All About National Anthems

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As the future of our country hangs like the threat of judgement day, the identity of the United States is on many people’s minds. Naturally, it is a fitting time to delve into the musical aspect of national anthems. 

Whether you know the words or not, you are probably aware that “The Star-Spangled Banner” is the American national anthem. Written during the War of 1812 by a lawyer named Francis Scott Key, it officially became our anthem in 1931. Key wrote the lyrics as a poem, and added music later. This says a lot about the song itself; Key saw it as words first, therefore the song has more of a poetic quality than a musical feel.

According to Oxford Languages, a national anthem is “a solemn patriotic song officially adopted by a country as an expression of national identity.” Well, I really do hate to break it to Oxford, but Spain’s national anthem is not a song — it’s a military march without words. And as both Oxford Languages and I know, a song is “a short poem or other set of words set to music or meant to be sung.” But although Spain’s national anthem isn’t quite a song in the conventional sense, it still embodies the heroic spirit of the country with its rousing melody and orchestration.

Many national anthems are based on of folk tunes or traditional melodies. One entertaining example of this took place on the Sultan of Malaysia’s visit to England. When he arrived, he was asked what his country’s national anthem was so it could be played at a ceremony. This put him on the spot, for Malaysia did not have not have a national anthem. So he hummed a popular Seychelles tune, and the song became the Malaysian national anthem forever after. 

National anthems are glorious and exciting songs with patriotic and moving words. But what is it about them that gives the listener these bright and sometimes solemn feelings? Harmonies, for example, play a major role in the overall “vibe” of a song or musical piece. Whether a composer decides to set their piece in a major or a minor key can determine the feelings that listeners experience. Most anthems are in major keys, which generally evoke cheerfulness in order to celebrate the joyous spirit of the country. This is obviously a wise choice, because you don’t want to make your citizens listen to a depressed lament about death, destruction, and the horrors of history every time they attend a sports game. 

Another key ingredient is the use of brass and drums. No country wants its military to seem weak, so many anthems contain a marching band section. In the case of Spain, the whole anthem is about the military. In the ancient days of European kings and queens (and sometimes even in current times), a trumpeter would often announce the entrance of the royals with a blasting motif. Brass instruments, such as horns, trombones, trumpets, and tubas, give off a powerful sound that invites glorious feelings. Drums keep a steady and sharp beat which lines up everything in order. These marches are often in 4/4 time, meaning that there is an emphasis every four beats. 

Next time you listen to “The Star-Spangled Banner,” or any national anthem, pay attention to the musical choices. It can tell you a lot of information about the country — for just as the politician shows their true nature when voting on laws, the musician shows their true nature when they are playing music.