I was recently asked by WWE to analyse and transcribe five of their top ‘walk-on’ wrestler themes, and to comment on how WWE music is designed to reflect to the personas and character roles of each performer. Some consistent musical characteristics began to emerge, including slower-than-pop tempos (70-90BPM), a big Nu Metal influence, a preponderance of two-bar riffs, and consistent use of AB form.
I Won’t Do What You Tell Me (“Stone Cold” Steve Austin)
This much-loved theme opens with the sound of breaking glass; famously, composer Jim Johnston decided back in 1996 that the glass sample wasn’t powerful enough on its own – so he added the sound of a car crash and an explosion into the mix. The music is built on a repeating one-bar guitar riff on the lower strings, using chords of E5, F5 and F#5, one half-step apart from each other (one fret apart on the guitar fingerboard). That number 5 in the chord names is significant – it refers to what guitarists call a “power chord”, i.e. a chord using just the root and fifth of the scale, and it’s a staple sound of most rock and metal. For the first 8 bars, only the first half of the riff is played, then at bar 9 the full riff enters, with an additional higher guitar playing 4-to-the-bar stabs in the midrange, as the excitement and energy builds dynamically. The B section features what I’m calling the “Tension Theme”, because it adds in a metal-typical diminished 5th leap – E to B flat – a deliberately unresolved interval that is played here in a three-octave unison, creating a overdubbed wall of guitar sound that would be impossible to achieve on a single instrument. The slow tempo (83BPM) and low-register riffs are reminiscent of Led Zeppelin, Black Sabbath, and Rage Against The Machine. Interestingly, when Austin walks on to this music, he usually strides faster than the track’s tempo would normally predict. A subconscious nod to the title “I Won’t Do What You Tell Me”, perhaps.
Next Big Thing (Brock Lesnar)
The title for this enduring theme is one of Brock Lesnar’s less aggressive nicknames – the others include The Beast Incarnate, The Conqueror, and The Anomaly. Given that he’s spent most of his career as a heel (“bad guy” character in industry-speak), the track has arguably been used to portray a dark side of his character. But as with all the best WWE tracks, the star and the music are now so closely connected that there’s no changing it. Like Austin’s “Tell Me”, it was composed by Jim Johnston, and was originally intended for use as walk-out music for the XFL team, Chicago Enforcers. In 2002 Lesnar made it his own, and apart from a subtle remix or two it’s been the same theme ever since.
The first thing we hear is an unaccompanied descending minor pentatonic guitar riff with an echo and phaser effect, which perhaps recalls the feeling of the intro from Guns ‘n’ Roses’ classic Welcome To The Jungle. Then just as the echo falls away we hear a short reverse-audio effect, pushing us headlong into a grinding guitar-and-bass-drum unison that evokes the Nu Metal roots of Lesnar’s very first theme – Limp Bizkit’s Take A Look Around. Like many of the best-known WWE tracks, Next Big Thing is based on a 1-bar repeating power chord riff with variations. It has two sections, which we’re calling “Intro” and “Rock Out Theme”. The Intro features palm-muted guitar (shown as PM on the score) where the picking hand’s palm rests on the bass strings of the instrument, making the low-register chords cut short, and giving a stabbing/jabbing effect. In the Rock Out Theme the palm mute is lifted, letting the chords ring out fully – it works as a sort of sonic metaphor for “taking the gloves off”. Whenever Lesnar appears live, the crowd’s energy levels seem to peak in this section – a great example of the importance of walk-on music for building excitement in the arena.
