Music of Champions: How CBC and NBC Olympic Themes Shape Our Differences

By Pegley, Kip; Associate Professor of Music et al. | The Canadian Press, February 7, 2018 | Go to article overview

Music of Champions: How CBC and NBC Olympic Themes Shape Our Differences


Pegley, Kip, Associate Professor of Music, University, Queen's, Ontario, The Canadian Press


Music of champions: How CBC and NBC Olympic themes shape our differences

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This article was originally published on The Conversation, an independent and nonprofit source of news, analysis and commentary from academic experts. Disclosure information is available on the original site.

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Author: Kip Pegley, Associate Professor of Music, Queen's University, Ontario

What role does music play at the Olympics?

Audiences are usually aware of the moods music can evoke during emotionally heightened moments, like national anthems at medal ceremonies. Yet we rarely consider the Olympic theme music used by major media networks as something that helps to frame sports coverage.

It's the theme music that fills our ears before and after commercials and quietly accompanies their intimate athlete profiles. That theme music can actually have an impact on the way we view sports.

I compared the music of NBC and CBC -- the official Olympic networks in the United States and Canada -- to explore what might be revealed in the differences of the cultures of sounds between the two countries.

NBC's Olympic theme is arguably the most memorable in sport. To understand why it is so unforgettable, we first must consider the musical catalogue of its composer, John Williams. Williams has been credited for writing "the soundtrack of our lives."

Since the 1970s he has written the movie soundtracks for generations of Western movie goers -- giving many of us music to accompany our lives. These movies include hits like Jaws, Star Wars, Superman, E. T., Indiana Jones, Home Alone and Harry Potter. Williams not only captured the American film score sound, he defined it.

When we listen to the Olympic Theme we must consider this music alongside his previous scores -- all those movie scores that that have trained our ears to respond to particular musical gestures as moods and emotions.

Musical gestures can be gendered

So what are these musical gestures and how are we trained to respond? There are numerous means by which we can analyze these gestures and their associations. By examining the scores and noticing how all aspects of the music -- the themes, orchestration, stylistic decisions, etc. -- consistently align with particular characters and events, certain patterns begin to emerge.

Let's consider how musical codes can be gendered. Musicologist Phillip Tagg has analyzed how, musically speaking, masculinity and femininity have been represented since the 1970s.

Female leads are often depicted by flowing melodies dominated by strings and woodwind instruments. For example, there is Williams' score for the Lois Lane's theme from Superman.

Male characters, meanwhile, tend to be more consistently associated with music that is more up tempo, with more staccato articulation and shorter note lengths. The melodies for male heroes tend to have more leaps, and the instrumentation is dominated by brass and percussion. This description, not coincidentally, applies to the music for Superman himself.

Because these musical codes for "femininity" and "masculinity" are continuously repeated within popular culture, including across Williams' scores, we have been trained to hear them as "soft" and loving" (female) or "strong" and "determined" (male). Gender becomes musically audible.

Olympic themes through the years

Williams wrote the NBC theme for the 1984 Los Angeles Olympic Summer Games. The work lasts almost four minutes, and contains several sections.

It opens with Leo Arnaud's "Bugler's Dream"(0:00 to 0:46); at 0:46, Williams moves into his first fanfare in the trumpets -- a striving, strenuous, leaping idea which we hear three times before they finally reach their melodic goal on the fourth attempt -- the highest note they play in the entire work.

A snare drum then leads us into the "Olympic Theme" (at 1:06), marked by a flowing melodic idea with smooth articulations in the strings and horns. …

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