Eight Notes That Have Meant ‘N.C.A.A. Tournament’ for a Quarter-Century
Late in 1992, when he was asked to submit samples for a new theme song for CBS’s coverage of the N.C.A.A. men’s basketball tournament, Bob Christianson did what he usually does. He paced his small basement studio. He washed dishes and scrubbed the floor. He ironed clothes.
His best melodies have often crystallized better away from the piano. “If I write at the piano,” he said, “my fingers tend to go where they are used to going.”
This time, his fingers would not arrive at the eight notes that would come to define March Madness for nearly a quarter-century until he formulated the right groove — a groove inspired by the percussive heartbeat of the tournament itself: a dribbling basketball.
The hummable pattern — da-da-da-dat-dat-da-da-da — is now familiar to almost anyone even remotely near a television in March. The ubiquity of CBS’s telecasts, now broadcast in combination with Turner Sports, and the popularity of the N.C.A.A. tournament have made its theme song one of the most recognizable, and enduring, in sports television history. CBS started airing it in 1993 and has no plans to stop.
The credit belongs to Christianson, a veteran composer who, when he sat down to write 25 years ago, had no clue his version would become so embedded into the auditory cortex of American culture, or even that his version would be selected. But he liked how it sounded.
“I have no idea where it came from,” Christianson said. “Writing, to me, is about being able to sit down, be quiet and listen. And when you’re lucky, it comes.”
In 2010, when CBS and Turner Sports joined in producing the telecasts, they examined every detail of tournament production. But the theme song, which was modernized slightly, remained true to its original form.
“It really gets your motor running when you hear it,” said Sean McManus, the chairman of CBS Sports. “It has a way of making your heart beat a little bit faster in anticipation of more great college basketball.”
Christianson, now 66, with soft brown hair and a feathery mustache, still lives above the studio in the Chelsea neighborhood of Manhattan where he wrote the N.C.A.A. tournament theme and hundreds of other jingles, including those for ESPN’s N.H.L. and “Sunday Night Baseball” telecasts and CBS’s coverage of the N.F.L. and the Olympics.
Many of them have long since faded into oblivion. Harder, heavier tunes (think Fox’s blaring N.F.L. theme, complete with its armored robot) have replaced the more rhythmic and synthesized selections in the past, which typically went lighter on the drums and guitar.
“It wasn’t Metallica,” Christianson said.
But when a former CBS executive, Doug Towey, asked him to submit samples for a new college basketball theme, Christianson knew he needed something with energy. Something in a major key. Something that immediately suggested the brisk pace of a game.
“The melody couldn’t be so fast that it would fly by and you wouldn’t get it,” Christianson said. “It had to be a simple melody, but it had to have enough energy behind it to reflect the sport.”
James Kellaris, a composer and professor of marketing at the University of Cincinnati who studies the influence of music on consumers, noted that the presto tempo of 168 beats per minute in Christianson’s tune is consistent with a human heart rate during exercise. The percussive groove also lends an impression of forward motion.
“The theme clearly evokes excitement and motion, such as a person running,” Kellaris wrote in an email.
What makes the theme sound unique, however, is actually a small incongruity in the tune’s harmonic structure. Instead of being based on a normal scale in C, the chords conform to F major, Kellaris said, a technique also used in the famous “Give me a break” jingle for Kit Kat bars. The pattern of notes — E-E-F-G-C-A-G-G — also contains a sizable intervallic leap from the C to the A, which is uncommon in melodies.
Such aurally pleasant violations of expectations, along with the simplicity and repetition of the theme, are what creates what Kellaris likes to call an earworm. The melody burrows into your head and can stick there for days, often leaving only a single recourse: You have to listen again. Exactly what CBS wants.
“It is a diminutive masterpiece of auditory branding genius,” Kellaris said.
Twenty-three years after his career at Duke ended, Grant Hill said that he still imagines running up and down the court in the N.C.A.A. tournament whenever he hears the theme song. “It definitely conjures up a lot of good memories,” said Hill, now a broadcaster for CBS and Turner. “You get fired up and ready to go. It’s a great feeling.”
Indeed, the theme’s influence derives not just from its catchiness. Its psychological grip extends beyond that. Matthew Mihalka, a musicologist and ethnomusicologist at the University of Arkansas, who studies the connections between music and sports, said the jingle produced a “sonic marker” in the minds of many fans, viscerally transplanting them back to a happy (or upsetting) moment.
“It can serve as a bit of nostalgia,” Mihalka said. “If they have a fond memory that connects to hearing that song, then it’s going to revive how they were feeling at that particular time.”
Fans of Gonzaga or South Carolina, who might not have cared much for the tune before, might now be hooked, because their teams are playing in the Final Four for the first time this weekend. And CBS does a good job reinforcing these Pavlovian triggers: A spokesman estimated that CBS and Turner play the theme song more than 1,000 times over the course of the 67 telecasts and accompanying studio shows during the tournament each year.
The modern version was arranged by Trevor Rabin — a former guitarist for Yes — who also composed the theme for the N.B.A. on TNT broadcasts. But Christianson, who still receives 85 percent of the writer’s royalties, said only 7 percent of the new version was actually new. The remainder is as he wrote it, using a Linn 9000 in his basement, albeit infused with more sound from a live orchestra.
Christianson, who also scored TV shows including “Sex and the City,” said it was the little jingle he dreamed up 25 years ago that would most likely come to define his career.
“It probably will be chiseled on my tombstone, no matter what else I’ve done,” he said. “And you know something? That’s fine.”