Why Do All National Anthems Sound the Same?

Shouldn’t the one for Iraq sound a little more “Arab-y”?

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Wang Meng of China

An Explainer reader once asked, “Is it just me, or do all national anthems the world over, no matter how rich and exotic the culture, seem to sound like European marching-band music? Wouldn’t one expect China’s national anthem [to] be more ‘plinky’? Shouldn’t Iraq’s national anthem sound a little more ‘arab-y’?” Upon initial receipt of this question—in 2008— Slate editors relegated it to that year’s list of unanswered (or unanswerable) questions. After a week of watching Olympic medal ceremonies, however, the Explainer was also struck by certain broad-brush similarities. Reader, it’s not just you wondering—why do the anthems sound so much alike?

Colonialism. National anthems originated in Europe, and then spread around the world. Holland’s 16th-century hymn “Het Wilhelmus” is widely considered the world’s oldest, followed by the U.K.’s “God Save the King/Queen”—also a hymn, popularized during the Jacobite uprising of the 1740s. * As nationalism spread throughout Europe in the 18th and 19th centuries, so did anthems. Many countries, such as the independent states that are today part of Germany, took “God Save the King/Queen” as a model and adopted hymns (songs of prayer typically addressed to a deity or VIP). Others, notably Spain and France, chose marches (songs with a strong, regular rhythm often performed by military bands)—which expressed a martial rather than monarchic spirit. With imperialism, Europeans spread their musical taste. Even when former colonies gained independence, they often imitated the traditions of their former rulers. In some cases Europeans actually composed the melodies. The result is that, as British composer Michael Jamieson Bristow remarks on his Web site national-anthems.org, most anthems are either hymns or marches, played on European instruments.

Japan’s anthem makes for a good case study of European influence. In the 1860s a British bandmaster living in Japan, John William Fenton, noted that the country did not have a national anthem. A local military officer, Ōyama Iwao, selected the lyrics from a Heian era poem and Fenton wrote the melody. About a decade later, a Japanese committee chose a replacement melody by a court musician—one that had been composed for traditional Japanese instruments, but in a mixed style influenced by Fenton’s arrangement. The version in use today was also altered to fit a Western scale, by German Franz Eckert.

In addition to hymns and marches, Bristow identifies a couple of more minor categories. National anthems in South and Central America are often operatic, with long, elaborate orchestral introductions. These were influenced by 19th-century Italian opera. Burma and Sri Lanka are both in a folk group, as they rely more on indigenous instruments.

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Explainer thanks Kenneth Cooper of the Manhattan School of Music and Linda Pohly of Ball State University. Thanks also to reader John Aucoin for asking the question, many months ago.

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Correction, Feb. 20, 2010: This piece originally stated that “God Save the King/Queen” was popularized during the Jacobin uprising. In fact, it was the Jacobite uprising. (Return to the corrected sentence.)