Jazz reharmonization of Happy Birthday

What lead me to reharmonize the I-IV-V chords of Happy Birthday? Teaching improvisation, of course! And Happy Birthday is lesson one in my book on strengthening your ear for improvisation. It’s called Jazz Ear Savvy.

I just published a video on my Youtube channel that demonstrates how the simple tune Happy Birthday can help you become a much better improvisor.

One of the exercises on the video is playing Happy birthday in D to some busy jazz changes. The point is to add complication to what you are hearing in oder to confirm how solid a simple tune like that is in your musical mind. The video also challenges you to play it other keys like Gb. No problem right?

Check out the video: youtu.be/CjWaxiz1Ulg

And here are the changes I created out of many possibilities:

Jazz version of Happy Birthday for learning improvisation


  1. Walter George on March 18, 2018 at 3:04 pm

    Thank you for this video. One consoling part was hearing that many classical players could have difficulty with this exercise as they are so used to playing from written music.
    That being said, as a relative sax newbie, my approach to playing song in all 12 keys would be to learn the song by numbers and translate that for each new key, as I have been learning the keys by numbers? Is this a too rational/cognitive an approach, ie cheating and not what you are tying to get at by the ear/mind/horn connection?
    On a different subject, I do not know if you have heard of Craig Buehler who has has written “New Ears Resolution”- a method to connect your ears to your horn which I am trying to figure out still. A big part of his method is to convert everything to solfege and go from there, as you will see patterns and repetitions.
    In the very short time listening to your videos, one thing is quite apparent and that is you have a great sound on your horn!
    Thank you again.

    • Michael Lake on March 18, 2018 at 3:27 pm


      I think in the end, the answer for each of us is what works best to get the desired result. I have not learned songs by numbers, as you described, so I don’t have a good answer. It seems like you believe that it could be too intellectually-focused, so I’m inclined to recommend less thinking and more listening. I would try the following since it seems you wish to get my book(s). Play along with the tracks in the second half of Jazz Ear Savvy and without thinking about the keys, simply play along with what you hear. Now that doesn’t mean play a lot of notes. In fact, it might mean play one note and really listen for how it fits (or doesn’t) into the harmony. As you find a note that fits, play another and then another, as if you’re trying to walk for the first time.

      I think one mistake non-proficient players make when improvising is that they play too many notes. They hear other jazz players playing a bunch of notes and figure that that is what THEY should do. Go ahead and do that if you are on stage. But in your practice time playing over music tracks, slow down and train your ear/instrument coordination by playing a note, hearing it, and playing another. I believe that as you gain proficiency in building the connection between your ear (inner composer) and your horn, you will gain speed finding the notes that comprise the musical phrases you have in your head.

      I wouldn’t call the process of calculating keys and harmonic relationships “cheating”. But the more steps you put between your inner composer as an improviser and the sound coming out of your horn, just possibly the less authentic, musical, and satisfying the result? You be the judge. I can tell you, that the less thinking I do, the better the result. For example, I recorded an improvisation last night for a new piece of music, and the relationship was very predictable between the “calculating” I did in parts and the corresponding mechanical result AND the deep listening I did in other parts and the corresponding musical result. Luckily I deleted the calculating crap and left in the good stuff!!

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