Wednesday, December 17, 2008

Go U, Northwestern! by the Northwestern University "Wildcat" Marching Band

9 wins and 3 loses.

Not since the year 2000 when the Wildcats went 8-3 in the regular season has Northwestern University had such a phenomenal football season. To end this season, the Wildcats will travel to the Alamo Bowl in San Antonia just as they did eight years go and just like eight years ago the finest band in the land, the Northwestern University “Wildcat” Marching Band (NUMB) will accompany the team on this historical trip.

In 2000, I was a freshmen alto saxophone player in NUMB. That season I rejoiced as the ‘cats beat Michigan (which after this year may become a trend), I survived the bitter cold marching during an away game in Iowa and I went to the Alamo Bowl. It was a phenomenal season but it wasn’t until the following years when the team did not do so well, that I developed my love and respect for Northwestern.

The song that was the soundtrack and the soul of that experience is a song that I’ve play more then any other piece of music in my life, “Go U, Northwestern!” I’m not going to make the argument that Northwestern has the best fight song ever. There are imperfections in the song, for example in the lyrics. Well-placed lyrics in songs have the melody accent the same syllables one would emphasize when speaking and no one would normally say “Break right through THAT line.” However, I do believe that “Go U, Northwestern!” is a quintessential and amazing American college fight song that uniquely expresses the spirit of Northwestern.

The song follows the standard form of most college fights. There are two main sections, the first part (first strain) and the instrumental interlude (break strain). The first strain is broken up into four 8-measure phrases:

1st phrase-Go U Northwestern! Break right through that line.
2nd phrase-With our colors flying, We will cheer you all the time, U Rah! Rah!
3rd phrase-Go! U Northwestern! Fight for victory,
4th phrase-Spread far the fame of our fair name, Go! Northwestern win that game.

The 1st and 2nd phrase present different material while the 3rd phrase is a repeat of the 1st phrase with an altered ending. The 4th phrase features material derived from earlier parts of the song and completes the first strain.

“Go U, Northwestern!” inspires people with a feeling of momentum and spirit. If you are trying to solve the problem of how to give music a feeling of direction, the easy solution is to have a piece start slow and speed up but that would not work with a marching band. So it is creating that same rush of energy when the tempo is staying constant that require a high level of musical invention.

One way composers create momentum is with rhythm. Simply following a longer note by shorter notes creates the illusion that the song speeding up. The 1st phrase starts with a long note that is followed by two shorter notes that drive into “-wes-“ of “Northwestern.” This occurs again with two shorter notes on “break right” which follow the longer note values of “-wes-“ and “-tern.” This pattern continues with the shortest note of the phrase on “through” which is followed by an off-beat accent on “that” which holds the listener in suspense before landing on the next downbeat.

The short-long rhythm on “through that” is called a Lombard rhythm or a Scotch snap. This is when a composers arrange a dotted rhythm so that the shorter note is firsts and on the beat. This rhythm manipulates the momentum of a phrase jolting it forward unexpectedly with the short note and creating anticipation with the longer note. In “Go U, Northwestern!” the Scotch snap moves around within the phrases creating unique twists in the first strain that play with our sense of direction. In the 1st phrase the Scotch snap is in the end of the phrase and in the 2nd phrase the Scotch snap is featured in the middle of the phrase.

The 3rd phrase mimics the 1st phrase placing the Scotch snap back in end of the phrase and then the 4th phrase starts immediately with the Scotch snap and features it twice before ending the first strain. This is unusual compared to other fight songs like Michigan’s “Hail To The Victors” which have a much more square and repetitive rhythms. This creates more militaristic feeling and opposed to the rhythmic invention in “Go U, Northwestern!” which express a mood of dance and celebration.

Within the anatomy of a fight song there are five roles that instrument groups play:
- The melody and the harmony of the melody (which in general have the same rhythm as
the melody) include the trumpets, mellophones, alto saxophones and trombones.
- The obbligato line, which is the higher and fast countermelody, features the flutes and
- The tenor saxophones, euphoniums, and baritones play the tenor countermelody.
- The sousaphones cover the bass line.
- The drum-line provide the percussion.

These roles change in certain places for example when the trombones double the bass line at the end of the 1st phrase and when the flutes and clarinets double the melody in the 3rd phrase of the first strain.

