​Classical music for bros: The origins of the NFL’s theme music

Studio 360
Monday Night Football (ESPN)

The Monday Night Football logo.

ESPN

There was a time when corporate identification was conveyed as much through music as it was through images. You didn't even need words. People heard the song, and they knew the product. This form of branding is now almost extinct, mostly because television audiences are so fragmented.

Except in the one area where people still consistently watch live TV: sports. And for NFL football, the TV networks are still branding the games with musical signatures that go back a long time.

“Football music is ... trombones, cellos, horn,” says Tom Hedden who wrote the music for NFL Films from 1990 to 2009, “[And violins] have the dexterity and agility to really make a sound that matches the speed of the players. And that gives you almost onomatopoeia for what you're seeing visually.”

One example is “Heavy Action,” the song that has been the theme for Monday Night Football since 1989. It was written by Johnny Pearson, who was British and never actually watched American football. He didn’t write “Heavy Action” for football, either — it was aimed at the commercial music market.

“This was a different approach. This was very punchy,” says Adrian Kerridge, who was Pearson’s studio engineer and producer. “It’s very lively. It’s in-your-face, really.” 

Years later, when an employee for ABC heard “Heavy Action” in a music publisher’s library, the network ditched its original, Hammond organ-driven Monday Night Football theme in favor of Pearson's ditty.

Music became indispensable to NFL Films by conveying emotion at an epic scale. According to Tom Hedden, “Point of view in filmmaking is part of what music can do. With NFL Films, the point of view has to overcome the inherent team loyalty of the audience.” 

Consider a sympathetic story about a wide receiver for the Giants that ends with him catching a touchdown pass over a Dallas cornerback. “If you show a Cowboys fan the Giants scoring a touchdown,” Hedden says, “they’re not going to be empathetic without some coercion, and music is a very powerful way to coerce the audience.”

The origins of the NFL on Fox theme are from an unlikely source: Batman. 

In 1994, after landing the contract to broadcast NFL games, Fox Sports’ founder David Hill was on the hunt for a theme song. He had just taken his kids to an amusement park, and loved the Batman music he’d heard there on one of the rides.

Commercial jingle writer Scott Schrear got the chance to write a song that he was instructed to make sound like a “Batman on steroids.”

The composers writing songs for the NFL are using the same tricks classical music composers have used for centuries — combinations of pitch, tempo, rhythm, dynamics and melody — that resonate in the human subconscious to evoke emotion. Today, football fans will sit rapt in concert halls, listening to the Green Bay Civic Symphony or the Philadelphia Orchestra play the soundtrack of their favorite sport. 

It is, as PRI contributor Richard Paul points out, “classical music for bros.”

This story first aired on PRI's Studio 360 with Kurt Andersen.