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, have a listen to 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. This section is more closely aligned with Williams’ lead female characters from his previous scores. At 1:52, we move into a more syncopated, livelier melody, eventually leading us back at 2:55 to the louder, “active” fanfare, after which the theme and the fanfare are heard together.
Williams’ Olympic music is a dramatic soundtrack that offers both soft, legato string melodies and active brass fanfares that have then been used by the network to shape tele-visual moments (like female or male athlete profiles) according to the emotional affect they sought to create.
The NBC Olympic mini-soundtrack as a brand is largely unchanging: While NBC “mines” the soundtrack to produce shorter excerpts appropriate for their coverage, the piece otherwise is not altered.
CBC’s attempts to adapt
How does this short soundtrack compare with the music used for CBC’s Olympic and Paralympic Games coverage? The CBC Olympic Theme, written by Marc Cholette, has been used since 1988; it is infused with trumpets and percussion which signify strength.
Unlike Williams’ music, however, there is only one theme; it is “active,” the dynamics are consistent throughout, and there is no dramatic change of orchestral colour between families of instruments. While the music builds to the theme’s highest pitch at the end (thus symbolizing achievement), never do the instruments push to their limits through extreme range or technical demands, never going beyond their comfort zones to what is just beyond reach.
Given Williams’ ubiquitous soundscapes within which most Westerners have been musically “earwashed,” it is perhaps understandable why listeners might hear the CBC theme as less dramatic.
But what really distinguishes the CBC theme from Williams’ music is what happens to it every two years: The CBC adapts it to incorporate the musical styles of the country.
Melding disparate musical sounds into one new work is part of the CBC’s mandate. In the early 2000s, the network was under pressure to make their programming more multicultural and so they shifted their focus to incorporate more “fusion programming.” This involved bringing together musicians from different cultures, styles and languages to see whether they might be able to find new ways to collaborate.
While the CBC’s intentions may have been good, the results have been mixed. According to ethnomusicologist Rebecca Draisey-Collishaw, the musical output has not served to reflect creative and multicultural “meetings” between different musical traditions. Instead it more often represents — musically — cultural minorities being assimilated into mainstream, white, Anglo codes that serve to reinforce the status quo.
A contemporary version of “multicultural fusion” is evident in the CBC’s music for the upcoming 2018 Winter Games in Pyeongchang, South Korea.
The updated theme, written by composer Tim Weston and staff at creative audio agency Grayson Matthews, opens with a voice accompanied by synthesized strings; at 0:09, the composers add a janggu (a Korean drum) and a gayageum (a 12-string zither-like instrument). The janggu and gayageum are perhaps the traditional Korean instruments most familiar to Westerners.
At about 0:22, listen for how the Korean instruments are “assimilated” into a Western framework of meter, chord progressions and catchy syncopation.
Finally, the piece closes with a modified version of the CBC Olympic Theme:
The NBC and CBC Olympic themes are markedly different. The American network uses a soundtrack that is both unchanging and grounded in codes developed within movie soundtracks over the last half century.
The CBC theme, meanwhile, is less dramatic but celebrates itself as a fusion of musical traditions. Unlike American audiences, Canadians travel sonically beyond their borders. While an admirable project, on closer analysis, this music — like many of the CBC’s previous fusion experiments like Fuse, a national radio program that aired between 2005 and 2008 — seems to appropriate sound to “add spice” to Western sonorities. Case in point: They even describe the theme as “Korean flavoured” on the website.
By choosing traditional Korean instruments, they limit the representation of South Korea as a society that is traditional and dated, and perhaps less modern than Canada.
This February, I invite you not only to watch the Olympic coverage but listen to it and consider how music — a seemingly benign medium — does its ideological work.