Star-Spangled Banner

The Star-Spangled Banner: how to sing it right

A performance of “The Star-Spangled Banner” can be a powerful musical experience when done right and a national embarrassment if things go wrong. Consider this advice if you’re ever called to perform it.

“The Star-Spangled Banner” is a notoriously difficult song to sing. It requires a decent vocal range, even if you sing it without pyrotechnic flourishes; it features numerous, awkward upward and downward leaps; and it has lyrics that are famously hard to remember.

Add to that the pressure: singers are performing in front of large, sometimes global, audiences – a crowd that is quick to turn hostile, especially if you forget the lyrics – and, this being the Internet Age, fails are sure to go viral. Fergie, Christina Aguilera, Steven Tyler, and Michael Bolton were all humiliated after poorly received renditions of the song. It is so hard to sing, many pros refuse to perform it.

On the other hand, when it’s done right, it can be an incredibly powerful musical experience. Those very same audiences who are so quick to boo often start cheering and whooping during a stirring performance, adding to the emotional impact, and helping to create a truly memorable moment. It can turn previously unknown singers into stars, and it can cause people to give respect to artists they previously dismissed.

If you’re ever asked to perform the National Anthem, how do you get it right?

In preparing for this article, I listened to, no exaggeration, 100 versions of this song. I listened to professional singers, cops, soldiers, actors, kids … you name it. This is what I learned.

Get the lyrics right

Many people consider this song almost sacred, so unless you’re a little kid, you can expect a flurry of boos the minute you flub a line. I’m sure you think you know the lyrics, but don’t be fooled just because you crushed it at the last game you attended. Crowd singing can lead you into a false sense of security: we often pick up on the lyrical cues of those around us. There are dozens of videos of famous singers flubbing the lines of this song. And the crowd promptly murders them.

I think most people get the lyrics wrong because we’re never really taught them, we just sort of pick them up through osmosis. And that’s a tough way to learn the words because, thanks to its old-fashioned poetic way of tossing in one interrupting clause after another (see lines three and four), it’s confusing. Also, the prosody is pretty bad in “The Star-Spangled Banner.” Prosody is the art of putting words to music in a way that allows us to pronounce the words the way we do when speaking. The National Anthem makes us sing the words “gleaming,” “streaming,” and “perilous” in a way that’s unnatural.

Frankly, I don’t think people ever learn the words (or the meaning of those words) so much as they learn the sounds of the words. So no wonder they tend to forget them.

There are four stanzas to “The Star-Spangled Banner.” We only ever sing the first one, which is kind of beautiful, because, as Laurie Anderson once noted, it’s just a bunch of questions. Unlike other national anthems that are all, “We’re number one!” ours is simply: “Can you see the flag? We saw it yesterday during that battle, and I could see it last night, thanks to the light from all those explosions. Now that it’s finally morning, is the flag still there?” That’s it. We never sing the answer. (That comes in the next stanza.)

Here are the lyrics. Memorize them. Unpack them so you understand what’s happening. Have your mom fact-check you. A crowd will forgive your hitting a bad note or three, but they will roast you if you mess up the lyrics.

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

(As much as I love the image of being able to see the flag only thanks to the light from the explosions, the song would make a lot more sense if we scrapped lines 5-8 in the first stanza and replaced them with lines 5-8 from the second:

Now it catches the gleam of the morning’s first beam,
In full glory reflected now shines in the stream,
‘Tis the star-spangled banner – O long may it wave
O’er the land of the free and the home of the brave!

But I digress.)

Choose the right starting note

One of the mistakes many performers make is they start the song too high. The National Anthem covers an octave and a half range, and it requires you to sing a long “ee” sound on its highest note. This can strain any voice. (The words “glare” and “free” are actually sung on the same note. Notice how much easier it is to sing “glare” than “free.”)

The song was written in the key of C, but today, thanks to its range, it’s usually sung in Bb. That means the first note you sing is an F, your lowest note is a fifth below that (Bb), and your highest note will be an F, one octave higher than your starting note.

Bb may not work for your voice. That’s OK. Choose one that does. A good rule of thumb is to hum your lowest note. That’s your “say” in the opening line, and that will give you plenty of room to hit that “free” at the end. It’s also a good thing to keep in mind if you go out there without a pitch pipe. Just hum that low note first, and you should be good to go. If you aren’t singing it a cappella, make sure the musicians know what key you need to be in.

Watch those tricky notes

Actually, the highest notes aren’t the hardest to hit on pitch. This song features a ton of leaps. (A leap occurs whenever the melody moves greater than a whole step.) Leaps are harder to sing than steps. The opening seven notes of the National Anthem are all leaps, and you often hear people struggle with them. 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, which is not in the key of Bb (it’s actually the tritone). Practice this line with a piano.