Head of the Table (Roman Reigns)
Given his eminence in the WWE roster and frequent championship wins, it is fitting that Roman Reigns’s theme embraces musical ideas long associated with nobility and grandeur—gothic choirs, classical piano flourishes, and baroque harpsichord sequences—and juxtaposes them with the familiar allusions to physical power and restrained aggression that are so evocative of the WWE sound: sledgehammer-heavy riffs, hard hitting drums, and a deliberate, medium-slow tempo of 72.5 BPM. The guitar parts are streamlined into repeating power-chord structures that either sit low in the mix, or punctuate the texture only sporadically, leaving just enough musical space for the other elements. Similarly, the vocal choir sings in unison or octaves, giving the aural impression of an epic choral composition without masking more delicate instruments. That choir-in-unison sound is also strongly associated with Carl Orff’s famous “O Fortuna” from Carmina Burana, a work that has become a shorthand for all things epic and awe-inspiring due to its pervasive presence in pop cultural media for the last fifty-or-so years, including movie placements in Excalibur and The Hunt For Red October. Given Roman’s imposing persona and poise in the squared circle, it’s a fitting allusion: “Head of the Table” indeed.
Celtic Invasion (Becky Lynch)
“Celtic Invasion” is a breakneck outlier among these themes, clocking in at a furious 155 BPM. And while she may have been “The Man,” Becky’s theme forgoes many of the hard rock and metal hallmarks that make up the signature sound of the men on this list. Instead, we have a cocktail of classic hardcore and pop-punk sounds: there’s the famous“D-Beat” on the drums, with its double kick hits; furious power chords on distorted guitars underpinning twin leads, eschewing the low-end riffs that are employed so iconically elsewhere in the WWE; and the “whoa-whoa” chorus—likely incorporated into the punk vocabulary by the Misfits, and a signature part of the sound of their late ’90s acolytes, such as AFI, The Offspring, and Pennywise—which is cleverly twisted into a folksy pentatonic melody to refer to the Irish origins of Big Time Becks. While a few hints of classic metal undoubtedly remain—those twin lead harmonies recall the synchronized solos of Iron Maiden and Dragonforce—it is the spirited punk sentiment, coupled with stylistic allusions to the Emerald Isle, that makes the infectious energy of “Celtic Invasion” a perfect complement to Lynch’s authentic, no-nonsense persona. And if that wasn’t already enough to get the crowd going, then the stomping “hey!” interludes surely ramp up the energy levels and audience participation.
Sky’s The Limit (remix) (Sasha Banks)
Now firmly cemented as a WWE superstar, Sasha Banks needs a supersized theme to accompany her entrances, and the current version of “Sky’s the Limit” reimagines the catchy synth stylings of the original as a larger-than-life trap remix. Snoop Dogg is on hand for additional verses, conferring true hip hop legitimacy to The Boss—he is, after all, her cousin, and has a long history with the WWE. And he interpolates his own famous lines to hype her up: Snoop’s braggadocio from “Drop it Like it’s Hot” (2004)—“I’m a gangster, but y’all knew that/The big boss Dogg, yea I had to do that”—is reimagined as a tribute to Sasha. (“She’s a legit boss, but y’all knew that/The big boss Dogg, yea I had to do that.”) The 86 beats per minute tempo is squarely in line with some of the rock and metal grooves that other wrestlers embrace for their entrance music, and the heavy horn riff sounds like it would suit a distorted guitar just as readily. That combination of trap horns and skittish 808 drums—heralded as the cutting-edge sound of modern production in 2012 with the release of TNGHT’s first EP—makes the remix of “Sky’s the Limit” an essential chapter in the longstanding history of WWE themes that have tapped elements of both rock and hip hop to achieve maximum energy in the arena.
To celebrate Steve’s triumphant return to the ring, we asked Dr Joe Bennett, a musicologist at Berklee College of Music, to break down some of the top WWE walk-on themes, and tell us what ties them to each star’s personality and character.
WWE: Why is Steve’s theme so iconic?
