Steven Tyler sings the National Anthem – What happens on a high note?

The latest internet drama is Steven Tyler’s rendition of The Star Spangled Banner at Sunday’s AFC Championship game. Critics called him “raspier-than-normal” and state he had difficulty with the notorious high note.

Listening to the replay, I struggled to understand what all the commentary was about. I don’t think it’s exactly news that Tyler has a raspy voice and that his tenor scream is his trademark.  I don’t believe anyone expected a smooth, clear, operatic high note.  Basically, I’m surprised anyone was surprised.

Tyler sang a very “Steven Tyler” version of the national anthem, scream included, and was actually on pitch throughout.  For anyone who has sung a capella, this is challenging even if you’re singing in your shower.  But on national television, singing the Star Spangled Banner a capella on pitch is no small task.  The fact that he did this, including an on-pitch scream, is pretty amazing after so many decades of hard rock singing.

I wrote about aging and voice earlier, when we were faced with our own judgments when an older contestant appeared to be doing very well on The X Factor.  The fact is Tyler has made a career of singing in the exact style he did yesterday.  While perhaps not the best of his performances, I don’t think it was anything to be ashamed of.

Producing high notes requires a very finely coordinated stretching of the vocal cords.  The vocal cord edges must also be straight for the note to sound clear (i.e., no nodules, polyps, etc). Fine, straight edges are needed for a clear note at this rate of vibration.  Any irregularity is easily heard by even an average listener’s  ear.  I would guess that Tyler has some irregularities on his edges that make high notes a challenge.  But because he is not striving for clarity, he uses other manipulations, likely include false vocal fold activity, to get the necessary notes.

That said, if you are a singer and are trying to get your high notes to sound clear but are unable to, it’s possible you have a vocal injury.  A proper evaluation can determine this for you but don’t judge your inability off your a capela rendition of the National Anthem.