Most singers tend to slide up to the higher notes (like the “by” in “by the dawn’s early light”). That’s certainly easier to do and no one will fault you for it, but the most powerful versions are the ones where the singers just hit the notes pure.

Ear plugs!

Chances are you won’t be singing with a monitor. Add to that the fact that stadiums and event halls are notoriously terrible places to sing, due to the echo effect. (If you’ve ever spoken on a phone where you can hear your own voice echoing back at you, a half second off, you know how disorienting it can be.) These two factors have thrown off many a singer. Do yourself a favor. Get a pair of earplugs. Practice singing with them. Problem solved.

Record yourself

Practice makes perfect, of course, but there’s no point in practicing if you don’t have a reference. Use your phone or computer. Don’t worry about audio clarity, just listen to make sure you’re nailing those notes.

Accompaniment or a cappella?

If you need music to back you up, that’s totally fine, though I have found that, with a few rare exceptions, the best approach is to do it a cappella. It’s harder that way, but if you get it right, it’s a home run, every time.

Style

OK, so you’ve got the words and the notes down pat. Now: how are you going to sing it?

Given how challenging the song is, it’s amazing how many performers try to strut their stuff with it. Sometimes that works, often it just sounds like someone is showing off, and sometimes, of course, it can result in a humiliating, viral fail.

“The Star-Spangled Banner” is a powerful, dramatic song. You don’t have to do a thing to it to make people cheer. And frankly, the more flourishes you add, the less powerful it becomes.

If you think singing it straight can’t give people goosebumps, I refer to you Diana Ross’ masterpiece from the 1982 Super Bowl. Pure, clear notes. Not one single flourish. No histrionics. No emotive breathing. Nothing but glorious perfection.

If you are looking to cut loose, be careful, because this song can eat you alive. But there’s also this: Having listened to a hundred versions of the song, I’ve noticed that all the post-Whitney, melismatic singers (Ariana Grande, Jennifer Hudson, Demi Lovato, Kelly Clarkson, etc.) all tend to do essentially the same thing. They all embellish the same words (“hailed” is a favorite), essentially the same way. Furthermore, all those embellishments seem to be more about the singer than the song.

I’m not saying everyone has to sing only the notes that were written, but if you’re going to embellish, choose your moments wisely, and make ’em count. Cue Martina McBride:

Oh, and don’t do the emotive breathing thing, a la Ariana Grande. Just don’t.

Male singers who play it straight often do a workman-like, patriotic rendition, usually with a quick tempo (e.g. Mike Rowe). Every ballpark in America has their go-to old-school favorite – often a cop or opera singer – who does a rousing version (e.g. Robert Merrill, Yankee Stadium). And if you want to go that route, that’s always a safe, if unmemorable, bet.

But slowing it down a tad really brings out the emotion. Kelsey Grammer did a grand, embellishment-free version at the 1996 MLB All-Star Game. But I’m gonna post a recent version by Aaron Tveit, who just nails it. A few tiny flourishes here and there, but mostly just pure sound, from the heart.

This advice to play it straight isn’t just limited to solo artists.

‘N Sync did one of my favorite versions of the song. I remember watching this game. I believe I even groaned when the band was announced. Then they started singing.

Notice how relatively straight their performance is. The lead singer does a few tiny embellishments here and there, though they’re mostly masked by the band, and they serve to enhance the harmony. Rather than throwing in tons of runs, the way ‘N Sync chose to put their mark on the song was by singing a few, carefully-placed, wonderful substitution chords. And their version of “free” — even though the lead singer goes for that extra high note everyone feels like they need to hit — feels fresh, thanks to their arrangement. It’s a clean and beautiful performance.

Compare that to one the Backstreet Boys did just two years before. Theirs is certainly competent; but their lead singer’s embellishments do nothing to support the lyrics, and the arrangement is disjointed and pointless.

I actually watched quite a few Backstreet Boys versions. To their credit, they do it differently every time, and some of them are quite nice, so I’m being a little mean by choosing this one as an example of how not to do it.

For another great, heartfelt group effort, check out the Grateful Dead from 1993.

Looking to try something new? Buckle your seatbelt

All the examples above feature traditional approaches to the song. There are, of course, more “out there” versions, and some of them are fantastic. If you are thinking of trying a new take on the anthem, be warned: most different versions are poorly received at first, and you may be subject to a ton of criticism. Americans hate it when you mess with their song.

