Despite the rivalries between soccer fans of opposing teams, everyone loves a good chant. And while local and national teams have their own chants, songs like “Olé, Olé, Olé” and “Seven Nation Army” transcend teams, nations and even sports. Experts say there are musical and cultural reasons for why they’re so popular.
“Chants stay within the speaking range,” says Edith Bers, chair of the voice department at Juilliard. Most people speak within a five- or six-note range, she says, and sure enough, the distance between the lowest and highest notes in “Olé, Olé, Olé” is five notes. For “Seven Nation Army,” it’s six.
“The Star-Spangled Banner,” on the other hand, may be a sports stadium favorite, but, with a range that spans more than octave and a half, it’s terrible for chanting.
The best soccer chants don't ask fans to jump around too much between notes. Voice teacher Robert White, also at Juilliard, says that crowds have an easier time chanting when songs are in “stepwise motion,” that is, when they only go up or down by one note in the scale at a time. “Silent Night” is easy to sing for that reason. The biggest leap in “Olé” and “Seven Nation Army” is a third of an octave.
Simple melodies are also essential to soccer chants, according to Kay Kaufman Shelemay, an ethnomusicology professor at Harvard. Fans have an easy time remembering them and can sing them in a loop. “Olé” consists of a 12-note riff. “Seven Nation Army” is just seven notes.
Shelemay explains that soccer’s take on “Seven Nation Army” is an example of contrafactum, a music term for when lyrics are reworked or removed from a traditional song. That chant comes from the song by the White Stripes, released in 2003. People around the world have been practicing contrafactum for centuries, and sports fans do it often. The most popular chant of the 30,000 archived on FanChants.com is Manchester United’s “United Road Take Me Home,” a take on John Denver’s “Country Road.”
In addition to the musical factors, soccer chants catch on for cultural reasons. “It’s about what music enables,” Shelemay says. “It makes it possible for people to express support, to compete with supporters of the other team, to urge their team on. It has a lot of implications that are way beyond music and sound.”
When Oxford-educated psychologist Peter Marsh studied the culture of soccer chants in the 1970s, he found that they tend to be unrelated to the action of the game and usually initiated by an identifiable leader.
“They're what makes the atmosphere at football matches special,” says Giles Barkwill, chief financial officer at FanChants.com. Barkwill says that fans from different teams and countries have started using some of the same chants, like “Olé” and “Seven Nation Army,” because watching soccer games is now easier than ever. “With games from all over the world being shown globally, and the advent of YouTube, chants have crossed borders and been adapted by other sports,” he says.
When you watch the World Cup final this Sunday, keep an ear out for those voices off the field. And if you’re inclined to join in with the chanting, Edith Bers from Juilliard has a word of caution: “If chants are yelled at high volume for an extended period, serious vocal damage can occur.”