Why Is 'The Star Spangled Banner' So Hard To Sing?

Several professional singers have flubbed the national anthem over the years.

ByABC News
July 11, 2012, 2:50 PM

July 11, 2012— -- intro: Is our national anthem just too hard to sing?

Singing "The Star Spangled Banner" has become an honored tradition at major sporting events across the country, but its high-pitched notes and seemingly difficult lyrics have made for some priceless flubs.

Superstars from Christina Aguilera to Michael Bolton have had trouble with the song.

Michael Dean, chair of the Department of Music and director of vocal studies at UCLA, has trained various talent on how to sing the national anthem, from opera and pop singers to amateur vocalists.

The song is difficult, even for the most trained singer, he said, because it calls for an enormous vocal range, including the ability to sing a vowel on the highest note of the piece -- on "free" -- which physically strains the throat.

"[The song] goes from the lowest extreme of the voice to the highest extreme of the voice," Dean said. "The thing people forget to do is start the piece low enough so that high notes are not too high for them at the end."

The song is especially tough for pop stars who can be more focused on promoting their image rather than improving their singing technique for what is actually a classical piece of music.

"All they're trying to do is get up there and show off," Dean said. "This piece will eat you if you approach it that way."

Several celebrity singers have tried to perform "The Star Spangled Banner" over the years, and many have entertained (or horrified) millions of fans with sharp, pitchy notes, some of which were down-right screeches -- remember Aerosmith front man Steven Tyler's performance at last year's Super Bowl?

"It's very difficult for pop singers to sing notes anymore," Dean said, because R&B and pop songs are more like "vocal improvisations" these days.

When they are asked to sing "The Star Spangled Banner," "suddenly they're presented with a song with an enormous melody," he explained. "They feel overwhelmed by the piece and they're intimidated by it and they should be."

The song is also usually performed a cappella so there is no accompaniment to help the singer find a pitch they can manage, so some start in the wrong key.

"Very few people have perfect pitch," Dean said. "One hopes and prays that they start it correctly because in the end they're going to be in a lot of trouble."

Many famous anthem singers have had the vocal range for the song, but got tripped up on the words. Country music star Luke Bryan (pictured above) received widespread criticism after he read the words to the national anthem off his hand while singing at the Major League Baseball All-Star game Tuesday night. Some offended fans even called him "unpatriotic."

Bryan took to Twitter to apologize, writing, "I had a few keys words written down to insure myself that I wouldn't mess up. I just wanted to do my best. I promise it was from the heart."

Singers forget the words because they haven't thought about how meaningful they are, Dean said. When singers understand how powerful the poem is, the words become easier to remember.

"Once they start looking at the words, the thing that strikes every person I've worked with on this, is how moving the text is," Dean said. "Even the most jaded singers, they usually just start weeping."

Bryan isn't the first to catch flack for singing the national anthem -- not by a long shot. Here are some other famous faces who have mangled "The Star Spangled Banner."

quicklist: 1category: title: Scotty McCreeryurl: text: Botched lyrics and technical difficulties made it tough for "American Idol" winner Scotty McCreery to get through the national anthem when he performed it at game one of the World Series last year.

First, the 18-year-old country singer had to start the song over after the microphone malfunctioned. Then on his second attempt, he accidentally sang "no Jose" instead of "oh say." media: 16757183caption: related:

quicklist: 2category: title: Steven Tylerurl: text: The Aerosmith singer caused a stir at this year's Super Bowl when he screeched out the lyrics to "The Star Spangled Banner" with ear-splitting high notes.media: 15418736caption: related:

quicklist: 3category: title: Cyndi Lauperurl: text: The "Girls Just Wanna Have Fun" singer fudged the lyrics to the song last year while performing at the U.S. Open in Flushing, N.Y.

Instead of singing, "were so gallantly streaming," the 80s rocker sort of blurted out, "as our flag was still streaming."media: 14499298caption: related:

quicklist: 4category: title: Christina Aguileraurl: text: "The Voice" judge "got lost in the moment of the song" during her Super Bowl performance last year.

Singing "The Star-Spangled Banner" to kick off the championship game between the Green Bay Packers and the Pittsburgh Steelers, Aguilera messed up the line, "O'er the ramparts we watched, were so gallantly streaming," repeating an earlier line of the song that she also botched.

Aguilera sang "What so proudly we watched at the twilight's last gleaming" instead of the correct lyric, which begins "What so proudly we hailed."media: 12859246caption: related:

quicklist: 5category: title: Anita Bakerurl: text: Twitter users blasted Anita Baker's singing of "The Star-Spangled Banner" when she performed at the 2010 NBA Finals after the R&B legend just couldn't hit the high notes.media: 10885518caption: related:

quicklist: 6category: title: Jesse McCartneyurl: text: In 2009, pop singer Jesse McCartney skipped multiple verses of "The Star Spangled Banner" while performing at a NASCAR event in California.

He took to Twitter to apologize: "Here At the Nascar race! So much fun! Can't believe I forgot the words to the Anthem! I've performed it 100 times. Bad Nerves today I guess."media: 8808176caption: related:

quicklist: 7category: title: Michael Boltonurl: text: Michael Bolton crooned a cringe-worthy version of the anthem at Boston's Fenway Park in 2003. At one point, he broke from his overly passionate performance to look at crib notes scrawled on his hand.media: 16757291caption: related:

quicklist: 8category: title: Olympics Champion Carl Lewisurl: text: In 1993, Lewis caused a chorus of boos when his voice broke in the middle of his "Star Spangled Banner" performance at an NBA game. He told the crowd he'd "make up for it" but went on to butcher the remainder of the song.media: 16757948caption: related:

quicklist: 9category: title: Roseanne Barrurl: text: The title of most offensive anthem singer ever -- earned intentionally, not accidentally -- probably goes to Roseanne Barr. At a 1990 San Diego Padres game, the comedienne sang a squawky, off-key version of "The Star Spangled Banner" and peppered her performance by grabbing her crotch and pretending to spit on the pitcher's mound at the end.

In a Jan. 2011 interview "Nightline," Barr said that she "felt like crying" during that moment.

"It was horrifying," she said. "I knew I started too high about the fifth note in and I thought, 'well at least I'll try to make it funny.'"media: 16757217caption: related: