that a sample of typical Language Log readers are having trouble seeing your point.

  7. Philip Taylor said,

    November 5, 2022 @ 7:58 am

    Let me start by saying that I thought that I knew the tones, albeit perhaps only one-thousandth as well as Victor or any native Chinese speaker, but if I do know the tones, then I cannot see how the Pinyin maps to the melody that I know. Of course, it is quite possible that the North American tune to Happy Birthday is different to the British tune (the same is certainly true for many well-known hymn tunes) but were I to want to represent the British tune using Pinyin, I don't think that I would represent line one as zhǔ nī shēng ri kuāi lē​ — in the British tune, the opening "Ha-ppy" is sung on the same note, the lowest note in the whole tune, the next syllable, "birth", is one tone higher, "day" is the opening note again, "to" is two and a half tones higher, and the final "you" is a semi-tone down from that (so, for example, CCDCFE). Can I successfully map that to Pinyin ? I don't know. Pretending that tone sandhi doesn't exist, I might start zhǔ nǐ, but how to indicate a one-tone rise for sheng is not easy — perhaps shéng. Back to the third tone for "day" (), then a high-level tone for "to" (kuāi), and finally a falling tone for "you" (). So for me, zhǔ nǐ shéng rǐ kuāi lè, but I confidently expect that Victor will explain why I am completely and utterly wrong ☺

  8. Victor Mair said,

    November 5, 2022 @ 8:07 am

    The native speaker who sent this to me thought it was extremely clever and brilliant. I was perplexed.

    Sometimes when things are obscure and mysterious, you have to work them out for yourself.

    Those who gnaw on Zen koans will know what I'm talking about.

  9. Michèle Sharik Pituley said,

    November 5, 2022 @ 8:36 am

    Philip, it is the same tune in the US (& Canada, according to my Canadian wife).


  10. cameron said,

    November 5, 2022 @ 11:43 am

    that melody jumps an octave at one point – that'd be some pretty exaggerated tones

  11. Jonathan Smith said,

    November 5, 2022 @ 1:23 pm

    I mean, the *idea* is funny, thus people send it on. Obviously, this example doesn't work great in terms of particulars.

    Not so many native speakers process a text like this very fast incidentally (try somebody). Another approach would be to use right-sound wrong-tone (zhu-ni-sheng… etc.) characters, but then people could read it readily and you would actually have to do a good job with tones… (plus no choices for "ri")

    Incidentally I haven't seen much discussion in Mandarin re: incompatibility between tune and tone in say pop music… whereas there is quite a bit of such discussion when it comes to say Taiwanese… not sure if this is down to feature of the languages (e.g., relative pitch is contrastive in many southern language tone systems in contrast to Mandarin), or just a function of numbness to the flood of mediocre pop music in Mandarin…

  12. JOHN S ROHSENOW said,

    November 5, 2022 @ 2:38 pm

    Only slightly a' propos, but just in case anyone was worried. (I assume HB was never copy- righted in China):
    Is 'Happy Birthday To You' Song Copyrighted in 2022? Ask a …https://www.gemtracks.com › Musician Guide
    Apr 4, 2022 — In 1998 a copyright term extension Act was passed in the United States. The Happy Birthday Song by the Hill sisters (Patty and Mildred J. Hill) …
    BUT NOW: Warner/Chappell Inc. was required to create a $14 million pool for repayment of royalties it had collected since 1949. Like “We Shall Overcome,” the song is now in the public domain and can be used in films and performances royalty-free.Apr 17, 2018

  13. JOHN S ROHSENOW said,

    November 5, 2022 @ 2:42 pm

    PS: When I have hear this sung in Chinese, at the end of the 3rd line, I have often heard an "O" (not sure what tone) added. What does ~ signify? lengthening?

  14. Philip Taylor said,

    November 5, 2022 @ 2:48 pm

    I would hazard a guess that the tilde indicates that lē​ becomes disyllabic at the point but at no other.

  15. Levantine said,

    November 5, 2022 @ 3:10 pm

    Can someone who understands the joke provide some sort of explanation or English-language analogy?

  16. Philip Taylor said,

    November 5, 2022 @ 3:16 pm

    .. and bi-tonal, of course.

    Levantine — there is a joke lurking somewhere in this thread ?!

  17. Levantine said,

    November 5, 2022 @ 3:29 pm

    "Joke" was perhaps the wrong word. There seems to be some sort of riddle at play, and I'd like to know the key to it.

