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Symphonic Music That Captures The Grit and Glory of NFL Football

Jordan August/Mann Center for the Performing Arts
The Philadelphia Orchestra playing the score for NFL Films' A Championship Season at the Mann Center

It's football season! We're excited to watch the plays on the field from the snaps to the passes to the touchdowns. Football also means music. WRTI's Susan Lewis went to NFL Films in Mount Laurel, NJ to get the scoop about how football films use the rich sound of orchestral music to help tell their stories.

A recent summer concert at the Mann Center in West Fairmount Park brought together fans of football and fans of The Philadelphia Orchestra for a screening of A Championship Season—a film tribute to the Eagles and their history leading up to the 2018 Superbowl, with seven orchestral works played live by The Philadelphia Orchestra.

An unlikely pairing? Not at all.

Where once 'football music' was mostly marches played by pep bands, NFL Films has been joining sweeping orchestral music with great football for for over half a century.

Telling stories 'Hollywood style'

David Robidoux

"The company in general goes back to Ed and Steve Sabol who started it," says David Robidoux, music director and composer for NFL Films.  Yes, the company has an inhouse music director who composes original music, continuing a legacy started back in the early '60s.  

"Steve was the creative genius. His idea was, let's do what Hollywood does. Let's take this big dramatic music and marry it to this new way of storytelling for football.  He teamed up with the original composer Sam Spence. They're the ones that came up with this idea to say, let's take French horns, and strings and big percussion and put it to this sport."

Football is many things: a showcase of athletic prowess, and recently, citizen protest; a hard-hitting game of strategy and struggle, sometimes with serious injuries; a sport with stories of perseverence, determination, and triumph on the field and off.

NFL Films has been documenting, and telling those stories since 1962, with multiple cameras and microphones at the games collecting images and sound like never before; giving the viewer a more personal glimpse into the game—and the people who play it.

And afterwards, using music to reinforce the drama.

"Steve was very much into branding, identity, and doing something original. That's really what music is about, isn't it?" says Robidoux. "I think everybody in music, even listeners, are kind of looking for something that gives them an emotion that they didn't get before."

Just what that emotion is varies, he says. "Sometimes we're trying to get the viewer to feel the emotion I want to feel when I watch or hear someone talk. But then other times I want to put you in the emotion of the player at that moment."

Where the Music is Made

David Robidoux composes at a computer in an office filled with musical instruments:  drumset in the corner, guitars on the wall, a hang drum (that looks a little like a wok) sitting next to his keyboard. That came in handy for a show about an Eagles game dubbed 'The Fog Bowl.'

Hang drum

"That was a famous game because at halftime, this fog rolled in, literally almost like a Hollywood effect.  And you couldn't see anything.  So that was my task—what is that musically? I always wanted to get a hang drum; the sound of that is perfect—it's so alien, but yet there's something earthy about it and it feels like nature. So that's what we used.

NFL Films has a sprawling state-of-the art film and TV production facility, with a sound stage, a performance studio big enough for a live orchestra, archives with over 100 million feet of football action, multiple editing rooms, and hallways lined with football history.

There are also files and files of music already composed. And original music continues to be created—some post-scored—written after the visual images are chosen, some pre-scored. And sometimes,  the use of music in film involves a little of both.

Matching the Music with the Story

Jason Weber

Jason Weber is a senior producer at NFL Films.  "If I'm working on a feature, whether it's a short feature or a longer film, I'll think, alright, I have a really good piece of music that would work and set the mood for this section of the film and I will find that piece of music and say that's the one I want. I'll put this in and that's going to set the stage for how I edit. "

But that's not always the process, he says.  "Sometimes in a quick turnaround, you will edit the picture and at the end, say to one of our music editors, or go back and look through our music library. Try to find a piece that fits with what I edited. So it depends on the situation."

And the situations are many, from the triumphant plays - the interceptions and touchdowns - to the fumbles and follies, which inspired Robidoux's Follies Suite.

Credit Jordan August/Mann Center for the Performing Arts

NFL Films produces a variety of shows about the game:  Every Superbowl winning team now has a film made about it in the America's Game series.  

There's a series called Football Life, which chronicles a player's professional and personal journey, and a reality documentary series about training camp called Hard Knocks, which, says Robidoux, shows a very different side of the sport, calling for very different musical expression.

"It's very individualistic; these guys have worked their whole lives for this point and half of these guys aren't going to realize their dreams."

So what instruments and musical styles did he use?

"We went with real percussive elements and also we took some of the orchestral instruments and kind of distorted them, put them through guitar amps. There's a little edginess, because training camp is not this big glorious giant, you know, with strings and trumpets blaring. It's a kind of guttural grind for them; even for the veterans. And then you've got the rookies and some of the other walk-on guys that are just fighting to have a career. So the music had to embody that."

Enter: The Philadelphia Orchestra

The show at the Mann Center was a different format still, with the film footage built around the music.

Jason Weber explains, "We said, we have some great suites of music that will work in a live setting. And so let's take those pieces and create a show that—you know, the music is driving things but—will work visually."

And so while The Philadelphioa Orchestra played pieces (mostly by Robidoux) from Molder of Men to Follies  to America's Game and The Lombardi Trophy Super Bowl Suite—the audience relived moments in the team's history, and watched the players move with power—and grace.

Dance Music and More

Jason Weber nods when I ask about the connection to dance. "You can visualize a player leaping for a pass and making a one-handed catch and tiptoeing along the sidelines. Yeah, the comparison between dance and the NFL is very obvious. I know that there are some football players who use dance and take dance to help prepare, especially the wide receivers. It's something that they can develop, the ability to be light on their feet and light on their toes.

Athletic and acrobatic, powerful and persevering, people moving forward with grace and grit, seeking success in the game and in life.

"I don't feel like I'm writing football music for football films," reflects Robidoux.  "Because, again, I go back to the story. Each day, for me, it's more of a psychological thing to try and figure out what is this story? Or who is this person? What's his background?  In the NFL, as cliche as it sounds, there's so many stories: people coming out of obscurity, or from poverty, or against all kinds of odds.

Nick Foles being one of these great stories. Everyone wrote him off and here he comes back and saves the city. I think I'm writing music for that, more than just for football.

I'm a huge football fan, but when I go home I don't feel like I just wrote a whole bunch of football music, it really is a little different. I feel almost like I'm writing for movies.  As if I was in Hollywood; one day I'm writing Forest Gump, one day I'm doing this.  It's just different stories within the framework of football as the backdrop I guess.


Susan writes and produces stories about music and the arts. She’s host and producer of WRTI’s TIME IN online interview series, and contributes weekly intermission interviews for The Philadelphia Orchestra in Concert series. She’s also been a regular host of WRTI’s Live from the Performance Studio sessions.