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The Birthday CD: Musical Review of Tracks 1-10

1) Blues Birthday

    After an introduction featuring a bluesy piano lick, the "Happy Birthday" melody enters at 09 seconds and is played by the electric guitar. The melody is played straight through and finishes at 40 seconds. At 41 seconds, the melody is tagged by repeating bmp4. The piece then ends in a flurry of piano, organ, and guitar blues runs.

    Other things to listen for include the interplay between the piano (stereo left) and the organ (stereo right) throughout the song. From 02 to 09 seconds, and 28 seconds to the end, there is a distorted guitar sound that sustains chords faintly in the background (stereo left), which helps add some "beef" to the overall mix.

    In the very beginning of the track, the three clicks that you hear are the sound of two drumsticks hitting together. When a band begins a song, someone has to give a "count off" (e.g. one, two, three, four), so that the musicians start at the same time and play at the same speed (tempo). Instead of a person verbally counting off the song, often the drummer will count off by hitting his sticks together. This is more penetrating than the human voice, and since the drummer is the timekeeper, why not give him some responsibility?

    In recorded music, these count off "clicks" are usually edited out, but occasionally they are left in to give the listener the ambiance of a live band playing. I left them in this track because I think it is an appropriate "wake-up call" to get people's attention as they start listening to The Birthday CD. "Blues Birthday" is written in four, as are most blues pieces.


2) Mozart Birthday

    This piece is written for a small chamber ensemble. Chamber music is classical music that is written for a small number of musicians (usually from 2 to 10 players) and is performed in a room or small concert hall.   

After a one measure introduction by the piano, the "Happy Birthday" melody enters at 02 seconds and is played by the piano and strings. At 12 seconds, the clarinet (stereo left) takes over the melody and plays bmp3 and bmp4.

    As the clarinet plays bmp3, the piano plays a busy Mozart-like countermelody against it, and then joins the clarinet playing the last few notes of bmp3. At 17 seconds (between bmp3 and bmp4), the clarinet and piano play an extended multi-noted fill leading into bmp4, which begins at 19 seconds.

   As bmp4 is being played, both instruments play a trill (22 seconds) on the note corresponding to the word "to" in the phrase "Happy Birthday to You." The trill is frequently used in Mozart's music. At 24 seconds the piece ends with a musical passage identical to the ending of Mozart's Piano Sonata number one, movement two.

    Also listen for the arpeggiated figure played by the left hand of the piano (2-24 seconds) throughout the piece. This type of figure permeates Mozart's music.

The song is written in four.


3) Dixieland Birthday

    After an introduction featuring the banjo, the trumpet enters and plays the entire "Happy Birthday" melody from 05 seconds to 27 seconds. After a short drum break, the trumpet enters again at 33 seconds, tagging bmp3 and bmp4. To end the piece, the trumpet plays (starting at 42 seconds) the same melody as the banjo played for the introduction.

    Notice that, throughout the piece, the trombone (stereo right) and the clarinet (stereo left) play separate countermelodies to the trumpet. This is typical in the Dixieland style. The trombone has a slide mechanism built into the instrument which allows the player to slide into notes easily. You can hear that there are many "slides" in the trombone's countermelody, the most obvious one being the long slide starting in the middle of the drum break and leading to the tag (31 seconds to 34 seconds). This piece is written in four as are most songs played in the Dixieland style.


4) Irish Birthday

    The introduction to this piece features an Irish "talking drum" along with a dulcimer and a zither playing a repetitive arpeggiated figure. The flute plays bmp1 of the "Happy Birthday" melody starting at 06 seconds. The flute adds quite a few ornaments to the melody, which may make the melody harder to recognize at first listening.

    As the flute finishes bmp1, the fiddle (stereo left) begins to play the familiar Irish jig melody called "Irish Washerwoman" (11 seconds). The flute continues with bmp2 of the "Happy Birthday" melody at 14 seconds, and is interrupted again by the fiddle playing more of "Irish Washerwoman" at 18 seconds.

    At 21 seconds, an accordion joins the flute playing bmp3. At 28 seconds the flute finishes the "Happy Birthday" melody by playing bmp4 all by itself. After a few hits from the "talking drum," the flute and accordion tag the "Happy Birthday" melody by playing bmp4 starting at 35 seconds.

    The bagpipes enter at 41 seconds (stereo right) playing bmp4, and are quickly followed by the fiddle at 43 seconds restating the "Irish Washerwoman" melody. The flute joins the fiddle at 50 seconds, and both instruments end the song together by playing the last five notes of the "Happy Birthday" melody (55 to 57 seconds).

    "Irish Birthday" is written in three, which is the same time signature that the "Happy Birthday" melody was originally written in (3/4).


