At the end of nearly every Kansas University home basketball game - at least the ones the Jayhawks win - the Allen Fieldhouse crowd turns into a 16,300-member choir.
Fans chant: "Rock, Chalk! Jayhawk! KU!"
The chant, also a mainstay at football games, is known around the world as being one of the longest-standing traditions in college sports history.
To fans, the chant is a way to mark a victory. But to music theorists, it presents an interesting challenge: Who decides what note the chant will start on?
"At Iowa State (the football game two weeks ago), some KU fans down in the corner decided it was time for the chant," says Tom Stidham, associate director of bands. "But they started singing it way too high."
So why is it that the Rock Chalk Chant sometimes leaves fans screeching at the top of their ranges, while other times it leaves singers grumbling in the lowest stretches of their voices?
We decided to consult an expert on the topic of basketball chants: Cherrill P. Heaton.
Heaton is a retired English professor from the University of North Florida who now lives in Gainesville.
His career was based in literature, but his claim to fame was an article he had published in a 1992 edition of the journal "Popular Music and Society."
The article was titled "Air Ball: Spontaneous Large Group Precision Chanting." It concludes that basketball crowds tend to start on the note F and then transition to D when they're chanting "air ball!" after an opponent completely misses the basket. It didn't offer an explanation for why the particular notes were reproduced the same way across the country.
"As any director of a church choir or secular chorus knows, getting a mere 20 or 30 trained singers to sing or chant together and in tune is not always easy," Heaton wrote in the article. "Yet without direction, instruction, a conductor or a pitch pipe, thousands of strangers, massed in indoor stadiums and arenas are able, if stimulated by an air ball, to chant 'air ball' in total and rhythmic unison."
Heaton's paper was made famous when syndicated columnist Dave Barry wrote about it in 1995. (Barry, for the record, attributed the synonymous notes to space aliens.)
The "Rock Chalk" chant, Heaton says, provides a different scenario.
First off, there's the pre-game KU ritual. The pep band usually plays the "Star Spangled Banner" in the key of A-flat, and the song ends on an A-flat. The KU alma mater, which follows, also ends on an A-flat. Then, the "Rock Chalk" chant always begins on an A-flat, then moves to an F.
But by the time fans spontaneously start the chant hours later, they've heard dozens of pieces of music on the loudspeakers.
"Some people have the ability to remember notes like that and reproduce them," Heaton says. "I doubt that most of them would be able to reproduce the tone they heard in the first half. Many people can't reproduce a tone they heard two seconds ago."
It's also different, Heaton says, because one fan or a small group of fans start the "Rock Chalk" chant on their own, and it spreads through the crowd. In the "air ball" chant, everyone starts at the same time.
That leads to the theory proposed by Kip Haaheim, an assistant professor of music at KU.
"My suspicion," he says, "is it is sort of a phenomenon like birds flocking - one or two people match pitch with the first sound they hear, which then becomes the dominant tendency that spreads quickly to the whole group."
In that case, Haaheim says, "Rock Chalk" is like "Happy Birthday" or "The Star Spangled Banner" - people tend to grab a note out of the blue, and then the tune sometimes proves challenging to sing in its entirely.
"The crowd may be at the mercy of the small group that starts the chant, and there is perhaps no telling at which pitch level they will start," Heaton says. "Perhaps (they start) at the pitch level comfortable for the loudest person in the group, as often happens when people start to sing 'Happy Birthday.'"
Rock Chalk, Jayhawk, KU
Stidham, the KU band director, hasn't exactly tracked the range of the "Rock Chalk" chant.
But, even though the official version is in A-flat, there are many variations that have started at the end of KU games. For example:
¢ KU football fans, at the end of the Fort Worth Bowl game last December, chanted in C-sharp, according to analysis of a video posted on Youtube.com.
¢ Last Tuesday's basketball game against Emporia State found fans chanting in the key of D - either significantly higher or lower than the A-flat key played by the band, depending on your vocal preferences.
(And, even though the usual "air ball" chant starts on an F note, the frequent chant that went against Emporia State Tuesday night started on a solid F-sharp - proving, to diehard Jayhawks, that KU fans are, indeed, sharper than the average college basketball fan.)
"At some games, the crowd starts that 'Rock Chalk' chant in a terrible key," Stidham says. "Usually it's too high. That's affected by the excitement of the moment when a fan starts doing it. If it's exciting, it's usually too high."
He prefers a chant somewhere in the middle, making it comfortable for musicians to harmonize - usually a third-step higher than the original note.
Check it out
Heaton remains a basketball fan, subscribing to the NBA cable package in his area. He says he doesn't much follow KU basketball, or its chants.
But, he admits, there must be something to "Rock Chalk" - whatever key it's in.
"Can't argue with success," he says. "KU folks love it, and that's all that counts."