Are You Ready for Some Football Music?

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Monday Night Football
From and

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 very, very long time.

One example is “Heavy Action,” the song that has been the theme for Monday Night Football since 1989. It 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, which, in the UK, had been dominated by light, inoffensive tunes. “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, who wrote music for the league from 1990 to 2009, “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.”

These composers 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. 

This story was produced with help from ARTSEDGE, the online education division at the Kennedy Center in Washington.

“Heavy Action” and the the NFL Films Music Library is available for license at APM Music.

Music Playlist

  1. Old Man Winter

    Artist: Tom Hedden
    Album: Autumn Thunder: 40 Years NFL Films Music
    Label: Valley
  2. Monday Night Football Theme: Heavy Action

    Artist: Sound Clash Superstars
    Label: APM Music
  3. Monday Night Football

    Artist: Instrumental All Stars
    Album: Instrumental Gold: Heard On TV, Vol. 2 Instrumental All Stars
    Label: IG Music Group