Dallas Music Shop Balances Traditional and Contemporary in Scoring for Broadcast Sports

In the 1987 film Broadcast News, real-life film-score composers Marc Shaiman and Glen Roven had a cameo as dorky musicians trying to pitch a new theme song for the network’s nightly news broadcast. They frantically introduce the parts as they sing them — “Now comes the counter melody!” — and signal the piece’s big finish by chanting in unison, “Big finish!”

Stephen Arnold and Chad Cook know that scene well. For the president and VP of creative services, respectively, of Stephen Arnold Music, a Dallas shop that has created themes and audio logos for ESPN, ESPNU, Golf Channel, Tennis Channel, and NBC Sports, as well as the YouTube hit for the New Orleans Saints’ “Big Thang” victory song, the manic 40-second cameo belies both the lengthy and nuanced process that goes into creating music for broadcast sports and the fact that sometimes you have to get it all across in three seconds.

“Everyone is looking for their own ‘John Hancock’ of music,” says Cook, “the theme that lets fans instantly identify with the show.”

Arnold has noticed a trend in sports broadcasting that wants to retain key elements of themes that have endured for three decades, like the signature trumpets on Fox’s NFL games, but lay them atop a more contemporary rhythm bed made up of bigger bass, drums, and electric guitars.

“When you just go with the hip, driving stuff, you’re going to be flavor of the month,” he says of these hybrid tracks. “What you want is a long shelf life.”

That was the approach they took for the new theme for the CBS College Sports Network, which involved recording live marching drums atop a track laced with contemporary elements, such as electric guitars.

“They were clear about what they didn’t want: the typical big-network finish with screaming brass,” says Arnold. “Instead, the concept was to create an energetic contemporary score with guitar, electronic sounds, and driving rhythms.”

The live marching snares and roto-toms recorded in their Dallas studio were combined with guitar tracks, drum loops, and subtle electronic elements. The result is a package of :10s, :05s, and longer beds of arrangements that lay off heavy strings and horns, keeping the feel percussive and quick moving.

It’s also about keeping the brands relevant to TV sports’ broad demographics. “College sports are about tradition,” Arnold observes. “Alumni have been watching for years, and they’re faithful to their schools. At the same time, though, you need a new feel because the current student body is watching too, and that’s a younger demographic. The balancing act for CBS College Sports Network was to make music that expresses the spirit of competition and the excitement of being there for the battle but with a totally modern edge.”

When clients approach them, Arnold and Cook first get the broad strokes of what they want accomplished: what the goals are, who the show is talking to, and what it wants to communicate. They’ll then ask the clients to pick some artists whose music has a feel similar to what they’re looking for.

“You have to listen, because music adjectives like ‘edgy’ and ‘indie’ mean different things to different people,” says Cook. “In the old days, in the ’80s, when someone said make it rock & roll, they might have been referring to Barry Manilow.”

That’s followed by a lot of trial and error and tweaking of concepts. But, as in Broadcast News, it all comes down a few notes — three to seven, usually — that act as the subliminal branding bullet.

“No matter what the track is produced like, those notes are the hook: they have to be memorable even if you’re just playing them on an acoustic guitar or a piano or just whistling them,” says Cook.

Capturing the musical essence of each sport requires nuance. For instance, the themes Arnold and Cook created for SEC college basketball and football were essentially the same thematically but had subtle scoring differences. Arnold describes the former as “more funky, rhythmic, and more movement in the bass,” while football went with a more dramatic, “battle-like” sound.

Baseball benefits from Americana elements, such as harmonicas or acoustic guitars. That’s in line with the classics of the genre: Fox’s MLB theme song intersperses its horns with an ’80s guitar solo that would feel right at home in a Budweiser commercial. NFL on CBS, by comparison, has been nearly operatic, with bits of Wagnerian chorale added in one version of the theme.

Some scores need to be ambiguous thematically. Arnold’s theme for CNN World Sports, which provides news and highlights globally for soccer, golf, tennis, motorsports, sailing, and more, needed to steer clear of western-music cues like guitars and trumpets. Instead, it uses electronica and sound-design effects surrounding the bass, playing the lead melody to create a nationally amorphous sound broken into three-second modules that can link disparate sports reports.

Golf, Arnold observes, can be challenging. The assignment to refresh the Golf Channel’s Golf Central was one of a string of collaborations between Stephen Arnold Music and the Golf Channel, including the popular shows Golf in America and Top Shelf Wednesdays.

“The Golf Channel wanted a bigger sound with lots of energy to appeal to a young audience,” says Arnold. “In addition, they wanted a sonic logo with the potential to become a classic signature that people can immediately recognize and remember. I was surprised; this wasn’t your standard twinkling-acoustic-piano approach to scoring for golf.” The result was a brassy sound fattened by electric guitars and with an alternative Euro sound underneath, evocative of Coldplay or U2, he says.

Arnold and Cook are in agreement about Fox’s recent music underscoring NFL games during replays. “I find it distracting the way it’s being done,” says Cook. “Adding a soundtrack to a live game is like trying to make the experience like the Madden football video