JB: It’s built on a one-bar power-chord riff, which makes it instantly recognisable in less than 2 seconds because it’s so short. The moment we hear that E5 to F5 rising guitar phrase over the first two beats there’s no confusion at all – it can’t be any other song. For the first 10 seconds or so, we just hear half of it, with the last two beats left open, for the drums to propel it forward and build the tension. And then the full riff crashes in with a higher-register guitar playing 4-to-the-bar stabs, giving the crowd a sense that the energy is building. And of course, it has that famous “breaking” sample, which is actually a mashup of sounds – breaking glass, a car crash, and an explosion. After 35 seconds of the intro we get into the B section, which adds in a spiky diminished 5th interval – E to B flat. This is a classic metal idea, as used by Black Sabbath, Metallica and many others. At 83 BPM, the song is way slower than the average tempo for pop or rock, so it clearly signals to the listener – this is not music for dancing.
Steve’s character is a sort of anti-hero, who stands up for what he thinks is right, with a rebellious anti-authority streak. So the track gives off a lot of that same feeling – danger, relentlessness, and… breaking things!
WWE: Tell us about the history of walk-on music.
JB: As well as Steve’s track, we analysed themes from four other top contemporary stars – Brock Lesnar, Roman Reigns, Becky Lynch, and Sasha Banks – and then we went back in time and looked at some of the classic themes from previous WWE eras, all the way to the 1950s. There was a time when performers chose songs of the day – rock tracks by Guns ‘n Roses, Motörhead, Led Zeppelin, Alice Cooper, and some even used classical music. But since the 1990s, stars have increasingly wanted music that reflected their specific personas, something unique to them that the fans could instantly recognize. And the stars themselves often have input into the creative process; Steve Austin is a big fan of Rage Against The Machine, and he asked composer Jim Johnston to put something together that evokes the same feeling as their 1996 track Bulls On Parade. There’s a more direct homage in Sasha Banks’s Sky’s The Limit, where Snoop Dogg’s rap flow references his own Drop it Like It’s Hot from 2004. So there’s a sort of historical handshake between classic rock, hip-hop, and many of the WWE themes that we hear today.
WWE: What makes a truly great WWE walk-on theme?
JB: All the top themes share six characteristics – uniqueness, shortness, simplicity, repeatability, crowd participation, and power! Uniqueness is an absolute requirement, because fans and stars alike need to cement that association between the music and the persona. Shortness and simplicity are important too, because the track is going to be played over the speakers in large, echoic venues, which means that the crowd needs to recognize it even in a noisy environment. This is why so many of the classics are one- or two-bar repeating riffs. And because WWE features so much audience participation, there are often sonic cues in the track to help the fans to join in. A recent example is Sasha Banks’s Sky’s The Limit; in Snoop Dogg’s rap he calls out “Fans up, hands up, in the air, when I say hell you say yeah!”. A more subtle example is the roaring “whoa” vocal melody at the start of “Celtic Invasion” (Becky Lynch) – it’s two instantly memorable five-beat phrases, and there are no lyrics to learn. You can see the crowd singing along at all of Becky’s appearances. The power goes without saying, I think, but it’s a very particular kind of power… relentless and unstoppable, particularly for the men’s themes. Interestingly, most of the WWE tempos are fairly slow compared to pop or dance music – there’s a sweet spot between 75 and 95 beats per minute; I think this is another way of getting the crowd excited. Even when you have a really high-tempo track like “Celtic Invasion” (155 BPM) you can see, from the air-punching, finger-pointing and sign-waving, that the crowd are feeling the beat at half speed, so it’s more like 77.5 BPM – still in the same tempo zone.
Research, transcriptions and song analyses by Dr Joe Bennett (Professor, Berklee College of Music) and William Weston Bennett (PhD musicology researcher, Harvard University). Additional graphics by Simon Troup of Digital Music Art. This document is © Joe Bennett Music Services LLC, 2022. All songs are copyright the respective composers and publishers. Music transcription excerpts are provided for the purposes of academic commentary and criticism under Fair Dealing terms (UK) and Fair Use (USA). The research and analysis was funded by WWE and The Romans (London).