Auld Lang Syne” is a song you’ll hear the world over, from Tokyo to Tashkent. (And after many years in Asia, I can testify to that.) Chances are that a fair slice of the world’s population, of multiple ethnicities, will be either singing it or hearing it at the stroke of midnight on New Year’s Eve. That arguably makes it the single poem with the widest dissemination in the world. Even South Korea’s national anthem was sung to its tune, until a new one was composed. And I’m proud to remind everyone of its Scottish origins, courtesy of Robert Burns.

As the Burns Encyclopedia explains, Burns originally took down ” an old song and tune which has often thrilled through my soul” from traditional sources in 1788. The first traces of a verse resembling “Auld Lang Syne” appear in the Bannatyne Manuscript of 1568, and variants of the final poem were already in circulation by the early 18th century, but the indications are that Burns brought these together, refined them, and produced a definitive version with the benefit of his own talent. Some near-contemporary sources insisted that Burns had privately claimed two out of five verses as his own work, although in 1793 he also claimed it to be: ” the old song of the olden times, and which has never been in print, nor even in manuscript, until I took it down from an old man’s singing.” As for the tune, it appeared as early as 1690 and was reused with several different texts both before and after Burns’s time, and its worldwide popularity was helped by the fact that it uses a pentatonic scale compatible with many traditions of Asian music.

Burns’s literary texts and materials are widely available online for anyone who wants to delve deeper into this. Suffice it to say that his fame, and the distribution of his work, benefited hugely from the late Englightenment and Romantic cult of the authentic traditional bard, and the revived popularity and respectability of folk lyrics. In the Scottish traditional ballads, he had a tremendous corpus to draw on, and he perfected this in poetry whose best and most popular exemplar is “Auld Lang Syne” – a cluster of traditional lyrics distilled and refined by Scotland’s national poet to such a degree that it carried that tradition out to the entire world.

So Happy New Year, World. And we’ll tak’ a cup o’ kindness yet,/for auld lang syne.


  1. Nice post, timely. Thanks. I lived in Tokyo for 5 years and as you know the department stories play the song as an instrumental public address message at every department store and even smaller stories across the four main islands. WHY? I never could find out. Why did Japan adopt this song for closing times at department stores.? If you ever find out, dish next year.

    In Taiwan, they do not use it. In Communist CHina, they use a KENNY G song, instrumnetal, in many department stores now to signal that is it closing time. Somebody picked up one of his tunes and made it the closing time tune in China.

    tell us more next year. Loved this piece. always enjoy reading your posts. – dan

  2. Dan, I actually just looked this up as I wanted to know too. Apparently it’s technically not Auld Lang Syne, but instead the Farewell Waltz – the difference is the former is in quadruple time, the Farewell Waltz is in triple time (a waltz). That particular version became famous in Japan in 1949 from the American movie Waterloo Bridge (1940), and 1 year later in 1950 when the record got released is the time it supposedly started to be used for places closing.

  3. Hi Paul and Happy New Year 2015! Wow, that IS interesting. In my 5 years in Tokyo asking everyone i could about the origins, i just could never find the nugget that would explain the song’s popularity for closing time at departoes. Now I see. So it was a movie during the Occupation period after the war and the record released later. And I guess the tune was so catchy, that some CEO at some departo store had the idea to use it for a closing bell tune and it caught on with every other store on the four islands. Amazing backstory. thanks. Now I want to see that movie maybe via Youtube to see if there are any scenes in it that imply the song is good for closing bell times at stores. Long live Japan. UPDATE: by the way, the CHINA PRC closing bell song nowadays is Kenny G’s song titled “Going Home” and it has been used for years there and nobody knows why but whenever Kenny G visits he says he loves it and also has no idea why that song was picked up, and while he recievers no royalties or anything from CHINA, he said he loves it. Headline somewhere reads ”China Plays A 25-Year-Old Kenny G Song On A Loop Every Night For Closing Bell at Stores…”

  4. Frode, thanks for links. I got an email from some friends in Tokyo, a Japanese couple I have knwn for 20 years, and they told me that …”Yes, Dan, every Japanese knows this Scottish folk song.
    It is the song that we always hear at the closing time of department stores,
    shops and events.”

    And then I asked them if they thought the song started off as a closing time song for stores after the 1949 movie and song became so popular there, according to your earlier note — great research by the way! — and they replied …”Much earlier than 1949! According to the record, Japanese children started singing this song at schools in1881 …!”

    So I still wonder, even if kids sang the song at schools as far back as 1881, exactly or around WHEN did the tune become a tradition in Japanese department stores as a closing time tune?

    And last question: is AULD LANG SYNE a ”goodbye forever” song or a ”farewell until we meet again” song?

  5. Well the song’s certainly been around since way back according to JP Wikipedia, but I think the usage of it for closing time stems from the movie/record thing. As for the meaning, the song back then was marketed as 別れのワルツ, so I see it more as a song of parting than a goodbye forever. Also, there’s the Hotaru no Hikari version , and the first verse there certainly fits with the parting theme. The first Kouhaku Utagassen was in 1951 (radio until 1953), so I think it fits with the timeline there too.

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