The obbligato line fills in motion whenever there is a long note in the melody so that the momentum never stops. For example, there’s a fast ascending scale “-wes-“ in the 1st phrase when the melody has a long note. Another example one is right before “U Rah, Rah” when the flutes and clarinets trill, (an un-metered flurry of the fasts note) which provide an explosive drive into the next measure.

The tenor countermelody, which I believe is the most overlooked parts of the song is the long smooth notes in the first strain which contrast the melody’s separated notes. This line outlines the contour of the melody, which is important in reinforcing the direction of the melody not only for the listener but also for melodic instruments in the band. It is easy when playing short notes to lose sight of the overall direction of the phrase and tenor line is essential in reinforcing the contour that gives this song a sense of direction.

The bass line in “Go U, Northwestern!” provides not only the foundation of the harmony but also acts as an expressive voice that supports the melody. The bass line plays the Scotch snap whenever it appears in the melody and provides interesting and dynamic transition material at the ends of phrases like in-between the 3rd and 4th phrases in the first strain.

I used to think of a drum-line like bunch of toy monkeys hitting every single beat. The drum line does keep a constant beat and drives the pulse of the band but like the bass line it does so much more. The clearest example of this is the cymbals. Listen carefully to when they play. They don’t play on every beat but instead highlight parts of the phrase. The bass drums, which are not as clearly audible, do the same thing and within snare drum and tenor line, this musical approach to playing provides and important layer of texture to an already rich musical landscape.

The break strains contrasts the first strain with three 4-measures phrases as opposed to the four 8-measures phrases. This sections creates momentum not with the rhythm but with the way the band is arranged into two different groups. They work together trading off measures like two groups of people within a crowd participating in a call and response cheer. The first two measures are the higher instruments on an ascending line, which the lower instruments respond to with a descending two-measure motif. The band repeats this pattern in the next four measures and then compressed the call and response into two beats groups instead of two measures groups. The lower instruments begin with a two beat pattern on beat 4 and beat 1 that is followed by the higher instruments on beat 2 and beat 3. The band is pulled apart first by 2 measures, then band comes closer together separated by only 2 beats and finally they play the same rhythm together as one in a glorious feeling of arrival and unity.

“Go U, Northwestern!” perfectly the spirit of Northwestern and what NUMB taught me in those years after the Alamo bowl is that it’s not about winning football games. It’s not about making fun other schools and it’s not about blindly following traditions.

It’s about the fact everyone can contribute. It’s about pride not only in ourselves but in each other it’s about finding the meaning in traditions and reinventing them for future generations.

Mr. Rogers, one of my personal heroes once said:

As you play together in a symphony orchestra, you can appreciate that each musician has something fine to offer. Each one is different, though, and you each have a different ‘song to sing.’ When you sing together, you make one voice. That’s true of all endeavors, not just musical ones. Finding ways to harmonize our uniqueness with the uniqueness of others can be the most fun—and the most rewarding—of all.

I found this true of my journey in NUMB, which was one of the greatest experiences in my life.

Go ‘Cats, Beat the Tigers! And if you don’t, no worries, we’ll still be here.

Oh, and Matt, my dear brother-in-law, congratulations man on being accepted to Northwestern. You already have the Northwestern spirit in your blood so I have no doubt that you will not only have a fantastic experience but that you will contribute great things to the people, the community and the tradition that is Northwestern.


  1. Yay Matt for getting into NU (and possibly being in the band next year)! Kings, I think you did a great job of analyzing all the parts of the song. It's interesting to think about how they all work together, and I think it's cool to see new things in a song I've heard 1,000 times.

    What about the alto part? Is that just not interesting enough for analysis at length? ;)

  2. Ahhh...that's so cool, Kingsley! Your analysis of the lyrics and their rhythms is something I've never though about before, so I'm definitely going to listen to the song different the next time we hear it. Which will be at the bowl game! Thanks for dissecting our fight song; this is really interesting stuff!


  3. oh, that alto part. The alto part is inner harmony that supports the melody and does not really sound all that good by itself. When I was first leaning "Go U, Northwestern!" I didn't realize that I wasn't playing the melody and I was convinced it was the worst fight song until I played it with the rest of the band. Some altos have coped with our part by playing the flute part on their altos instead (i.e. Travis).

    Thanks for checking this out Bethany. I appreciate you taking the time to read the post. It's a beautiful thing to think about a piece of music and hear it in a whole different light.