The 2024 NHL All-Star Game saw one of the best musical performances ever at an NHL event when Tate McRae took the ice for a “halftime” show. It also saw one of the worst when The Reklaws sang “O Canada!” before the on-ice action.
Hockey fans on social media tore into the Canadian country music duo for their rendition of the national anthem. It was called “horrible,” “one of the worst anthems I’ve ever heard,” and “borderline treasonous.”
Maybe it wasn’t that bad, but lord, it wasn’t good.
This deserves some caveats. Singing is hard. Singing acapella is harder. Harmonizing while acapella is hardest of all.
Musical instruments provide all sorts of harmonic context that make it easier to harmonize. When you don’t have a guitar or piano playing along, finding your harmony is a challenge, particularly if you’re not used to singing acapella in the first place.
It’s even more of a challenge if you are having trouble hearing the main melody with which you’re supposed to be harmonizing. I’ve seen it suggested that there was a delay in the in-ear monitors, which isn’t unheard of with wireless microphones and monitors and even a small amount of latency can throw even an experienced singer for a loop.
There’s perhaps some evidence of that, as Jenna Walker immediately checks what is likely the battery pack for her in-ear monitors when Stuart Walker starts singing, perhaps even turning it off to avoid that distraction.
As someone who has sung flat on plenty of high notes and botched his fair share of harmonies over the years, I have plenty of sympathy and forgiveness for singers who make a mistake, particularly in front of such a large crowd.
But that doesn’t mean I’m not going to write an entire article breaking down the harmonic content of the Reklaws’ entire performance.
O Canada! Our home and native land
Much of the focus on The Reklaws’ performance was on Jenna Walker’s harmonies, but we actually run into trouble right from the first three notes sung by Ontario’s own Stuart Walker in his faux-Southern twang.
Stuart starts on an Ab, implying that the anthem will be sung in the key of E major, as “O Canada!” starts on the major third. But his second note is Bb and he resolves to Eb with the third note, putting the anthem in the key of Eb major.
Stuart’s sudden semitone shift in key might even be what throws his sister off when she first comes in with the harmonies. The above video is meant to represent the notes she was attempting to hit, even if she definitely did not hit them.
It doesn’t help that Jenna has picked a particularly hard harmonic line, choosing to harmonize a third and fourth above the melody line, a shifting line that follows the melody rather than a lower part that outlines the chords. A harmony that comes in above the melody in an acapella performance threatens to overshadow the main melody, as our ears are accustomed to hearing the melody as the highest note.
So, when that higher harmony is also off-key (sorry, Jenna), it stands out even more. But even when on-key, that particular harmony sounds a little out of place and odd to our ears as it jumps from a third to a fourth without ever grounding us in what the key is supposed to be.
True patriot love in all of us command
The pitch is all over the place in the second line from both singers, causing a clash that is made more significant because it’s such a close harmony. Jenna keeps a third above Stuart’s melody line throughout, more or less, but because it’s sometimes flat and sometimes sharp, it’s hard to tell whether she was aiming for a major or minor third each time.
It’s a minor third through most but not all of the line, suggesting (without any other harmonic context) the chords G minor, A minor, Bb major, C minor, D minor, C minor, and ending on a Bb major.
That would be the iii chord, flat v chord, V chord, vi chord, vii chord, vi chord, and V chord, for those who like to keep track of such things.
That makes the line clash even more to our ears, as that line is typically rendered primarily in major chords to give it a more triumphant feel. A more traditional arrangement might sound like this:
That’s essentially the chords Eb major, D major, G minor, C minor seventh, Bb major, F major, and also ending on a Bb major (with some additional colouring from the bass line throughout), which is a completely different chordal structure despite retaining the same melody.
So, instead of sounding triumphant, the Reklaws’ rendition sounds more forlorn. It’s a valid reharmonization of the song, of course, but it changes the tone.
With glowing hearts we see thee rise, the true north strong and free
Things start to get a bit more steady, pitch-wise, at this point. We’re still usually a fourth above the melody line but it’s mostly pleasant.
Would it have been better with a supporting harmony underneath? Perhaps. Here’s an example of what that could sound like with two voices:
I’m not in love with that arrangement, but to my ear, it at least keeps the melody line the focal point while being fairly simple to sing. A little wavering on pitch on a lower harmony line like that would also be less noticeable overall.