  18. Neil Kubler said,

    November 5, 2022 @ 3:55 pm

    Professor Marjorie Chan of Ohio State pointed out many years ago that in Cantonese, the lyrics of songs are usually matched to the melodies, so that tones are preserved whenever possible. A stunning example of this is George Lam’s famous song “A Life of Numbers,” which is sung to the tune of Bach’s Minuet in G Major. The first line of this song consists of the numbers 3 0 6 2 4 7 0 0, pronounced in Cantonese as saam55 ling21 luk22 yi22 sei33 cat55 ling21 ling21. That this phenomenon occurs in Cantonese but not in most other Sinitic languages is no doubt related to the fact that in Cantonese there are three level tones, 55, 33, and 22. Cf. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GrttavtmsRI

  19. Bob Ladd said,

    November 5, 2022 @ 4:34 pm

    @ Levantine: The most obvious English analogy is that word-stress patterns have to fit melodies. Stay with Happy Birthday for a minute: In the third line of the English version, you have to fit the name of the birthday girl or boy to two notes at the end of the lines; the first of those two notes is the downbeat (strong beat). If the name has two syllables stressed on the first (like Susan, Johnny, Mary, Harry, and many others), there's no problem, but a two syllable name stressed on the final syllable (like Suzanne, Jerome, Elaine, Lorraine, and a handful of other mostly female names) means you have to put the first syllable in the previous bar and divide the stressed syllable over the two notes:

    Happy | birthday dear E- | lai-aine

    Getting stuff like that wrong is sort of comparable to getting the match between lexical tones and the melody wrong.

  20. Bob Ladd said,

    November 5, 2022 @ 4:49 pm

    @Neil Kubler, Jonathan Smith: Marjorie Chan's work on tone-melody matching in Cantonese in the 1980s has triggered a lot of research in the past two decades, and her specific conclusions have held up in a number of studies, the most ambitious and comprehensive being Wincie (Wing See) Ho's PhD thesis (approx. 2010). A master's thesis by Ruoqi Lin in Edinburgh a few years ago did an explicit comparison of Cantonese and Mandarin lyrics *to the same pop songs* and showed (unsurprisingly but clearly) that the tone-melody match is much stricter in Cantonese. But the basic general principle – something like "the melody shouldn't go up if the tones go down (and vice-versa) – is very widespread in songs in many unrelated tone languages. An article on this principle applied to Tommo So (spoken in Mali) by McPherson & Ryan appeared in Language a few years ago; James Kirby and I have a general review/tutorial article on this whole question in The Oxford Handbook of Linguistic Prosody (2020). Definitely a very rich topic.

  21. Victor Mair said,

    November 6, 2022 @ 7:23 am

    Thanks for the excellent discussion. Marjorie Chan is happy.

    A couple of renditions of the actual song in Mandarin: here and here.

  22. Michael Watts said,

    November 8, 2022 @ 7:23 am

    What does ~ signify? lengthening?

    In Chinese culture (and I believe also in Japanese), a sentence-final ~ signifies positive sentiments on the part of the speaker, much like a smiley might do.

    I am informed that it represents "a tone" that occurs in such speech. This is difficult to interpret; the Chinese are very free in labeling various speech-related phenomena as "tones". (I am also informed that voicing, which occurs in Shanghainese, is a distinction in "tone".)

    Chinese people will also exhibit the pattern common in English of writing otherwise perfectly declarative-looking sentences with a question mark and treating them as interrogative. ("You're hurt?") In English, the question mark in one of these sentences really does reflect a tonal contrast with the declarative version of the sentence, and I am informed, again, that Chinese sentences of this written form are expressing a particular tone, and would be distinguished from declaratives in speech. But I don't know anything more detailed than that.

    I don't know to what degree the ~ present in the image signifies (a) positive sentiments [which would be expected in the wish "happy birthday", after all]; (b) the "tone", whatever it might be, usually indicated by the ~; and/or (c) the fact that the melody ordinarily lengthens that note in the third line (and only in the third line), where the ~ appears.

  23. Philip Taylor said,

    November 8, 2022 @ 12:57 pm

    "the melody ordinarily lengthens that note in the third line (and only in the third line), where the ~ appears" — I am forced to ask "does it ?", Michael. To my mind (well, to my ear really) the third line, rather than lengthening an existing note, splits that note (which was until then a minim) into two crotchets. with the second a full tone lower than the first —


  24. Terry K. said,

    November 8, 2022 @ 3:18 pm

    On the length of the last note of each line in "Happy Birthday", it probably depends on how long "you" is held. I would say "you" (all 3 times) is definitely shorter than the two notes for the name at the end of the 2nd line. But that doesn't mean that's the same for anyone. Maybe some people hold out "you" longer.

    It does, though, seem to me that the ~ represents a note change, not just that it's longer.

  25. Terry K. said,

    November 8, 2022 @ 3:22 pm

    Should have proofread. I meant (2nd to last sentence of first paragraph): But that doesn't mean that's the same for everyone. (Although, technically true as written as well.)

  26. Michael Watts said,

    November 10, 2022 @ 8:14 am

    Philip Taylor, I agree with the sequence of notes you've posted. It is normal to have a fall at the end of the third line, on the name, where the same position in the other lines doesn't fall.

    Whether the note is split, or has a second (lower) note added after it, is more questionable; the tempo often slows down there.

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