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The science behind why ‘Three Lions’ is the perfect football song

Breaking down exactly why the Lightning Seeds, Baddiel, and Skinner classic has become such a perfect English sport anthem

The science behind why ‘Three Lions’ is the perfect football song
12 June 2021

On paper, it’s hard to conceive of anything less appealing than a Britpop band teaming up with a comedy duo to create a football song for England fans. Yet from this gruesome crucible, something unexpectedly classic emerged: ‘Three Lions’.

The Band Aid of footie anthems, ‘Three Lions’ has been wheeled out for every international football tournament since its release in 1996. Yet somehow – no matter how many times it’s been badly rewritten, re-recorded or rearranged – we never seem to tire of it. And it's certain that we will all be singing it throughout Euro 2020 and beyond.

Why has it endured where songs by other, better-known artists have been sent for an early bath? There are a few musical reasons that might help explain its lasting appeal.

Understanding the Melody

’Three Lions’features three rather distinct vocalists: Ian Broudie (the professional musician), Frank Skinner (the earnest amateur) and David Baddiel (the everyman).

Striking a balance between them – creating a melody that doesn’t downplay Broudie’s craft, waste Skinner’s enthusiasm or require anything too technical from Baddiel – might sound like a tall order but, from a compositional standpoint, it’s actually pretty helpful.

When Broudie wrote for the Lightning Seeds, he had a tendency to use quite expansive melodies. ’The Life Of Riley’ spans an octave and a half from start to finish, while 'Lucky You’ stretches over two. With ‘Three Lions’though, he had other collaborators to consider (Baddiel and Skinner in the short term; millions of England fans long term), so he reined this urge in a bit.

As a result, the song’s entire melody is confined to just a single octave (C to C) making it well suited to large-scale singalongs.

Fans with deeper voices (the Baddiels) can comfortably sing it in a lower register without rumbling down in their boots, and those with higher voices (the Skinners) can do it up the octave without squealing and straining their throats.

But where the melody was kept simple, the structure was very smart.

Breaking down the Hook

The song has two main hooks:

1/ The intro refrain (“It’s coming home / it’s coming home…”)

2/ The chorus (“Three lions on a shirt / Jules Rimet still gleaming…”)

As you’ll no doubt know, these two hooks can sit on top of one another, with one half of the crowd singing one, and the other half singing the other.

However, much like ’The Song That Never Ends’, when the crowd starts singing this way it becomes very hard for them to stop. Why? Because these two hooks dovetail in such a tight and sneaky way that there’s no clear moment to pull out.

This happens because of an anacrusis in the “It’s coming home” refrain. An anacrusis is a small fragment of melody, a lead-in, that sits before the first proper beat of the phrase. With “It’s coming home”, you’ll hear the words “It’s coming” preempt the first beat of the bar (which falls in the middle of the word “home”).

Those three and a half syllables might seem inconsequential in isolation but, in action, they form a perfect bridge across the gap left by the other hook. By half a beat on either side, this phrase neatly fills the silence between the last line of the chorus (“Never stopped me dreaming”) and its repeat (“Three lions on a shirt”), effectively trapping the singers into a never-ending loop.

And yet luring a crowd into an infinite chorus might not be the cleverest thing about Three Lions. There’s one other little trick that’s tucked away in the verses.

Decoding the Chords

The song’s verses follow a chord progression of Fminor - Bb - Eb - C7.

That C7 chord is the interesting one, and the reason why takes a little bit of explaining.

In much the same way that we expect a green light to follow red and amber, or that we expect thunder to follow lightning, the Western ear is conditioned to hear a ‘seventh’ chord (like C7) resolve in a very particular way.

In the specific case of C7, we are instinctively primed to hear it resolve to an F chord – which, in the verses, it does (it loops back to F minor).

When we move from the verse to the chorus though, something different happens. Instead of that C7 chord resolving to F minor as we expect, the chorus resolves to an Ab major chord.

Ab is what is known as the relative major of F minor (essentially, the superhero to F minor’s villain). Switching up to Ab major gives the song a euphoric boost, casting off the lyrical pessimism of the verses, slamming straight into the celebratory chorus.

“Other football songs often have a well-meaning, but ultimately undeserved, sense of entitlement – Three Lions toys with misery”

This, more than anything, sits at the heart of ‘Three Lions’’ appeal. Unlike other football songs – which often have a well-meaning, but ultimately undeserved, sense of entitlement – ‘Three Lions’ toys with misery of being an England fan. Having the verses revolve around a minor resolution allows us to indulge in our proud sense of national cynicism; while having the chorus resolve to a major chord instead brings some unexpected (but harmonically logical) hope.

Although, on its face, it’s a simple little ditty, ‘Three Lions’ has given us plenty to chew on over the years. So the chances that we’ll be singing this same song in 2026, with another thirty years of hurt under our belts?

Sadly, very high indeed.