5) Surfin' Birthday

    The first sound you hear on this track is a guitar glissando, which is found on a number of surfin' tunes. The guitarist merely slides his finger down along the string while rapidly plucking the string with his pick. Also, a lot of reverb is added. The drums do a tom-tom fill at the end of the slide and then the rhythm begins at 3 seconds.

    Since this track is titled "Surfin' Birthday," I thought I should blend it with one of the all time surfin' hits, "Surfin USA" by the Beach Boys. I did not use the melody of "Surfin' USA", but only the chord progression of that song. (Incidentally, "Surfin' USA" uses the same chord progression and rhythmic breaks as Chuck Berry's earlier song, "Sweet Little Sixteen." As a result, Chuck Berry is part owner of "Surfin USA" along with the Beach Boys, which means we had to pay two different publishers royalty payments for permission to use this song on The Birthday CD!).

    At 05 seconds, the organ plays bmp1 and bmp2 during the silences between the rhythmic breaks. Since I had to conform the "Happy Birthday' melody to the "Surfin' USA" chord progression, the organ repeats bmp1 and bmp2 at 10 seconds. At 16 seconds, the organ continues with bmp3 and bmp4, and then repeats bmp3 and bmp4 at 21 seconds for the same reason.

    At 27 seconds, the electric guitar takes over the melody, and plays bmp1 and bmp2. Notice that the second half of the piece dispenses with the rhythmic breaks that are so prevalent in the first half. At 33 seconds the guitar repeats bmp1 and bmp2 because we are still holding true to the chord progression of "Surfin' USA." At 38 seconds, the guitar continues with bmp3 and bmp4 and repeats bmp3 and bmp4 at 44 seconds.

    The guitar tags bmp3 and bmp4 at 50 seconds, and at 54 seconds enters into the same glissando that started the piece. Notice that the organ joins in the glissando this time.

    Other things to notice in this piece include the muted plucked guitar sound (stereo left) which plays a repetitive surfin' lick from 17 seconds to 28 seconds. From 28 seconds to 53 seconds, the organ (stereo right) plays a repetitive rhythmic figure that is identical to the repetitive "Inside, outside USA" lyric sung during the chorus of "Surfin USA."

    Also at 28 seconds, a distorted guitar sound (stereo left) plays another typical surfin' lick which stops at 52 seconds. The muted plucked guitar sound that appeared in the first half of the piece enters again (stereo right this time) from 40 seconds to 52 seconds, playing the same figure it did before.


6) Mellow Birthday

    The "Happy Birthday" melody is played by a Fender Rhodes electric piano sound starting at 00 seconds. (Fender Rhodes is a brand name of an electric piano that was popular in the 70's and 80's, and was known for it's rich, warm sound). The melody is played straight through with no ornaments or tags.

    What makes this version unique is the harmony. Forget about chord progressions here--each note of the melody has a different chord (some have two). This technique of drastically altering the harmony (chord structure) of a song is called re-harmonization. These chords have more than the required three notes needed to make a chord (most have six or seven). These extra notes are called tensions. Tensions add color, personality, and richness to the chord.

    The warm sound of the electric piano, coupled with the lush harmonies, and the fact that the piano keys are "caressed" rather than pounded, make "Mellow Birthday" the appropriate title for this piece.


7) African Birthday

    After a percussive introduction featuring African drums and rattles, the "Happy Birthday" melody begins at 07 seconds and is played by the kalimba. The kalimba is a musical instrument played with the thumbs, consisting of metal strips along a small hollow piece of wood.

    The melody is being "compressed" here--it is played twice as fast as usual. The notes are also being pushed ahead of the beat a bit. The movement of a note forward so that it is played ahead of the beat, instead of right on the beat, is called an "anticipation" or "syncopation." It is a technique that is often used in jazz music, and it helps intensify the rhythm of the melody.

    At 14 seconds, a short interlude occurs, featuring African tribal voices. This is followed by a restatement of the "Happy Birthday" melody using an African pipe flute (starting at 22 seconds). Another interlude filled with more exotic African sounds begins at 29 seconds, followed by another run through of the melody by the kalimba at 37 seconds. At 44 seconds, the kalimba is joined by the African pipe flute and the melody is played once again in a new key. Bmp4 is tagged two times by the kalimba and flute at 51 seconds, and is followed by a percussive ending filled with the sound characteristic of African music.

    Another sound to listen for is that of the bass kalimba. This lower sounding kalimba "answers" each of the birthday melodic phrases from 37 seconds to 54 seconds. Also during the second interlude, which starts at 29 seconds, there is a peculiar sounding instrument (stereo left) that plays bmp4 at 30 seconds and again at 34 seconds.


8) Outer Space Birthday

    The first sound you hear is an electronically synthesized sound designed to transport you from this world to the ethereal domain of outer space. After you've been transported, at 03 seconds four bell tones are sounded. Star Trek fans will recognize them as identical in pitch to the 4 bell tones used in the beginning of the Star Trek TV shows. After a brief "space whoosh" at 06 seconds, the "Happy Birthday" melody appears at 08 seconds.

