The Saddest National Anthems in the World

Our latest Freakonomics Radio podcast, “The Suicide Paradox,” (You can download/subscribe at iTunes, get the RSS feed, or read the transcript here) investigates the mystery of suicide.

Our Virgil in the journey was David Lester, a professor at Richard Stockton College of New Jersey and the dean of suicide studies. Lester is prolific: he has over 1000 citations regarding suicide on a wide range of topics, from quirky informal studies to serious stats. He’s written about which day of the week suicide occurs the most, what blood type suicide rates are associated with, and whether suicide rates are higher in nations with greater rainfall.

One of our favorites by Lester is “National Anthems and Suicide Rates.” Here’s the abstract:

In a sample of 18 European nations, suicide rates were positively associated with the proportion of low notes in the national anthems and, albeit less strongly, with students’ ratings of how gloomy and how sad the anthems sounded, supporting a hypothesis proposed by Rihmer.

We’ve mapped the results of Lester’s paper in the interactive graphic below:


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  1. JB Jensson says:

    Missing into this are the lyrics, the Icelandic national anthem features the line of “a weeping little flower that dies” and is on top of that too hard to sing for the 99% of people who haven’t been classically trained to sing for 10+ years, due to its pitch.

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  2. James says:

    I’m Irish and I absolutely hate our national anthem….

    The lyrics are uninspiring, and in any case, hardly anyone actually understands them as they are in gaelic (and use vocabulary that most people would not understand), in addition, the music is corny and depressing. So although most people can sing the words, I imagine most do so without knowing their actual meaning (like singing along to La Bamba)

    Also, it was frequently played as the last song of the night in pubs and clubs (not any more thank God!), so there is a subconscious link in your mind between the anthem and the fun ending early! Every time I hear it I think, “ah dam it, it’s over already”!

    Wish we could change it! I actually feel patriotic when I hear Star Spangled Banner – I feel depressed when I hear our anthem!

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    • Shane says:

      I wish we had the Batman theme from the 1990s cartoon as our national anthem.

      …Or the Batman theme from the camp old 1960s TV version either for that matter:

      “Na-na-na-na-na-na-na-na (insert country name here)!” Cheerful stuff.

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    • RogerP says:

      Lucky you don’t live in South Africa; the anthem is multilingual. First they complained that white people didn’t know the words. Then, when they learned to sing along, they complained they don’t understand the words.

      There’s no winning and no sense of humour about getting it wrong. Just ask singer Ard Matthews who recently fluffed the words at a public gathering. The Parliamentary Portfolio Committee is demanding explanations from all and sundry.

      If I was South African, I’d feel pretty suicidal about the anthem, especially if called upon to sing it in public.

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      • Nonku says:

        I am a South African and I know all the verses (4 of them in 4 different languages including English and each verse has appr. 5 lines) of the South African anthem. The anthem (the first part) is in fact a prayer, that God bless Africa. Many African countries use the Nkosi Sikelela iAfrika as part of their anthems, with the necessary changes. There is nothing depressing about that and nothing worth committing suicide for.

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  3. Takeshi says:

    Japan has a very gloomy national anthem and high suicide rate. My country could be the best example.

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  4. Owinok says:

    So what causes what? Is it that societies of gloomy people craft anthems to match the mood or is it the reverse?

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  5. Blaise says:

    What is the link between the national anthem music and the suicde rate? Does it really capture the overall sadness of the country? I think a sample of the top 100 selling songs would have been more appropriate.

    I have the feeling that the results are driven by the presence of Hugary with a very gloomy national anthem and high suicide rate. Why is the sample restricted to 18 European countries? Are there no statistics for the UK, Spain and Portugal for instance?

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  6. Thomas J says:

    A simple analysis of the anthems looking at the time signatures might be interesting. America and the UK have triple time, with most anthems being altered from marching songs. There is less room for more lyrical patterns with these. Is there a list of which countries had the lyrics writtern after the song, and which time signatures are used more internatioanly?

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  7. Graham says:

    Please stop linking to gated articles. There’s no way I believe this result, but without access to the original paper, it’s tough for me to judge.

    Can someone who does have access tell the rest of us a) whether there’s anything non-random about the choice of countries to compare or b) whether the p-value is conveniently just under the magical 0.05 level?

    My current guess is that it’s b), and we’re looking at one of the 5% of studies investigating intriguing yet false claims that through random chance find a significant result.

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    • Enter your name says:

      I’ve been thinking about whining recently, as a phenomenon seen in very small children. It appears that the cost of whining is so low, and the potential reward so high—Mommy or Daddy will buy me that treat, or give me a different treat as a substitute—that even a very low success rate (5%) is “worth it” and reinforces the behavior.

      Then I see your comment: You don’t believe what’s reported here, but you don’t care enough to pay for a copy of the article. However, the cost of whining about your choice not to pay for the article is so low, and the potential reward so high—you think maybe they’ll twist arms to make all papers free? Or perhaps they’ll simply not write about interesting things, so that you can’t be frustrated by your decision not to pay for articles?—that you decide to post a request for them to stop providing a service (links) that benefits people other than you.

      I’m not impressed.

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      • Blaise says:

        The authors of Freakeconomics could have been more critical about the paper instead of plotting the data on a map. Thus, Graham (and me) would have had the response to his questions.

        I see it as: one guy buy the paper, read it carefully and write a short and critical comment about. That way casual readers don’t need to buy and read the paper which improves the whole efficiency.

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  8. Tim says:

    I smell a causality trap! It’s much more likely that some underlying cultural or genetic element is responsible for both the gloomy national anthems AND the elevated suicide rate. Not a hard one to spot!

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