Meet the NCAA Tourney Theme Composer whose anthems evoke spring and hockey's cold winter darkness
Back when a New York winter always meant tunnels of wind and frost, balm-defying dermal dryness, sidewalk slush the color of rejected Baskin Robbins flavors ("How about a Tootsie Roll-inspired taste entitled 'Irresponsible Dog Owner?'") -- before warming adjoined the brutal cold to 60-degree days and disordered the seasons entirely -- I looked forward to spring's rebirth with some desperation.
But it wasn't a sudden bloom or abundance of pollen that signaled to me we had made it. Okay, some of it was pollen. But the better marker was the sound of NCAA basketball on CBS, its theme song played throughout the season but featured most prominently -- time-out after time-out -- during March's mad tournament (which actually ends in April).
That song has never failed to excite me -- about the prospect not only of upsets and buzzer-beaters but of the end of school (even since I've left school), warm-weather success with the opposite sex, and a glorious, upcoming summer dedicated to self-improvement.
If you can hear it in your head while reading this, you've been brainwashed beautifully. If not...what's wrong with you?
What has always struck me about that theme and other faves (more on them shortly) is how detached they are from their creators. In a YouTube comments section, you'll see someone list a composer now and then -- but that's usually geek-on-geek inquiring (you're watching music written for TV on YouTube, after all).
Time to change all that. Meet the makers -- part one: Bob Christianson.
Bob Christianson, a composer/arranger/keyboard player, first wrote the NCAA on CBS theme in 1992 -- making this tourney the music's quarter-century anniversary (that it's still used, even if in modified form, attests partly to its catchiness and partly to what we've attached to it, I think).
Maybe CBS would've celebrated said 25 years if Doug Towey, the exec with whom Christianson worked (who also birthed the "One Shining Moment" montage idea) hadn't been felled by cancer at 61.
"Great guy," Christianson says. "Really great guy."
Towey used to ask three or four composers to submit work for new themes about two weeks in advance, and each composer would present a handful of options. Christianson thinks he sent in five for the NCAA package.
"He went gut instinct," Christianson says -- Towey usually listened to the demos just once before making a call.
For the tournament, Towey's native possession arrow pointed Christianson's way. Neither of them had any idea what the music would become culturally or financially (Christianson receives writer royalties each time it's played -- which makes those constant end-of-game timeouts -- viewers' bane -- his boon).
"However many demos I sent in...it's not like I wrote this piece, and said, 'Yeah this is the one.' I wish I could say I was that smart -- I wasn't. I tried to write pieces that evoked the energy of the game. It couldn't be a minor key like you could use for football or hockey. It's very up, very fast -- just like the game, [which] changes directions all the time."
Another way Christianson tried to imbue the music with the survive-and-advance spirit: He placed the sound of a basketball hitting a wooden floor in the original theme's rhythm section (that was lost during a 2008 revision of the song CBS had Christianson perform).
He would later perform a similar maneuver when going after ESPN's hockey theme, recording ice-level noises at a Buffalo Sabres game — the sounds of the blades and skates and puck -- which he inserted cleverly into the final composition (the full theme, not the intro music).
Which became the vaunted ESPN hockey theme -- that dark, almost-brooding, Batman-befitting tune that lets you know there's gonna be intense checking, shoving and shooting -- because Christianson is a (humble) boss, and that piece is so good ESPN brought it back a decade after losing its NHL rights just for college hockey.
Back then, Christianson was competing against a handful of composers -- he estimates there are 10-20 times as many competitors now ("for good and bad, basically anybody can be a composer now with a Macbook Pro and Garageband").
Christianson has a legit pedigree. He grew up in Yonkers with a father who'd played keyboard for a big band radio show during the Depression. His father introduced Christianson to the instrument when the kid was 6.
By the age of 12, Christianson was arranging and composing music. As a teenager, he was playing in rock bands in Greenwich Village, at Cafe Wha?, famed hang-out of Dylan and then Hendrix.
He liked listening to Dave Brubeck, the Beatles ("Sgt. Pepper's" convinced him he had to be a musician) -- any interesting sound.
After he received a degree from the school of music at SUNY-Potsdam (and studying composition for a time at the University of Michigan), he hit New York and began getting gigs all over town -- which he credits to luck and dependability (he says he wasn't the best, but he was never late ).
He composed lots of music for "Sex and the City," was nominated for an Emmy for PBS' "A Christmas Carol -- The Concert," and worked as a studio synthesizer-player for Aretha Franklin, Dianna Ross and countless others.
He conducted the orchestra for Gilda Radner's one-woman Broadway revue, whose writers included Paul Shaffer and Lorne Michaels. He has written for the symphony and opera.
He estimates he has written about 30 sports themes. It doesn't bother him that these have eclipsed the rest of his oeuvre in fame (among us Joe Schmoes, anyway).
Two days before we spoke, he was having a Yamaha hybrid piano delivered to his studio when one of the moving men asked him what sort of work he did. He said, "Do you watch NCAA basketball on CBS? That's my theme."
The guy went, "Oh! Duh-duh-duh-duh-duh-duh," launching into the tune.
None of this success has altered Christianson's routine -- he still has to compete for sports assignments. He recently lost the contest to create a new CBS golf theme.
"You never know," he said. "You do the best you can. You try to somehow distill [a sport} into musical rhythm, musical melody, harmonics, whatever."
Seven years ago, when CBS struck a deal with Turner Sports to air tournament games on the latter's networks, Christianson heard Turner wanted to make music of its own and was shut down by the NCAA, which views his work as canonical.
That deal was recently extended to 2032, which means a whole new generation of viewers should be exposed to that dynamic "Duh, duh, duh."
As for others' work, he thinks highly of the CBS golf theme that beat out his own and the SportsCenter intro ("It'll never go away. It's pretty simple...but it's brilliant, it works"). He dislikes the percussion-heavy, melody-light type of music Fox pioneered when its entered sports-TV (it's just not his thing).
The business has changed -- so many channels license old library music now for promos and bumpers instead of commissioning new material. And so many people submit new material, the fees for themes have plummeted.
Plus, channels used to want separate sports to sound very different. Whereas now, whether the music reflects the nature of the sport isn't a primary consideration.
And then there is YouTube. Geeks who love sports themes -- such as myself -- post every iteration of every tune, which hundreds of thousands of people then listen to -- all while Google makes money off the accompanying ads.
That's clearly wrong, though if these versions weren't online, I'd be unable to write about them or rediscover their authors.
Christianson is just damn happy he got in while the going was good. He is not a sports viewer ordinarily, but he makes March Madness the lone exception -- and has a small rooting interest.
Because of his graduate work in composition at the University of Michigan, he could be an Ann Arbor-booster. Could say to Sparty and The Ohio State -- you're playing to a maize-and-blue tune.
But he never received his Michigan degree.
Needing just to finish his thesis, Christianson was offered a musical theater gig in New York. "Shit, I need to grab this," he recalls thinking.
So he bolted the peninsula before completing his work. Which seems fitting: The man behind the sound most associated with college athletics left school early, to begin making the good pro dough he deserved.