   The melody is being played by the sound of a Theremin. A Theremin is an electronic musical instrument which generates a tone through two high-frequency oscillators, with the pitch being controlled by the movement of the performer's hand towards and away from the circuit. It was invented by Russian scientist Leon Theremin in 1919, and was used extensively in the sci-fi movies of the 50's and 60's to create eerie background noises.

    It is important to note that in this piece there is no rhythm, no sounds of drums or percussive instruments keeping the beat under the music. As a result, the composition evokes a floating sensation as the melodies and countermelodies are performed with no sense of time or urgency.

   At 22 seconds, the theme from "Star Wars" is played in a drawn-out fashion by a brass horn, and is interwoven as a countermelody to the "Happy Birthday" melody, until they both end together at 46 seconds.

    At 50 seconds, the first seven notes of the title theme to the original Star Trek show are played by a sound that is similar to the sound that is produced by rubbing a moistened finger around the top of a champagne glass. It is joined one second later by the Theremin tagging bmp4 in a lower sounding range of the instrument. These melodies end together at 57 seconds and are followed by exiting space sounds as the piece fades into oblivion (oblivion as in "beyond the known universe" for Star Trek fans, or "beyond the rim" for Babylon 5 fans).

    Also note that there are numerous assorted space sounds ("cosmic clashes"?) vying for attention throughout the piece.


9) Reggae Birthday

    Reggae is a style of music that originated in Jamaica and combines the elements of blues, calypso and rock. The calypso elements of reggae can be noticed right away in the introduction. After a high-pitched snare fill (panned stereo left to stereo right, then to center just for the fun of it), some island percussions are heard. Maracas are stereo left and the cowbell is stereo right. The steel drums, which are a staple of Caribbean music, play a simple arpeggiated figure over the rhythm section.

    A distinctive feature of the reggae rhythm is the sparsity of the bass drum and snare drum. They are struck about a half as many times as in other popular music styles. This allows for a lot more space for other sounds to be heard, and helps give reggae music its laid back feel. Another common characteristic of reggae is a constant repetition of offbeats played by a chordal instrument. In this piece, a muted guitar (stereo left) plays the offbeats during the first half of the song from 1 second to 30 seconds. The organ takes over the offbeats from 30 seconds to the end.

    Speaking of offbeats, in reggae music the bass seldom plays on the downbeat. If you listen just to the bass in this song, you will notice that most of the figures he plays start on an offbeat.

    The "Happy Birthday" melody is played by the brass starting at 10 seconds. It plays a number of the notes in the melody in staccato (short and detached) fashion, in order to give more punch to the track. Normally, if these melody notes were being sung, they would be sustained or held out longer and smoother (legato).

    At 29 seconds the steel drums take over and play the "Happy Birthday" melody again. The steel drum is a percussion instrument originating in the West Indies, and is made of an oil drum with one end beaten down and divided into grooved sections to give different notes. A sound is produced by striking the metal drum with a mallet. This sound is quite short in duration, so that in order for the steel drummer to effect a longer sounding note, he has to repetitively strike the same note over and over again with the mallet (similar to a drum roll). You will notice this "rolled" effect on all the longer notes of the "Happy Birthday" melody.

    The steel drums tag bmp4 at 48 seconds and again at 53 seconds as the piece ends with some brass punches and high pitched snare drum attacks. Also notice the organ fills (stereo right) that answer each of the "Happy Birthday" melodic phrases starting at 33 seconds.


10) Beethoven Birthday

    This version of the "Happy Birthday" song was inspired by Beethoven's famous piano piece, "Moonlight Sonata." It is one of my favorite compositions because it is somber, yet profound. I tried to maintain that mood combination throughout my piece.

    The introduction in my rendition (the first 8 seconds) copies exactly the notes used in measures four and five of Beethoven's introduction in "Moonlight Sonata." The chord progression used in my piece is similar in structure and movement to Beethoven's composition. Also the arpeggiated figures played by the harp and acoustic guitar in my piece mimic the shape and rhythm of the arpeggiated figure played by the pianist's left hand in "Moonlight Sonata."

    The flute (stereo right) enters at 08 seconds and plays bmp1 of the "Happy Birthday" melody. At 16 seconds the cello (center) joins the flute in playing bmp2. The oboe (stereo left) joins the flute playing bmp3 at 24 seconds, and at 36 seconds the cello and flute finish the "Happy Birthday" melody by playing bmp4.

    An ending is tagged onto the piece starting at 48 seconds. It is played by the flute and oboe and uses the exact notes of measures 51 and 52 from "Moonlight Sonata."

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Detailed Notes on Tracks 11-20