A universities’ alma mater is a declaration of their story and their soul. (Alma mater comes from the latin, “nourishing or bountiful mother.”)
Almost always a hymn/lullaby, they are characteristically songs with heartfelt 2-minor, 6-minor, 1, 3, 4 and 5 chords with lush passing chords. The better ones have a second ‘section’ that emotionally elevate the piece. They often crescendo towards the endings encouraging audience participation.
The best ones are very memorable, short and easy to sing, and emotionally and poetically speak to the specifics and uniqueness of a university and its culture.
Like trees falling in a forest that no one hears, alma maters are only relevant if they are truly a part of the traditions and cultural literacy of a university.
Our rankings are primarily based on the quality of the song, the integrity of contemporary university recordings, and its organic infusion into traditions and touchpoints across its university.
LOUISIANA STATE UNIVERSITY
“THE LSU ALMA MATER”
The LSU Alma Mater was written in 1929 by Lloyd Funchess and Harris Downey, two students who developed the original song and music; because LSU’s first alma mater was sung to the tune of “Far Above Cayuga’s Waters” and was used by Cornell University.
It’s played by the LSU Marching Band during their pre-game performance and at the end of each home football game.
The song culminates with the entire student body belting out the final line of their alma mater.
It’s a wonderful example of how an alma mater becomes part of the fabric of the university — and the lives of its students, faculty, community and alumni.
“HAIL TO THE HILLS OF WESTWOOD”
Here’s an example of a fantastic song — with a very strong orchestration. The university’s shortcoming is that all the students/alumni can’t sing it — it’s not embedded in their cultural literacy yet. Many mumble through it, but they don’t “know” the words. The goal is for students/alumni to “know” the words as you “know” the words to “Jingle Bells.”
That’s where strong leadership that truly understands the asset of great university music makes all the difference — finding ways to infuse the song into a plethora of touchpoints.
UCLA and UC Berkeley shared an alma mater until 1925 when a UCLA student wrote a song called Hail Blue and Gold. In 1960, Hail to the Hills of Westwood, written by Jeane Emerson, replaced the earlier song and is the alma mater Bruins sing today.
Traditionally, outstretched fingers in the form of a “V,” representing victory, are held high over students/alumni heads while singing the alma mater after sporting events.
FLORIDA STATE UNIVERSITY
“HIGH O’ER THE TOWERING PINES”
In 1947, The Florida Flambeau held a contest for a song to become the school’s alma mater; High O’er the Towering Pines was written by Johnny Lawrence and submitted to the competition.
An absolutely stunning melody is accompanied by a lush, complex arrangement by the FSU Marching Chiefs. The students and alumni (who all know the song), enter acapella after an exceptional orchestral introduction and statement of the melody. One of the best alma songs in the nation…
The Florida State University Marching Chiefs uses every one of their 420+ members to carry out the song’s powerful and beautiful moving lines.
Truly stunning – and applicable in myriad university applications.
SOUTHERN METHODIST UNIVERSITY
SMU’s Varsity is a homerun in two of the criterion; the quality of the composition and the recording/arrangements.
As you’ll hear by this recording by SMU’s Symphony Orchestra (one of America’s most revered university symphonies) — the song and the arrangement are exquisite. (Conducted by Paul Phillips, and arranged by Lane Harder.)
In the recording on the link below of the SMU Chamber Choir, augmented by an orchestral arrangement to bookend the piece, you hear the strength of this short, yet complete, musical piece.
The only variable that keeps it from being even higher on the list is that it’s currently not deeply embedded in the cultural literacy of university. It was the case in past decades in the 30’s-70’s — with the majority of its students and alumni able to immediately sing all the words and lyrics to the song.
Written by a pastor, Lewis N. Stuckey, in 1929, he wrote as he drove towards the school in its early years — looking at Dallas’ university in the distance. It’s a stunning painting of this exceptional university.
OKLAHOMA STATE UNIVERSITY
Penned by Robert McCulloh, his piece has been proudly sung by Cowboy fans for more than 50 years.
