Happy Birthday in Korea…

I was reading one of my student bloggers’ comments about it being her birthday, and I thought back to the rendition I heard at a recent department party. As usual, people were singing and clapping and the rhythm of the clapping struck me as totally wrong, but in a vague way — mostly because I just never devoted brain power to figuring out why.

Now I know. You see, Koreans are ardent clap-and-sing people. People love to clap along with the beat at concerts (even sometimes when it’s inappropriate, as I witnessed occasionally at the Jeonju Sori Festival), and when they sing together in a group in informal social situations, clapping is de rigeur.

The thing is, the clapping is almost always done in a 2/4 or 4/4 rhythm, and usually on the downbeat… which my every jazz instinct rebels against. Heck, even a little exposure to reggae clues one in to how much cooler clapping on 2 and 4 can be. But anyway, whatever, people clap on the downbeat in singalongs, and I’ve never heard a Korean jazz group make the same faux pas in a jazz performance — they always go for 2 and 4, as they should.

But something strange happened when the song “Happy Birthday” arrived in Korea. It morphed from a fast 3/4 waltzy thing, into a weird, loping, off-balanced 2/4 thing. When westerners sing “Happy Birthday”, the downbeats come like this:

Happy Birth–day to you,
Happy Birth–day to you,
Happy Birth–day dear Bob–by,
Happy Birth–day to you.

But when Koreans sing it, they clap on every second beat, which puts the downbeats like this:

Seng–Il Chuk–ha ham–ni da! [2],
Seng–Il Chuk–ha ham–ni da! [2],
Sarang ha–neun Chull–su–eui,
Seng–Il Chuk–ha ham–ni da! [2].

Okay, that might not make everything clear, but you just need to remember, next time you hear a Korean singing “Happy Birthday to you”, that it’s originally in 3/4. Tap out three beats and stress the first of each three, instead of the first, third, second, and you’ll see what a weird transformation the song has undergone in Korea.

Ha. That is, for anyone wondering why it sounds so very odd and different here.

UPDATE (22 March 2006): Wait, now, I think I have it. Happy Birthday is either in 3/4 or 6/8, but it makes more sense to express each line of the song in 6/8. That meter — 6/8 — has two downbeats, which fall on the on and the 4. In the song Happy Birthday to You, those beats fall on the syllables “Birth-” and “you!” respectively (in the 3 main lines of the tune, as outlined above).

But the Korean rendition of this song would be best expressed in 3 bars of 2/4, or in a very long measure of very slow 3/4 (either way it works out to the same, but I think the 3 measures of 2/4 is a little more sensible considering the rhythms of the melody. I’ll sketch where the downbeats fall in the English version of the song, just to help make the point clearer:

Happy Birth–day to you (__),
Happy Birth–day to you (__),
Happy Birth–daydear Bob–by,
Happy Birth–day to you (__).

(When you see this, remember that the “Happy” is the lead-in to the next measure, in both the Western and Korean versions of this song. The main downbeat for each line is on “Birth-“, of course. Basically, the main difference is that Westerns accent the first and fourth of six beats in the line, while Koreans accent the first, third, and fifth beats. Which is nothing more than a mild curiosity, and an oddity, but I do seriously wonder how that came to be. After all, it’s basically a waltz that somehow became a march, and that is just unusual… but, okay, enough about Birthday Songs.)

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