Sports Nut

Da-Da-Da-DAT-Dat, Da-Da-Da

How the John Williams of TV sports wrote CBS’s iconic NCAA theme.

NCAA players Willie Cauley-Stein, Gavin Schilling, and Sam Dekker.

Photo illustration by Slate. Photos by Getty Images, Thinkstock.

Watching March Madness on CBS—and, nowadays, the Turner cable networks—has long been an exercise in consistency. There’s Jim Nantz’s smarm, Clark Kellogg’s no-frills analysis, Bill Raftery’s seasonal onion-farming.

And then there’s that theme.

A network mainstay since 1993, the “CBS NCAA Basketball Theme” has graced countless studio show intros, thousands of commercial outros, and anything in between that might require the inspiring lift of a catchy music bed. Its synth-based hook is neither jarring nor boring. It doesn’t offensively wedge itself into the walls of your inner-ear the way some ringtones or fad summer songs will do, which to say it serves a middle-ground function perfectly: You simply know when it’s there.

The theme is the work of Bob Christianson, who is, essentially, the John Williams of TV sports theme composition. (Williams himself composed several versions of the Olympic theme and NBC’s Sunday Night Football theme, but he’s not as prolific as Christianson in the realm of sports soundtracks.) He has written, by his count, 26 major themes, efforts that have given life to the World Cup, Super Bowl, Winter Olympics, America’s Cup sailing, baseball, hockey, football, golf, weekend highlight shows, and much more. A considerable portion of his music still stands among the most memorable ever composed for televised sports. (His CBS baseball intro—perhaps the only good result from one of the worst TV rights contracts ever signed—is orchestral-sounding and sweeping but with a melodic drop-off after about 15 seconds; you can hear where the announcer’s voice would naturally cut in as the riff continues.)

But the one theme he has written that has eclipsed them all is the CBS anthem, which remains on the air to this day. As Joe Burris of the Baltimore Sun wrote in 2007, “at this time of year, the sound is more familiar than your doorbell.” Very few sports themes have ever achieved the same kind of ubiquity and longevity.

Part of that has to do with the fact that CBS has owned the tournament rights for so long—since 1982, or 11 years before Christianson wrote the first version of the current theme—but there’s more to it than that. TV sports themes are supposed to maintain some air of obvious invisibility. They should be thematic and recognizable, but not obtrusive to the point where viewers want to change the channel, say, when it’s played following so many excruciating final-minute timeouts and commercial breaks. Christianson’s CBS theme sounds modern without feeling like it’s stuck in a particular genre; it’s fluid and pleasant and once it’s gone you don’t miss it because it was never meant to be the focal point. That’s why, according to Christianson, when Turner Sports took over as a major March Madness rights holder five years ago and tried to muscle out the iconic theme for something newer, both CBS and the NCAA stepped in to stop the change.

When a new composer was brought in to rearrange Christianson’s work, barely anything was changed at all. “It was exactly my theme—the orchestration’s the same, the tempo’s the same,” he says. “I’m just guessing, but this guy probably did something new and great and maybe they ended up saying, ‘It doesn’t sound like the theme.’ ”

Now in his 60s, Christianson still lives in the same Chelsea townhouse with the basement studio where he first composed the theme more than 20 years ago. The note-structure (E-E-F-G-C-A-G-G) you hear today was the foundation of just one of several possibilities passed along to Doug Towey, the legendary CBS Sports creative director who oversaw all aspects of the network’s biggest sports productions and had an especially good ear for music. In 1987, he’d championed the use of the now iconic “One Shining Moment” as the network’s tournament montage soundtrack.

“Even back in those days, they didn’t want to just hear piano,” Christianson says, “so it had to be a full demo with rhythm, guitar, synth horns, the whole thing.” He knew Towey would want a five-to-10–second open (perfect for introducing graphics out of a commercial break) and a more fleshed-out one-minute intro cue. The professionally produced demos meant a lot of prep work on Christianson’s part, and there was no guarantee CBS Sports would bite, especially with several other composers’ works in contention.

In the end, Towey went with Christianson, a trusted commodity who’d already scored the network’s MLB and NFL packages. Still, it was a career-making moment for Christianson, who’d graduated in 1972 with a degree in music from SUNY-Potsdam and spent the next 20 years hopping around the New York music scene. Scoring commercials, conducting Broadway shows, performing as a session musician—he’d pretty much done all he could do, but nothing had stuck as much as his NCAA on CBS theme would.

Christianson is painfully modest about having a prominent theme live on for 22 years, resurrected annually and without fail. “So much of this is voodoo,” he says, “pure luck,” but that notion belies the sincere thought he puts into his sports compositions. In addition to preparing full demos beforehand, he works to incorporate game sounds into his work insofar as they can blend seamlessly, almost subconsciously, into the sound. John Tesh can hop around a stage and mime the act of dribbling a basketball before performing his well-known “Roundball Rock,” the one-time theme for the NBA on NBC, but Christianson actually incorporated that motion, working an electro-bounce-bounce-bounce into the rhythm track of his original March Madness theme. (It’s tough to miss, as it almost totally comprises the full three seconds of the intro and effectively keeps the beat throughout.) He did the same thing while writing the classic NHL on ESPN theme in the early ’90s. The company flew him up to Buffalo, where he taped in-game ambient sound on his DAT recorder and subtly worked in the effects to what viewers heard on TV.

It’s a different time now, Christianson laments. The era that gave rise to his best work and Tesh’s “Roundball Rock” and John Colby’s ubiquitous SportsCenter theme no longer exists. He considers himself a “melodist,” someone who specializes in catchy background snippets of notes that can play well to consumers. “It’s not just the groove, it’s not just the orchestrations,” he says. “I want the melody to become an earworm so they can identify the music with the sport. So if they’re in another room, and they hear da-da-da-DAT-dat, they know it’s basketball.”

Sports networks, he says, have largely moved away from that approach in favor of more hard-rock motifs. Some networks, like Fox, simply don’t want an established melody, so they can use the same generic-sounding groove for all sports. So it’s no surprise that perhaps Christianson’s most well-known recent work has come away from sports. He’s scored numerous TV shows on Discovery Channel and Travel Channel, promos for HBO’s Game of Thrones, and dozens of scenes from Sex and the City, including the series finale.

For Christianson, the subject matter ultimately matters little. It’s about catching the listener’s ear and holding it for 10 or 30 or 60 seconds, whatever the task. If anything, making a career as a melodist has forced him to treat every second of airtime as sacred and to simply work to let the music serve its purpose without overthinking things.

Christianson still works regularly—he even received an Emmy nomination last year for his work on the PBS special A Christmas Carol: The Concert, a decidedly sports-free production—but his theme for the NCAA on CBS will likely end up his most enduring accomplishment.

And that’s OK with Christianson, since every time CBS or Turner plays his melody going to break with yet another soul-crushing timeout, a few more coins go into his own pocket. “Every time that thing plays and I hear it, I go ka-ching,” he says with a laugh. “But I am so grateful this has lasted this long.”

Based on its survival after the last major NCAA TV contract, the theme is safe through 2024, when the current CBS/Turner rights deal ends. If Nantz and Raftery can survive as long as they have, you’ve got to like the theme’s chances as well.