Arranging Walkthrough 1: “Happy Birthday”

The proof is in the pudding. Or icing.

The proof is in the pudding. Or icing.

In this article, we’ll be going through the motions of arranging a song. Instead of looking at a completed arrangement, we’ll walk through every step of the process to show how an a cappella arrangement evolves and is finally completed. Today, the tune is Happy Birthday, that old standby of yore.


First things first, the original tune:

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Sounds familiar, eh? There are bajillions of ways to take this simple tune and morph it, or harmonize it, or arrange it for lute choir, so let’s narrow down the field a little bit. I think that an all-female SSAA quartet would love a short and nicely harmonized take that they can sing at concerts to some poor audience member. I believe that they’re called the SmarterTones.

Already, the arrangement is taking form:

  • Four parts
  • Two sopranos, two altos
  • Short and simple
  • Pretty harmonies

Great! Is inane as it sounds, these four points help to trim down the possible directions you can take the arrangement. For this short tune, that’s enough planning…but don’t hesitate to go out and find other arrangements, other styles, other interpretations. Happy Birthday is ubiquitous enough to go in and arrange right away, but learning more about what’s out there will always help in some way.


Because I arrange on a computer, I’ll explain how to setup the page in a computer program. However, you can do this on paper just as easily; I just promised to walk through every step!

(Did you know that you can download a music notation software demo for free? Check out Composition and Notation to see a bit about the ups and downs of using a computer program)

  • Create a new composition
  • Set four staves (or four parts, look for Voice Oohs or Ahhs)
  • Let’s do this in F major! Set the key signature for F major (one flat).
  • What’s the time signature? If the first two notes are upbeats (the “Happy-“), then the downbeats are “Happy birthday to you. Happy birthday to you…” That’s in three! We can set the time signature for 3/4.
  • The clefs will all be treble clefs, since it’s all girls. You could set the Altos to another clef (like alto or tenor clef), but most people just read bass and treble, so let’s keep it simple.

There’s your setup, the page should look a little like this:

The score.

The score.

Now, let’s get into putting down notes!

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Hey, I really love your guide, I was just wondering what might have happened to all the pictures. None of them want to load, and it brings up an error when I try and open them in a new tab, so Im losing some information.

Written By Matt on February 17th, 2014 @ 1:21 pm

What a pity! Very interesting, but the images are off. Can you upload again?

Written By Juliano on June 12th, 2015 @ 11:15 am

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