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THE PERFECT SCORE

The Baltimore Sun

If you're a fan of college basketball, chances are you know this tune -- the notes E-E-F-G-C-A-G-G.

For those who cannot read musical notes, the sequence might seem as imperceptible as the Pythagorean theorem. But at this time of year, the sound is more familiar than your doorbell. It's called the "CBS NCAA Basketball Theme."

It is all but inescapable this month, particularly within earshot of a television or radio tuned to one of the men's college basketball tournament games. It's played at the start of every contest, during game breaks, at halftime, during promos. Team pep bands play it. Fans sing it, or at least whistle or hum it. Most folks can name that tune.

Bob Christianson, also known for his music in the former HBO hit Sex and the City, composed it in his basement studio in a New York brownstone in 1992. Ever since, the "CBS NCAA Basketball Theme" has garnered a life of its own, becoming as mainstream as some of the best-known themes from movies or TV.

Some theme music for televised sporting events have become so popular they become part of the events themselves. Like Christmas music for kids anticipating gifts each December, they stoke anticipation among fans and, like seasonal tunes, only emerge annually or, in the case of the Olympics, every few years.

Composers who are used to working in a more insular discipline find themselves thrust into the intersection of sport and pop culture, where their tunes are enjoyed by millions. They can also earn a decent income off the royalties, as much as $100,000 a year or more per song. Networks typically own the publishing rights, and the composers receive a writer's share of residuals.

"My father played in big bands, and he did everything to dissuade me from music," said Christianson, in describing his own musical career, "but when I started making more money than him, he shut up."

His basketball theme is among a few sports themes that have reached novelty status, from the triumphal score that introduces NFL games on the Fox network to the "Bugler's Dream and Olympic Fanfare" medley by legendary composer John Williams. Williams was commissioned to blend his own score with composer Leo Arnaud's famed brass fanfare that had been an Olympics staple since 1968.

For Christianson, the NCAA theme is among the highlights of a musical legacy that stretches back to his accordion-playing great-grandfather William Christianson, who played to earn his fare to immigrate to America from Sweden. Bob Christianson began playing piano at 5 at his home in Yonkers, N.Y., and composing songs by age 12. He once dreamed of becoming "the next Billy Joel," but dashed record deals put an end to that.

He found his calling in, among other things, the world of theme composition. When he wrote the entry for the "CBS NCAA Basketball Theme," Christianson hoped to devise something that would beat out eight other entrants. He began with no outline or basketball muse beyond being a University of Michigan fan from his days as a music grad student there. He sat before his piano and experimented with about eight or nine notes.

Composing on and off for about three days, he came up with something catchy, R&B-based; and melodic. Then he compared the tune to his previous compositions (including some for the old CBS show, Sports Spectacular), to ensure that he hadn't inadvertently sampled from himself.

"In all honesty, most of the time when you're writing, you don't know where it comes from," Christianson said. "You let your mind wander at the piano, and it pops into your head. You get into the mechanics, the melody, the counter-melody. At the end of the piece, there are all sorts of mechanics. The hardest part is coming up with the notes."

While speaking on the phone in his New York office, Christianson sat at a piano and offered an impromptu playing of the theme that has endured for 15 years. Even he's been taken aback by its popularity. CBS did retool it a few times, revising its percussive elements and adding more of an orchestra sound.

"I've been lucky that they've used it since 1992. When you write themes you never know whether they'll use it for one year or 20," said Christianson, who also teamed with Baltimore Symphony Orchestra music director-designate Marin Alsop for the popular production Too Hot to Handel, a hip-hop and jazz version of Handel's Messiah.

Scott Schreer said that he and co-composers Phil Garrod and Reed Hays came up with the score for the NFL on Fox after the network's CEO David Hill asked the trio to create something that gave the listener a vision of "Batman on steroids."

"That really rang a bell in all of us," said Schreer, whose New York company is called Not Just Jingles. "The music needed to be big, edgy, aggressive, heroic, possibly even dark at times. That's what we took away from the comment, and we injected those adjectives into the NFL on Fox theme musically."

The theme has been used since 1994: Think of Ravens games on Fox that begin with the triumphant horn blasts and gladiator drums.

"I think it definitely moves you," said Schreer, who also composed the network themes for its broadcasts of Major League Baseball, the National Hockey League and NASCAR. "The sound of what we created was not like any other sports theme on the air."

Many composers say sports themes lend themselves to creativity, but not much latitude. There is a certain type of score that works for a football audience that wouldn't necessarily work for basketball, baseball or tennis. But for most, the theme begins with the rhythm, a beat that is akin to the pace and speed and intensity of the sport.

"In tennis, the rhythm is less intense than in football, baseball or hockey," said composer Clark Gault, who composed themes for three Super Bowls, Wimbledon and the French Open. "In general, we would get a rhythmic feeling, make it infectious and put a melody on top of it. In tennis, we would do something that floated like a tennis ball. In football, we would try to invoke the feeling of a pass or a kick."

Allyson Bellink, who composed music for the NBA playoffs, the Indianapolis 500 and Monday Night Football, said she watches footage of sporting events and synchronizes the music with the image. While composing a basketball theme, she said, "I try to pick up that motion in the music without being too obvious. And I might put in the background a very fast pulse, like 'dega-dega-dega-dega-da,' but give it a pulse for the motion of the piece. And above it, I'll write a catchy theme that will capture the excitement of basketball so people will remember it."

"Composing's very lonely," she said. "You do it alone in your room for hours and you take orders from lots of people. The payoff is that day when you sit down and hear your music bursting through the TV speakers."

Still, it's rare that theme composers gain the kind of notoriety enjoyed by Williams, an Academy Award winner who in addition to composing the theme for four Olympic Games is noted for such film scores as Jaws, E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial, Raiders of the Lost Ark and Schindler's List.

Christianson said he doesn't tell many folks that he composed the NCAA theme, but occasionally he can't resist a moment of self-promotion when he enters a sports bar during March and hears the theme blaring on TV.

He may tell the nearest patron: "I just made another two dollars."

joseph.burris@baltsun.com

Hear songs

Can't wait until tomorrow night's NCAA men's basketball tournament or next season's NFL to hear your favorite sports themes?

For Bob Christianson's "CBS NCAA Tournament Theme," log onto bobchristianson.com/tvthemes.html. Click on the box with the "CBS NCAA Championship" logo. Then click "play."

For Scott Schreer's NFL on Fox theme, log on to njjmusic.com. The music plays automatically.

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