From far and wide, O Canada, we stand on guard for thee
Things get spicy again for this line, as Jenna’s sharpness changes a couple of notes entirely.
Instead of a nice major third on “far” we get a fourth instead, which is mostly fine, if a little jazzy. It changes the implied chord from an Ab major to a Db major, which is a chord that isn’t in the key of Eb major. But again, that’s kind of jazzy and could be fun, if it was intentional.
Where things get really crunchy is when Jenna hits a B natural on the third syllable of “Canada” instead of a Bb. That’s the major third above the G that Stuart is mostly singing, which changes the implied chord from a G minor to a G major.
We could think of it as a #9 on a G minor chord, I suppose, but that’s getting a lot jazzier than I or Kenny G would be comfortable with.
On the line “we stand on guard for thee,” Jenna largely stays on the fourth above the melody line, which is such an odd choice that doesn’t support the melody at all. Even on pitch, it sounds all kinds of wrong.
The whole thing would be better with a more supportive harmony underneath the melody, like so:
This harmony centres around Bb, because we’re not trying to compete with the melody but instead to provide context for the melody.
God keep our land glorious and free
We’re back to mostly on-pitch thirds and fourths over the melody line. It’s still a weird choice that obscures the actual melody and they sing it a little flat, but it’s mostly fine.
O Canada! We stand on guard for thee
This is where those fourths really sound odd to the average listener’s ear. That’s not a harmony we’re used to hearing, particularly in such an anthemic, soaring melody. After those adventurous fourths over “O Canada,” Jenna goes right back to the relative safety of the major and minor thirds over “we stand on guard for thee.”
To be fair, this is the toughest part of “O Canada!” which is not as easy to harmonize as some might think. My preference would be to once again harmonize underneath the melody line.
This harmony starts on the same note as Jenna’s, just an octave lower. Instead of going up with the melody line, however, it stays on the Eb, which gives a nice implied movement from Eb major to B major — not a chord in the key of Eb major, but perfectly acceptable as a passing chord to deal with the chromatic melody.
Then, instead of trying to compete with the high note on the third syllable of “Canada,” the harmony drops down to an Ab to contextualize the note within the Ab major chord.
The harmony on “we stand on guard for thee” is actually the same as Jenna’s, but dropping it down an octave provides support for the melody rather than competing with it.
Of course, that harmony depends on a vocalist’s range. If Jenna can’t get down that low, which would be understandable, it might have been better to have Jenna sing the melody and Stuart harmonize with the lower notes.
O Canada! We stand on guard for thee
Here we go! The big finish! And…oh no.
That third syllable of “Canada” is the crunchiest harmony of the entire performance, as Jenna hits an E natural instead of an Eb, turning what was supposed to be a minor third into a major third.
It’s perfectly understandable why she did it, though: if she was singing the melody, that E natural would naturally follow the G she just sang for the first two syllables of “Canada.” That’s the kind of note you gravitate to when you’re used to singing the melody, not the harmony.
Every singer in the world can likely identify with the momentary panic that Jenna must have felt after hitting that wrong note. She fully stops singing for the words “stand on” to find her note again and it’s a good thing she does, because the D note that she hits above Stuart’s Bb on “guard” is legitimately lovely and it leads into a strong finish.
As much as I’ve said that a harmony underneath the melody line would be better to support the song, going above the melody for these final major and minor thirds feels appropriately triumphant for the end of an anthem. It works.
Ultimately, while the pitch issues early on grated on the ears, the bigger issue was the choice to sing a harmony constructed almost entirely of thirds and fourths above the main melody line. That choice meant that even when the two Walker siblings were singing on key, it still sounded off and caused the melody to get lost.
It doesn’t help that “O Canada!” is the most recognizable song in the world for Canadians, particularly hockey fans who hear it before every single game that they watch. Everyone knows what “O Canada!” is supposed to sound like, so when it doesn’t sound like it’s supposed to, everyone notices.
In any case, The Reklaws will surely find comfort in all of their gold and platinum hits in Canada. They’ll be fine.
(Apologies for the odd notation on some of the videos. Logic can be surprisingly hard to work with for proper notation.)