Oh, Say Can You Sing

Dear “The Star-Spangled Banner,” why are you so hard to sing? WHY.

This time last year, we brought you the exciting story behind our national anthem but we didn’t go into the technical aspects of performing the song. Which, as a performing arts center, we should.

So, as we all celebrate America’s independence this Thursday, let’s start the week by discussing why this precious symbol of the American spirit is so unforgivingly difficult to sing.

We’re certain you remember from our blog last year that “The Star-Spangled Banner,” originally titled “The Defence of Fort M’Henry,” was penned by Francis Scott Key at the precise moment that American independence from Britain seemed won. Washington, DC, had fallen, but if the Americans could defeat the redcoats at Fort McHenry, we would tip the balance of the struggle for freedom in our favor. Mr. Key had a well-known British drinking song, popular at the gentlemen’s clubs, in mind as he wrote the lyrics. We did win; in the morning, our flag was still there. Key took up the pen and memorialized the unlikely victory.

The tune, rousing and particularly suited for boisterous belting there in the middle, lended itself to the feeling of the moment. We’ll mention again that Key’s song was never intended to be our national anthem; it was merely written to capture the history-making, nail-biting drama of an independence that almost wasn’t. “The Star-Spangled Banner” (so coined in November 1814) officially became the national anthem in 1931 mostly because the song paired so well with major sporting events to unify the crowd in glorious feeling. Ergo, now we have the anthem performed prior to most sporting events.

There are some questionable renditions, like Fergie’s lambasted jazz-riff-skeedley-dee version before the NBA All-Star game:

And there are some well-executed, hair-raising deliveries, like Jack Black’s no-frills interpretation before the WNBA L.A. Sparks game:

So, let’s talk about what makes “The Star-Spangled Banner” such a tough song to nail—or, not even nail but just get through.

First, this ditty spans an octave and a fifth, so, thirteen notes. Already, the SSB has wiped out anyone with normal vocal abilities from being able to sing it and not sound like a minivan backing over a set of bagpipes.

Second, the tune makes “leaps” up and down, meaning that your voice has to jump from one note to a step and a half above or below—or more. That’s not natural or intuitive. Or easy. Music writer Scott McCormick explained it clearly in his 2018 article on how to sing the anthem: “Leaps are harder to sing than steps. The first seven notes of the national anthem are all leaps … The passage ‘dawn’s early light’ is especially challenging for it features a downward leap of a sixth – from Bb (‘dawn’s’) to D (‘ear-‘) and the ‘-ly’ part of ‘early’ is sung on an E natural.” So, that’s a huge leap. People, including the writers of this article, often fail to stick the landing, wobbling on the tone of “dawn’s” and hoping for the best as they launch to “early light.”

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This 1814 copy of “The Star-Spangled Banner” was the first printed edition to combine the words and sheet music. Currently this is one of only ten copies known to exist, and is housed in the Library of Congress.

Third, the lyrics are a vine-like construction of 19th century locution that, let’s face it, we’re all friends here, most of us memorized by sound and never thought about too deeply. It’s pretty easy to fumble along lines like “what so proudly we hailed … at the mumble mumble last gleaming” in a gigantic group but seriously try singing the whole thing by yourself at full volume in the shower with complete confidence. It’s tricky, people. For example, did you know that the last two lines don’t state the flag is there—they ask the question ‘did the flag survive the night? Is it still waving?’—and, in our national anthem, we don’t provide the answer. We just end there. Oh say—does that star-spangled banner yet wave o’er the land of the free and the home of the brave?

The song answers the question in the next stanza, which we don’t sing, and most performers phrase the closing couplet as though it is a statement (it does yet wave!) and not a question, since we know it’s rhetorical anyway—the flag was gallantly streaming, as history notes.

The point is, the wording is akin to fancy footwork on top of all the vocal leaping and stepping around a 13-note range. That, friends, is why the SSB is so difficult to pull off gracefully.

Here, let Christina Aguilera show you:

In defense of popular singers everywhere whose SSB fails go viral, please remember that they’re often singing with no monitor, no musicians and with a 1.5 second delay—which is an outrageously disorienting echo-effect.

To this end, we have a few tips about how to hone your own execution of our beloved national anthem, the main one being start really low so you can get to the big, high notes without blowing a gasket. We’ve taken the liberty (pun intended) to print the lyrics below in case you’d like to test your own close reading of the text. For us, we always sing in a group—safety in numbers, as they say.

Happy Independence Day, America!

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The Star-Spangled Banner
O say can you see, by the dawn’s early light,
What so proudly we hail’d at the twilight’s last gleaming,
Whose broad stripes and bright stars through the perilous fight
O’er the ramparts we watch’d were so gallantly streaming?
And the rocket’s red glare, the bombs bursting in air,
Gave proof through the night that our flag was still there,
O say does that star-spangled banner yet wave
O’er the land of the free and the home of the brave?