Archive for Monday, November 13, 2006

A matter of chants

Music theorists ponder why fans gravitate toward synchronicity in sports cheers

November 13, 2006


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.

The student section waves the wheat during Tuesday night's exhibition game as an Emporia State player leaves the court, having fouled out in the Kansas Jayhawks' 90-55 win over the Hornets at Allen Fieldhouse.

The student section waves the wheat during Tuesday night's exhibition game as an Emporia State player leaves the court, having fouled out in the Kansas Jayhawks' 90-55 win over the Hornets at Allen Fieldhouse.

"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.

'Birds flocking'

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.

Heaton concurs.

"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


Notable differences

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

¢ 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.

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."


Tychoman 11 years, 6 months ago

Next time I'm taking a tuner to a KU game.

muffaletta 11 years, 6 months ago

Get a life, fundamental. Wow. Seriously.

fundamental 11 years, 6 months ago

For shame, muffaletta, for shame. This is important stuff. Really, really crucial. The LJWorld thought it was important, shouldn't we all?

Hilary Morton 11 years, 6 months ago

Usually, the "rock chalk" chant starts on D. It's usually in everyone's modal range, and yes, fundamental, you're right. Males are comfortable with F as well as D, so they usually start it there. I'm so excited that the ljworld wrote such a beautiful story catering to complete music dorks such as myself!

grimpeur 11 years, 6 months ago

fundie, that was swell. I mean really top-notch.

ruette 11 years, 6 months ago

Very interesting! But one thing I've been noticing about the RC chant nowadays was not mentioned, the tendency to flatten the "U" to one note. We always did it as a sort of two-syllable, "you-oo," beginning on the higher note and then sliding to the second 'oo' on the lower, which sounds much better to my ears. Somehow more musical.

fundamental 11 years, 6 months ago

This is an interesting topic, to be sure. As a member of very fine choirs (both in the past and presently), I can attest to the difficulty of spontaneous unison pitch-setting. On the very rare occasion, our group has been known to pick the same starting pitch out of this air and start a very, very familiar piece. But our group is comprised entirely of competent musicians with training and high skill levels. What we see here is thousands of untrained non-musicians seemingly doing what we musicians struggle to do. This perception is, at least, flawed, in my opinion.

At its most base level, fandom might erroneously be assumed to be a male dominated part of society. I believe this not to be the case. Therefore, in the case of the "air-ball" chant, the choosing of mean pitch F (above middle C) represents, both a high (though almost universally attainable) pitch for most males AND a pitch in the middle-to-low register for nearly all females.

Also, the universal minor third interval is of interest here. Ever since childhood, most children have repeated (ad nauseum) the "Nah-Nah-Nah-Boo-Boo" taunt to opposing dodge ball team members. In solfeggio, the pitches for that chant are sol-mi-la-sol-mi. This descending minor third relationship between sol and mi formulates the foundation for many massive group unison chants (or MGUCs, as I like to call them), such as "air ball" and "darr-yll" in baseball stadia (ca. 1994-98). This descending interval is meant to taunt and humiliate, and is based in pre-adolescent cruelty. How appropriate, one might suppose, that it turns up in major college athletics (and beyond).

Of course, it also turns up in our own beloved Rock Chalk chant. Originally, this chant was performed in a haunting and distant fashion. Today, sadly, it has become, at times, a shouting match, followed by a rather undignified "WHOOOO!" after each repetition of the chant. This, I fear, is hardly the chant that Theodore Roosevelt mentioned with great respect as "the greatest college chant" he had yet heard. I propose we get back to the days when the Rock Chalk chant meant something of precious worth.

fundamental 11 years, 6 months ago

Thanks, y'all. It means a lot. I know people scoff at musicians in general (unless we play in a rock band), but we can contribute occasionally to a truly important matter such as this.

Leprechaunking13 11 years, 6 months ago

No Fundie, you just made us musicians look like dweebs right there, get another hobby as well as music man, honestly.

fundamental 11 years, 6 months ago

Well, I guess the overarching tongue-in-cheek tone of my post did not come through in the way I had intended. I obviously understand the very low level of importance of this subject. I thought that was pretty clear. Please believe me, I rarely take myself seriously at all, and almost never in music theory. I was just having some fun.

billygreen 10 years, 2 months ago

Can I download it from somewhere?

Love how this one is done without the crowd!

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