Case in point: Jose Feliciano’s 1968 World Series rendition, which was the first truly different take on the song, outraged the nation, and he was basically blacklisted from radio. Hearing it today it’s hard to believe this beautiful, soulful version could provoke such a strong, negative reaction. But it did.

Back in 1983, Marvin Gaye turned the anthem into a smoooove R&B ballad. He made it work, though it easily could have gone badly. It divided the public at the time. Traditionalists hated it, considering it a disgrace. If there were ever a “make love, not war” take on the anthem, it’s this one:

Fergie

That brings us to Fergie’s recent anthem fail, for I think her version had to have been inspired by Gaye’s.

For all the grief she’s getting over it, her performance actually could have been fine, which is what I think makes it all the more cringe-worthy. She gets the lyrics and most of the notes right. It’s just that she throws in these weird jazzy things that just don’t work. And she keeps changing her accent. Or something. Honestly, the main problem with her performance is that it’s not clear what she’s going for, or who she’s trying to be. Gaye’s version, on the other hand, is coherent. It’s immediately clear what he’s doing and he sticks with that concept all the way through.

Fergie is perfectly capable of singing the National Anthem, by the way. She did a decent version at a Miami Dolphins game back in 2011. She can sing. (Though even in that performance she was trying to be something she’s not. She’s not a belter. She shouldn’t try to be one.)

So, if you’re asked to sing the National Anthem, keep this in mind: You don’t have to be technically perfect to deliver a winner. Just get the words right, sing from the heart, and you’ll crush it.

Play ball!

The Star-Spangled Banner
O say can you see, by the dawn’s early light,
What so proudly we hailed at the twilight’s last gleaming,
Whose broad stripes and bright stars through the perilous fight,
O’er the ramparts we watched, were so gallantly streaming?
And the rockets’ 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?

On the shore dimly seen through the mists of the deep,
Where the foe’s haughty host in dread silence reposes,
What is that which the breeze, o’er the towering steep,
As it fitfully blows, half conceals, half discloses?
Now it catches the gleam of the morning’s first beam,
In full glory reflected now shines in the stream:
‘Tis the star-spangled banner, O long may it wave
O’er the land of the free and the home of the brave.

And where is that band who so vauntingly swore
That the havoc of war and the battle’s confusion,
A home and a country, should leave us no more?
Their blood has washed out their foul footsteps’ pollution.
No refuge could save the hireling and slave
From the terror of flight, or the gloom of the grave:
And the star-spangled banner in triumph doth wave,
O’er the land of the free and the home of the brave.

O thus be it ever, when freemen shall stand
Between their loved homes and the war’s desolation.
Blest with vict’ry and peace, may the Heav’n rescued land
Praise the Power that hath made and preserved us a nation!
Then conquer we must, when our cause it is just,
And this be our motto: ‘In God is our trust.’
And the star-spangled banner in triumph shall wave
O’er the land of the free and the home of the brave!

Return to text.


Scott McCormick is a musician and the author of the Mr. Pants series of graphic novels for kids. He also runs Storybook Editing, offering developmental editing for authors.

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8 thoughts on “The Star-Spangled Banner: how to sing it right

  1. I’m still listening but both Diana Ross and Martina McBride went slightly flat on “the rockets red glare.”

  2. What too many diva artists forget, is that the purpose of singing the anthem, is to lead the crowd in THEIR anthem. What most effectively moves the hearts of 50,000 stadium-attendees is to get them into the anthem. Asking them, instead, to stand back and observe a “performance” that only serves to promote the artist, is completely missing the point. It’s not a concert – it’s the bringing together of fans to support their team. A little humility goes a long way.

  3. THis is magnificent writing! How we take and see a common music landmark,
    and admire, or perceive its nuance and spin some patriotic pride fascinates me.
    Style is hard to weave, but sincerity and earnestness always deliver!

  4. There is a “National Anthem Code” enacted when The Star Spangled Banner became the official anthem in 1931. It would make sense to follow those guidelines set out therein.

  5. The best rendition I’ve ever heard was by the combined glee clubs of West Point and Annapolis at the annual Army/Navy game. Absolute dignity, talent, discipline and heart. You want goosebumps, see that.

  6. Can’t say I’m a huge fan of Gaye’s rendition, but at least he didn’t sound like a lounge act, which is what I got from Fergie’s performance. The song can be artistically inspiring, but it should be performed in a manner that makes me want to stand for my flag. I didn’t get that from Gaye’s and I felt like I should have a smoke a two-drink minimum for Fergie’s… (Lady Gaga did a really nice rendition for SB50)

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