Why the US national anthem is terrible — and perfect

If you’ve ever tried to sing the star spangled banner,

“You see” You know it’s not easy.

“And the rockets’ red glare.

Can’t go that high.”

The lowest note and the highest note are an

octave and a half apart.

That’s 12 full notes.

For comparison, God Save The Queen spans seven notes.

Oh Canada?

It’s nine.

Yes exactly Estelle, this is why we need a new national anthem.



Joss, This is why the national anthem is so great.

Nonono theFfrench anthem is great.

And it’s got a range of nine notes.

Nine notes is enough to make Yvonne cry in Casablanca.

“Viva La France!!”

But 12 notes?

That just feels like failure.

I know the words to it but I’m so aware of how bad I sound that I have to stop right now.

Ok so it’s not just the overall range, The whole song feels like it’s trying to

lose us, starting with the first line.

So you go "Oh say can you see."

I've already traversed an octave from "say" to "see"

That’s music theory expert Paula Telesco.

But from "see" I have to go up to "by the."

So now I've traversed a 10th, and we're only in the second measure.

And then right here, you’re also hit with a chromatic note, which means it’s not in

the same key that the rest of the notes are in.

And that comes right after this dive.

An “Interval” is the distance between two notes.

If they’re right next to each other, they’re called “steps.”

Most music moves by step, meaning a smaller percentage of skips.

But the star spangled banner is full of skips, including fourths,

fifths, sixths,

a tenth!

So you know it's kind of treacherous.

That’s why music teachers in the 30s opposed the law that officially made the star spangled

banner our national anthem.

And a writer in the 1920s said that “No one with a normal esophagus can sing it without screaming.”

And in 1906 the Washington Post called it “perhaps the most ...unlovely tune that

was ever wrung from the quivering bowels of a horn.”

Are you done?


I’m just saying..

Shouldn’t the national anthem be something we can all sing?


Ok but how often do you really need to do that?

I mean consider the context where most Americans even hear the song.

The super bowl, NBA finals, the World Series.

Why shouldn’t the national anthem performance be just as challenging and anxiety ridden

as whatever sporting event it’s commencing?

What happens when you start too high?

You’re screwed.

You’re totally screwed.

That’s Matt Farnsworth.

He’s a vocal coach and teacher in New York City.

People think I should just start in a comfortable range, like “oh say.”

That would be my comfortable range.

But really I need to start down here.

“Oh say” Otherwise, I’m going to be very very high by the time I get to the end

of the song.

“Land of the free”

And the vowels in these lyrics make it even


“O’er the land” — open vowel.

“Of the” and then all of a sudden you have to go to a closed vowel, which is i:

— i: and u: are closed vowels.


So you got to figure out how to sing the e vowel with an open throat, but close it on


Talented singers pull this off by mixing their chest and head voice.

So chest voice is like your Ethel Merman.

“Give my regards to Broadway.”

Head voice is when we think of like opera singers.

If you’re just using your chest voice at “the land of the free” It’ll sound like


“Land of the” and then you feel the “free” and it just feels like it’s not going to


But if you incorporate your head voice just a little,

it’s like hitting a game winning fadeaway jump shot.

And notice how Jennifer Hudson went up even more on “Free”

That’s not just an octave and half, that two octaves.

There’s one person who did it so well that a recording of the song peaked at 20 on Billboard

Hot 100.

“Land of the free.

And the home of the brave.”

If our anthem was easy to sing, Joss, we would not get these moments.

Ok I’m not saying I don’t have goosebumps, but let the record show that that microphone

was not on.

Wait wait wait wait wait.

That was pre-recorded?

You’re killing my heart right now.

Are you positive?

But let’s talk about the lyrics, which were written by a slaveholder and, in the 3rd stanza

they celebrate the death of slaves who sided with the British in the war of 1812.

But the song is about Fort McHenry in Baltimore, which withstood a 24 hour attack from the

British navy.

So the big inspiring idea here is that the country …. still exists.

Is it the ramparts yet?

I keep going to the ramparts.


Whose bright stripes.




These words are more descriptive than motivating.

They’re also phrased really awkwardly, so it’s no wonder that they just don’t

stick in our brains.

“Whose bright stripes and bright stars … and the heavenly light.”

[checks hand] “Were so gallantly” “You know I had a really good laugh about

it and you know you get over things and you know you get back up again.”

Christina you deserve better.

No no no.

Hold up.

America loves watching people publicly fail.

“And the rocket’s red glare.”

“Written by Francis Scott off-Key.”

We should be grateful that the Star Spangled Banner gives us those moments.

“Banner yet wave”

Yeah I don’t know quite what it was I was

watching, but I think that’s another example of I think she really tried to do something

new with it and it just wasn’t as successful as she hoped it would be.

Yes, it’s risky to for performers to try something new.

But when they do it well, it’s amazing.

Let’s rewind back to 1968.

It’s game 5 of the World Series and José Feliciano, a 23-year-old blind Puerto Rican

folk singer is there to do the anthem.

“Oh say can you see”

Now it’s immediately apparent this doesn’t

sound like the star spangled banner.

It’s the height of the Vietnam War, and our national anthem sounds like a peaceful

folk tune.

“And the home of the brave” He finishes it and then listen closely.

There are boos.

One woman was so angry she said she was going to write a letter to her senator to complain.

But RCA released the the live recording as a single.

And it was the first time the national anthem made it on the Billboard charts.

Fifteen years later Marvin Gaye walked up to center court at the 1983 NBA Allstar game with

a shocking amount of swagger, and took a cue from Feliciano.

“By the dawn’s early light” By the end the crowd was clapping with him.

“O’er the land of the free” We don’t need a different National Anthem

to feel something.

We just need the right singer.

Like maybe these singers?

“Of the coming of the lord”

“Oh beautiful for spacious skies”

“May we forever stand, true to our god and true to our native land.”

Oh so you want one of those to be our national anthem?

To be honest they’re a little religious for my taste.


People have tried, in vain, to replace the star spangled banner for a really long time.

It’s not going anywhere anytime soon.

So just enjoy it when it’s good.

And enjoy it when it's bad too.