Pop Quiz! What Is In 3/4 Time, But Not A Waltz?

StarSpangledBanner_FScottKeyOver the next summer months, you will find lots of musical events to choose from and consume with delight in the new and comfort with the familiar. In the meantime and with the spirit of puzzlers everywhere, we re-post an all-time Hudson Sounds favorite in honor of the Independence Day holiday. This feature was originally posted in July 2012 and was written by music lover and chamber musician, Myra Herron whose fun-loving spirit we also celebrate this year. So,without further ado, we wish you a wonderful and safe holiday celebration. Here’s to you Myra! —Liz Friedman


What is not a march?  What is not a hymn?

  What is in 3/4 time, but definitely not a waltz?

All these are questions to the answer:    The Star Spangled Banner

The first word -Oh- is a projectile of rhythmic proportions so distinct that this tune could be immediately recognized and named. Reach down for the next -say- then rise through the third and fourth -can you- and push the fifth – see- off the soft palate with a flourish. You are well launched on that stirring exercise that binds heart to home, United States of America. For this we sing The Star Spangled Banner.

As the [2012] Summer Olympics progress we will be hearing our National Anthem a lot. Of its own accord its majestic glow is reward enough for basking. I would be happy just to stand on a podium, having achieved nothing, and have it played for me. I am so excited to take a few words to tell how much I love our National Anthem and to describe its chemistry; words by Francis Scott Key and tune, a turn-of the-century favorite.

John Phillip Sousa (my fellow Washingtonian) called the words “soul-stirring,” but pronounced “It is the spirit of the music that inspires.” So we have a melody which, independent of the words, buoyantly regales. And of course Sousa—of Stars and Stripes Forever fame—recognized well engineered musical inspiration.

The tune came first and has been casually described as a drinking song of British origin. But let’s not dismiss it as that. There are reasons this song was so popular and came to the mind of Mr. Key as daylight broke September 14, 1814 and inspired words to match.

Hum it to yourself and notice its appealing conversational lilt. And this conversation escalates as it goes along making a convincing statement just by the shape of the musical phrases. No other song of this period has been found to have this unique beat. The beat is anapest; two weak tones followed by a strong tone.

Notice that in the poem, and then consider also the particular words that fall on the strong tone:

Oh say can you see, by the dawn’s early light
what so proudly we hailed at the twilight’s last gleaming….

The words – say, see, dawn, light, proud, hailed – all the way to free and brave are uplifting, striking deep chords of response.

Compare the use of this tune to that of songs today co-opted because of widespread familiarity and set to words expressing political views for humor or irony. In fact, before writing the poem The Star Spangled Banner, Key and others wrote political songs using this same beat and melody. It was the thing to do at the time.

Therefore it is not surprising to learn that it was a commissioned piece composed by a professional musician. Though it has evolved, it didn’t just spring up from popular culture. Pay due respect to the notion of compensating a musician for quality work.

Research is tidily presented at the Library of Congress Performing Arts Encyclopedia website. Here the evidence leads to the 18th century Anacreontic Society in London, “which commissioned John Stafford Smith to compose music for material by its president, Ralph Tomlinson … To Anacreon in Heav’n.” It is described as a society of amateur musicians, its purpose being to honor music and musicians. One such guest in 1791 was Franz Josef Haydn. They also set aside time to sup and sing to the glory of wine. What fun!

It’s hard to sing. Stop whining! Gird your loins and belt it out. Ask not what this song can do for you. Ask what you can do for this song.

But really, it was not meant to be sung by amateurs. It was a vehicle to show off one’s voice. When the soloist got to the end, the crowd just repeated the last two lines in chorus style.

Oh say does that Star Spangled Banner yet wave
O’er the land of the free, and the home of the brave?

That’s all you really have to sing.

Analysis proves that The Star Spangled Banner is a complex musical construction. The pattern is AABC. (To understand think of Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star as ABA and Are You Sleeping as ABC.) Furthermore, it requires the singer to move through seven modulations. Think of a modulation as moving away from home—the home key in this case. Think of doing that several times and roaming around (like buffalo) before deciding to stay away or return. There is a joke here somewhere.

Let me know if you find it.

Take my advice. Never agree to sing this song without learning the words. You may think you know them until halfway through. For fun watch videos of singers in the throes of operatic passion forget the words. It’s like pi. You think you can rattle it off until, when asked, you get brain freeze.

I wouldn’t love it so much if it didn’t have something in it for me. So here is the good part for instrumentalists. Everyone gets to jump off the opening rhythm – Oh say- in unison before turning to notes arranged for their instrument. There is obvious drama for wind players, but there is also opportunity for the strings. The middle section - And the rockets red glare – is a tune worthy of your best vibrato. Listeners may think of vibrato as the lovely warble.

As for the poem, there are three more stanzas. Though my preference has strayed to the last, I’ve decided the first, which mentions no controversial subjects such as justice and God, is best for us. The Star Spangled Banner was written at a time in our history when we did not yet assume we would win every war or battle. The words, a curious mix of bravado and fear, mate with the arduously progressing chords for glorious proclamation.

FYI: It was made the National Anthem by Congressional resolution on March 3, 1931 under President Herbert Hoover.

Happy Birthday to You also has an anapest beat. Try singing it to The Star Spangled Banner melody. Thanks to my friend Findlay Cockrell for pointing this out.

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One Response to “Pop Quiz! What Is In 3/4 Time, But Not A Waltz?”

  1. avatar
    July 4, 2017 at 6:18 am #

    Come see the Capital Area Flute Club perform the national anthem at the Valley Cats game Wednesday July 5th at 7pm! Always an honor to play the anthem!

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