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What is a National Anthem?

Mary Elizabeth
Updated May 23, 2024
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A national anthem is a song that is used in an official capacity to represent and inspire patriotism in a country. It plays a similar role to a country’s motto or flag. Occasionally an organization of several countries will also have an anthem. Various genres of music are chosen to be a national anthem. The music may be a fanfare a hymn, a march, or a song of some other type.

A country’s national anthem is used at important gatherings. For instance, a country's anthem is played when one of its athletes wins an Olympic trial. It is also used in local sporting events, such as baseball games and the Super Bowl.

The national anthem of the United States is “The Star Spangled Banner,” with music by John Stafford Smith and words by Francis Scott Key. Officially adopted in 1931, the words were written on 14 September 1814 as Key, detained by the British, was inspired by the sight of the American flag over Fort McHenry the morning after a brutal British attack. He wrote:

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, thro' the perilous fight,
O'er the ramparts we watch'd, were so gallantly streaming?
And the rockets' red glare, the bombs bursting in air,
Gave proof thro' 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?

Key wrote the words to fit Smith’s tune, which was called “To Anacreon in Heaven.” Prior to 1931, both “The Star-Spangled Banner” and “My Country ‘tis of Thee” were both used as national anthems.

Some national anthems have never been officially sanctioned. The hymn-like anthem of the British Isles, “God Save the Queen” (or King), has never received official sanction, but it has been used since the middle of the eighteenth century. The United Nations has a national anthem with words by W. H. Auden and music by Pablo Casals, that is also unofficial.

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Mary Elizabeth
By Mary Elizabeth , Writer
Passionate about reading, writing, and research, Mary Elizabeth is dedicated to correcting misinformation on the Internet. In addition to writing articles on art, literature, and music for Musical Expert, Mary works as a teacher, composer, and author who has written books, study guides, and teaching materials. Mary has also created music composition content for Sibelius Software. She earned her B.A. from University of Chicago's writing program and an M.A. from the University of Vermont.

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Discussion Comments

By Certlerant — On Mar 14, 2014
@Glasis - You make some good points, but something also needs to be said for tradition.

As the article says, the whole world automatically identifies the Star Spangled Banner with the United States and the American flag.

That being said, it is nice that other patriotic songs are being played in addition to the national anthem, such as the more recent trend of performing God Bless America before the seventh inning stretch during select baseball games.

By Glasis — On Mar 14, 2014

Some people think America should change the national anthem. They do have some good points.

The Star Spangled Banner is difficult to sing for a person with just the average vocal range and the lyrics that deal directly with observing a battle don't necessarily resonate with most citizens today.

Possible replacements like God Bless America and America the Beautiful are easier to sing and may have more widespread appeal in the 21st century.

Mary Elizabeth

Mary Elizabeth


Passionate about reading, writing, and research, Mary Elizabeth is dedicated to correcting misinformation on the...
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