Press Coverage


The New York Times Magazine

Top Ideas of 2004 issue

In what has become an annual tradition, The New York Times Magazine takes stock of the passing year by creating a mini-encyclopedia of the most noteworthy ideas of the previous 12 months. We put out feelers, fine-tune our journalistic antennae and call a fleet of reporters and researchers to scour the infophere for the most captivating, baffling, promising and influential ideas from all walks of life – not just science and technology, politics and policy…Once we separate the wheat of invention from the chaff of familiar notations, we offer up the alphabetical harvest now before you:

The Singable National Anthem

Published: December 12, 2004

Here's a little-known fact about the melody of ''The Star Spangled Banner'': before it was our national anthem, it was a belt-it-out-in-the-pub drinking song. According to Ed Siegel, a psychiatrist in Solana Beach, Calif., this may explain why most of us sound like a bunch of yodeling drunks when we sing it. And he has found a way to fix this.

Not long after the song became the national anthem in the 1930's, a committee of musicians, congressmen and military officials wrote a code specifying that it be played in the key of B flat major. The problem is, most people can't sing it in B flat major. ''It's just too high,'' Siegel says. ''And what does it say about this country that no one can actually sing our national anthem?'' His solution: Lower the key.

Siegel changed the key of the national anthem while running a support group for recovering alcoholic veterans. ''I didn't know what key it was supposed to be in,'' says Siegel, who plays piano strictly by ear. ''I just played in a key everyone could sing, because I wanted to show that they could lose inhibitions without drinking.'' In the end everyone sang, and no one sounded drunk.

In June, Siegel persuaded his City Council to pass a resolution saying ''the federal government should establish the key of G major as the song's official key.'' He claims that ''The Star Spangled Banner'' has contributed to a nationwide decrease in singing, because Americans are routinely embarrassed by how badly they sound hollering it out. ''This has caused a form of post-traumatic stress disorder in our culture,'' he says. ''People freak when asked to sing.''

Of course, changing the song's key doesn't fix its absurdly wide range, and the new lows will be too low for some. ''People can mumble those parts if necessary,'' Siegel says. ''But everyone should be able to hit the high notes -- that's where it gets exciting.''

It's no small detail that the song's highest note -- the one most people can't reach -- is the word ''free,'' as in, ''land of the freeeeeeeeee.'' Siegel says he figures the government would want to do whatever it could to allow everyone in the country to hit that note, and he has sent repeated requests to the Pentagon for change. So what does the Pentagon think? ''Huh?'' a Pentagon spokeswoman says. ''We didn't even know the Pentagon had any say over the national anthem.''