When the band is in the stands, it is the biggest rooting section in the stadium and brings an infectious energy to help everyone pump up the team.
Band members are intimately familiar with the military precision and Broadway-esque showmanship of their field shows, but most audiences are likely more aware of the pep tunes—such as “Hey! Baby,” “Sweet Caroline,” the “William Tell Overture,” “The Imperial March” or … the list goes on and on—that they perform at sporting events.
Students will sing along to the tunes of their school fight songs as they cheer their teams to victory. Though individual song sets may differ, all college and high school marching bands look to bring noise, excitement, and spirit to their teams and fans.
From the Oldies to Today
At school sporting events, audiences can expect to hear a wide variety of music. As music evolves, so too does each band’s music selection. Any genre is fair game, from classic pop and rock tunes to jazz standards like “Sing, Sing, Sing” by Benny Goodman. Audiences can expect to hear “Paint It Black” by The Rolling Stones at one moment and the “Mortal Kombat” theme song the next.
“We try to have a huge variety, from ‘Hey! Baby’ all the way up to ‘Bad Romance,’” says Jennifer Gordon, band director at Indiana University Southeast in New Albany, Indiana. “My hope is that we have at least one song that everyone in the crowd will enjoy. We will go from old to new and everything in between.”
The pep band has found that “Freebird” is in the right key for bagpipe solos, and “Through the Fire and Flames” by Dragonforce always draws attention with its ludicrous speed.
Bands pull from a wide range of sources for their sets of music. Favorites like “Rocky Top” at the University of Tennessee in Knoxville are permanent fixtures in the repertoire, but band directors look to their staff and students for new material. Not only does this music rotation keep the audience entertained with something for everyone, but the band members also get the opportunity to play marching band arrangements of their favorite tunes.
“We have four or five school songs and a rotating selection of songs that can change sometimes week to week,” says Benjamin Parker, president of the University of Pennsylvania Band in Philadelphia. “It includes songs ranging from traditional marches to things that were written last year. We don’t limit ourselves to any genre.”
Amusingly enough, “Rocky Top” became more iconic than University of Tennessee’s own fight song, “Down the Field,” and was even named one of the top 15 college fight songs in 2015 in a story on NFL.com.
Calling the Shots
Depending on whether the team is on offense or defense, bands typically play different selections for different plays. “Our team talks about building brick by brick, so we play ‘Another Brick in the Wall’ by Pink Floyd,” says Dr. Donald Ryder, director of the Pride of the Southland Marching Band at the University of Tennessee. “We try to play types of music that have a significance to the play being run.”
For example, the band uses “Iron Man” for strong defenses and draws from a set of 55 different tunes that include everything from ’50s rock to the “Mickey Mouse March” throughout the game.
“What [the band does] is kind of like a disc jockey at a wedding,” Ryder says. “You have to be able to play music for all ages, from the kids all the way to the seniors. We try to reflect the game but also to entertain and bring a high level of energy to the stadium.”
While not as intricate and involved as a field show, a band’s stand songs still require talented arranging to translate modern pop tunes into a marching band version that is enjoyable to play and hear. Classical works such as Gustav Holst’s “Mars” translate easily into a band arrangement, but music by Katy Perry less so.
“We have a library of music that we’ve built up over the course of 119 years,” Parker says. “Periodically our drum majors and director go through it and see if there’s anything they want to pull out and use. Often what happens is we play something when it’s new, and when people get tired of it, we put it back, and then we pull it out again later. It’s a very open process.”
Some enterprising band members take it upon themselves to add a personal touch to their band’s set of tunes. At Hernando (Mississippi) High School, a bass drum player by the name of Billy Walker worked with a band director and several other band members to compose “Billy’s Beat,” which has been a staple for the band at Hernando High School’s football games since the 1990s. The piece heavily features the drumline, particularly a cymbal player who performs elaborate cymbal flashes and high kicks at the front of the band while the rest of the band and the crowd mimic his actions.
“When the cymbal player starts [doing the choreography], the rest of the band mimics the cymbal flashes that he does,” says Victoria Jones, assistant band director at Hernando High School. “‘Billy’s Beat’ is the biggest highlight of what we do in our set.”
Leading the Crowd
Music in motion is just one duty of the marching band during a sporting event. When not on the field, the band’s job is to bring excitement to the crowd and the team through music and cheers. During defense the band can bring doom and gloom for the opponent with ominous charts such as the aforementioned “Mars.” On offense the tone can switch entirely, amping up the team with fight songs. And the crowd itself can even get in on the fun, dancing to the music, chanting, and clapping along with the band.
“We definitely bring a unique energy and atmosphere to [our basketball] games,” Gordon says. “We really pride ourselves on working together [with our cheerleaders] to create a positive atmosphere for our team.”
College and high school sports provide an experience unique from professional sports as the students have more of a reason to get personally invested in the game. The band is there to capitalize on this excitement, and many student spectators end up singing along to tunes such as the ever-popular “Hey! Baby,” slow dancing to the beginning of “Freebird,” or chanting along with the band and cheerleaders.
“There was a game in Missouri that the band was not in attendance, and our starting quarterback came to our practice [afterward],” Ryder says. “The first thing he told the band was, ‘Believe me, it is very noticeable when the band is not there. The energy of the crowd is so different when the band is in the house.’ It’s obvious that we can get the crowd into the game, keep them into the game, and the coach and the team have really picked up on that.”
Along with music, bands provide another cheering section for the game, only with nice uniforms and more coordination than most crowds. “The band is the largest cheering section at a football game, and it’s our job along with the cheerleaders to pump up the crowd,” Jones says. “Anything that helps that, I am all for. Whenever the band seems really into it, that exciting energy spreads across the stands.”
Chants can include anything from cheering on a star player to wacky distractions for the opponent. Indiana University Southeast band members, for example, make amusing references to “Finding Nemo” by chanting, “Mine, mine, mine,” and flapping their arms on defensive possessions during the university’s basketball games.
“We also say what the opposing team is doing,” Gordon says. “If they’re bouncing the ball, we chant, ‘Bounce!’; if they pass, we [say], ‘Pass!’; and if they just stand there, we go, ‘Think! Think! Think!’”
Even off the field, a marching band is always in motion. From simple clapping to elaborate horn flashes and high kicks, there is always a visual element to the band’s performance. Anyone from students up to the coaches can have input, and dances can be elaborately choreographed or completely improvised. The band can do the dances from the latest and greatest music videos or just a simple swaying back-and-forth to “Hey! Baby” again.
“Along with the variety of music, we also use horn moves and such to provide a visual connection,” Ryder says. “The fans both see and hear the band during the game, and I think that also raises the energy level.”
For high schools and colleges, a well-organized marching band can galvanize a rowdy student body and the rest of the fans to make a real difference in the atmosphere of the game.
“I think that the difference between professional sports and college sports is you just root for a professional team,” Parker says. “In college sports, you have a whole community coming out to represent a school. The real bridge between the team and the student body is the band and the cheerleaders. They give people the sense that there’s a community behind the team, and it’s more than just putting points on the board.”