Why do Countries have National Anthems

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Figure 1. Wilhelmus eventually formed the first national for the Netherlands. It derived from a patriotic work that emerged during the rebellion against Spain.

National anthems have been around since the 19th century, a period of nationalism and emerging states in Europe and elsewhere. It was also a time of competitive states building empires and emerging commercial links that drove patriotism and other affection for countries by nationals and government officials alike. However, patriotic songs about countries or people go further back in time and they are the predecessors of anthems.

Early Development

In ancient periods, patriotic songs existed, often at the city or city-state level, that talked about the goodness, affection for, or even lament toward a city. There is evidence in ancient Mesopotamia and Greece. During the Roman Republic, the concept of patria existed. It was the idea that one could be loyal to the state, and it encouraged patriotic activities, including song, toward the state.

During the late Byzantine Empire in the 13th century, the renewed longing of ancient roots emerged in the Byzantine state. Earlier, other states also attempted to connect to ancient Rome or other forms of legitimization, such as the Holy Roman Empire connecting to the order and divine providence seen in the Roman Empire. All of these were not associated with what we would call anthems, but poetry that was sung did emerge that would help raise affection for these states.[1]

The concept of anthem develops in the Medieval period during the period of monarchies. In England, the coronation ceremony consisted of patriotic songs and psalms and other liturgical music that associated the state with the sacred religious duty that gave it legitimacy. Later national anthems take themes and structure of music from psalms and hymns in developing formal national anthems. The Catholic votive antiphon influenced both Catholic and Protestant states in creating hymn-like songs, some of which later formed the basis for anthems. Hymns were effectively church-related music, with national anthems then adopting their format.

The first anthem for a state was "Wilhelmus, (Figure 1)," which is a Dutch anthem from 1572 that dates to the Dutch revolt that broke the Dutch away from Spanish rule. William, leader of the Dutch, is displayed as a King David like figure, where the heroic struggle was framed in religious language. The Dutch saw the war as a battle between the Protestant Dutch and Catholics of Spain. The war was framed not only as a nationalistic struggle. The war was an effort to define the true path of Christ. Music from this time encouraged people to take up arms. People fought not only for the love of their country but also for the love of their religious beliefs.

In Britain, in 1745, Bonny Prince Charlie led a Jacobite rebellion against the British Crown. This rebellion led to the resurgence of nationalism in Britain, at least in areas where the rebellious prince was not popular, leading to the tune "God Save the King/Queen" to become popular. The origin of this work is probably much older, but around this time, it seems to have regained renewed attention. Eventually, this formed the basis for other patriotic songs in Britain and the wider British Empire. This type of music also became known as royal anthems.[2]

Development of Anthems

Figure 2. La Marseillaise became the first true national anthem, which was developed by the first French Republic in 1792.

While emerging nationalism during times of upheaval led to patriotic songs, many of these were still not considered national anthems as they were not meant to be sung by everyone or in reference to the state by the wider population. This only emerged when the monarchy was removed, in this case during the French Revolution. La Marseillaise is considered the first true national anthem because it was composed by the First French Republic. La Marseillaise was meant to be sung by the general population to celebrate the republic. The song was not a reference to a monarch or hereditary office that was religiously enshrined (Figure 2). The song was abandoned after the downfall of the First Republic, but it reemerged after the restoration of the Republic in France in 1830.

Now, the love of the state became, for the first time in modern history, abstracted from religious belief. Love of state was the goal in and of itself. In the 19th century, modern Europe was forming, with new nations emerging such as Germany, the renewed French Republic, and Greece that led to the formation of national anthems. France had set the pattern that other countries began to emulate, with now the association of country and a national anthem, associated, even in the cases where some of these states were monarchies.[3]

While European states, mainly new states, formed national anthems, the old states of Europe, and even the United States, did not have national anthems. Works such as The Star-Spangled Banner was not considered the official national anthems throughout the 19th century. In the case of the "The Star-Spangled Banner, this work derives from the War of 1812 during the Battle of Fort M'Henry. However, this work only became the national anthem in 1931 under President Hoover.[4] Nevertheless, works such as this and others increasingly became associated with some official patriotic feeling for many countries.

Ultimately, it was the Olympics that finally pushed many of the remaining states to adopt formal national anthems. In 1920, the Olympics began to play anthems of states. For countries that had them, this was not a problem, but many countries lacked one. The Olympic committee effectively motivated states to adopt national anthems. Renewed de-colonization, similar to the 19th-century emergence of European states, led to a renewed wave of national anthems.[5]

Current Anthems

Many countries still lack official national anthems. For instance, the United Kingdom does use God Save the King/Queen at official functions, although this is not technically the national anthem of the United Kingdom. Some countries have adopted anthems for the office of the highest political leader, but not a national anthem.[6]

Interestingly, sports began to play national songs at around 1905, with Wales perhaps being the first country, although not fully independent, to play a national anthem at a rugby game. The Olympics then adopted this idea in 1920. The United States expanded this idea by playing national anthems at sporting events and other occasions during World War II. This practice stuck, and most sporting events in the United States still start with the Star-Spangled Banner.

Military anthems became increasingly common since the 19th century, but as countries adopted national anthems in the 19th and 20th centuries, soon, many of these anthems began to merge. It became increasingly common, therefore, to play national anthems at national events or military and remembrance celebrations.

Many countries have broadened when the national anthem is played. Some, such as Tanzania, play it during the beginning of a school day for children. Countries such as Colombia play the national anthem at specific times, such as between 6 AM and 6 PM and on the radio or TV channels. Dictatorships often change the national anthem, where different anthems often are associated with a regime rather than a country.

In some contexts, such as Taiwan in the Olympics, anthems can be controversial, as those countries are not recognized by all member states.[7]


For many countries and their citizens, national anthems have become symbols of the state and loyalty and patriotism to it. However, national anthems reflect very much the new idea of the state and what it meant that only emerged in the 19th century, although many national anthems, such as that of the Netherlands, are actually old works. Nevertheless, many European and Western anthems reflect the emergence of the state that was independent from a specific monarchy or religion. although in unofficial anthems, such as that of the United Kingdom, the monarchy is still tied to the anthem. Nevertheless, the French Revolution, and later modern Olympic games, helped to solidify the concept and association of national anthems with states as we know them today.


  1. For more on the history of patriotic works, particularly in antiquity, see: Sardoč M (2019) Handbook of Patriotism. Available at: https://doi.org/10.1007/978-3-319-30534-9 (accessed 6 December 2019).
  2. For reference regarding the development of national anthems in the Medieval and Early Modern Period, see: Kelen C (2015) Anthem Quality: National Songs : A Theoretical Study. Intellect Books.
  3. For more on the development of the French national anthem, see: Rice PF (2010) British Music and the French Revolution. Newcastle upon Tyne: Cambridge Scholars Publishing.
  4. For more on the Star-Spangled Banner, see: Ferris M (2014) Star-Spangled Banner: The Unlikely Story of America’s National Anthem. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press.
  5. For more on 19th century and 20th-century development of anthems, see: Cerulo KA (1989) Sociopolitical Control and the Structure of National Symbols: An Empirical Analysis of National Anthems. Social Forces 68(1): 76. DOI: 10.2307/2579221.
  6. For more on countries without anthems, see: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_national_anthems
  7. For more on how national anthems evolved as to how they were played or displayed, see: Waterman S (2020) National Anthems and National Symbolism: Singing the Nation. Handbook of the Changing World Language Map. p. 603-2618. Springer.