Ever wonder why so many performers flub the national anthem? Turns out it may be harder than you think to pull off.
“The Star-Spangled Banner” is one of the hardest songs to sing even for trained voices, according to FIU Professor of Music Kathleen Wilson.
“It’s really not comfortable to sing,” Wilson said. “Most people have a limited range, and the song has a range that is so wide that most singers have a hard time with it.”
On the 200th anniversary of the War of 1812, which inspired Francis Scott Key to pen a poem about a defiant flag surviving a night of British bombardment, Wilson explains how the melody attached to the verses is one few can sing perfectly.
“It’s all over the place,” she said. “In addition to the song having a wide range, the majority of the piece lies in the uppermost part of a person’s range. Even professional singers find that challenging.”
Most people are comfortable singing within a one-octave range—that’s the distance between the lowest pitch and the highest musical pitch that a person can sing comfortably. The national anthem requires a two-octave range.
Key, however, may not have thought that people would be singing his poem 200 years later. Shortly after writing it, he gave his poem, titled Defence of Fort McHenry, to his brother-in-law, who saw that the words fit the popular melody “The Anacreontic Song” by English composer John Stafford Smith. The song was an instant hit, but it wasn’t until 1931 that it officially became the national anthem.
“Right off the bat—‘O say can you see’—it’s hard,” she said. “Then when you get into ‘And the rockets red glare,’ that’s pretty tricky because it’s so high. And then when singers attempt the high note on ‘The land of the free,’ sometimes it’s a disaster.”
And for those who can hit those notes, practice is paramount. At FIU, music students who are asked to deliver the national anthem at a university function are required to practice in front of FIU voice faculty before getting on stage.
“We have them come in with their pitch pipe, figure out which key works best for them and practice the song,” she said. “Even professional singers have to practice it.”