Every Cowboy student and alumni hold this song dear in their heart — and it’s in full bloom as they enthusiastically sing together at football and university events. It’s a terrific song with a strong build – and a built-in opportunity for the audience to ‘draw’ the letters of the university as they sing along and belt out the ending together. A true ‘tribal’ song — that every Cowboy owns.
It’s also played from the Library Carillon Bell Tower on the OSU campus 20 minutes past the hour every day.
That’s how to infuse a song into the cultural literacy of a university…
“FAR ABOVE CAYUGA’S WATERS”
The lyrics were written circa 1870 by roommates Archibald Croswell Weeks and Wilmot Moses Smith ((Class of 1872 adn 74).
This song is the most repurposed alma maters in the United States. The melody has been used since by dozens of universities, colleges, high schools, and camps worldwide.
Professor George Penny of the University of Kansas wrote his school’s alma mater by changing a few words from Cornell’s song (Far above the golden valley…). Other colleges and universities that have used the same tune include Michigan State University, the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, Syracuse University, University of Missouri, University of Georgia, University of Alabama, Indiana University, Vanderbilt University, and many, many more.
This particular arrangement is stunning; in the second half of the song, building harmonies over the melody make it absolutely soar.
Cornell’s alma mater (and its history) is an important part of the cultural literacy of the university — and Cornell celebrates the song in myriad touchpoints all year around.
UNIVERSITY OF TEXAS
“THE EYES OF TEXAS”
The Eyes of Texas is the official alma mater of the University of Texas, and enthusiastically sung by Longhorns since 1903.
You can’t deny the magnitude of this alma mater and its importance to Longhorn students and alumni. It’s only minus is that it’s to the tune of “I’ve Been Working on the Railroad.”
But here’s the thing. Who cares? Every Longhorn knows this song and bleeds when they hear it. It’s not “I’ve Been Working on the Railroad” to them. It’s the story of their team and the story of their lives to them.
“I’ve Been Working on the Railroad” is copying their song to Longhorn fans.
It’s an example of how university songs are only for their tribe of students, alumni, and fans. The songs are wonderfully irrelevant outside of that. This song isn’t meant for the world. It’s meant for Longhorns.
They sing it at everything, and they sing it loud and in charge — as they raise their right arm with their hand making the Hook ’em Horns symbol.
OHIO STATE UNIVERSITY
Ohio State University’s alma mater, titled Carmen Ohio, or Song of Ohio, is the oldest song still used by the university today.
The song was composed by freshman athlete and Men’s Glee Club member Fred Cornell in 1902.
Currently, after every home football game in Ohio Stadium, win or lose, the football team and the crowd sing the first verse of Carmen Ohio, accompanied by The Ohio State University Marching Band.
It is also sung by new graduates at the end of the university’s commencement ceremonies after diplomas are distributed.
Great melody. Everybody knows it. Played at myriad events. 1-2-3 punch.
UNIVERSITY OF WISCONSIN
Titled Varsity, the University of Wisconsin’s alma mater has a rich history.
Varsity was composed in 1898 by Henry Dyke Sleeper, an instructor for the University’s School of Music. The famed arm wave was inspired by the striking image of the University of Pennsylvania students waving their caps as they sang their alma mater after losing to the University of Illinois football team.
The composition of the song is impressive, and the marching band arrangement is exceptional. But look at the moment/tradition the university has created at their football games (and replicated at other university events). The marching band, the announcer set this moment up to be important. Everyone in the stands are singing along — they’re singing a song about who they are.
A tradition, a moment, like this doesn’t happen over night. It was imagined many years ago, and it’s been fine-tuned ever since. It takes years to create and earn this trusted, shared moment by many thousands of alumni and students.
Cheers to you, Wisconsin.
Notre Dame tops the charts again with its alma mater, “Our Mother.”
Exceptional, emotional song with a dramatic, inclusive ending. Many dozens of terrific recordings of the song.
Maybe the greatest strength; Notre Dame incorporates its alma mater into so many of its revered traditions.
The one on this page is a branding touchpoint that happens every Friday night of a Notre Dame home football game. Their “Dome” is absolutely packed with students and alumni — and the Notre Dame Marching Band lines the circular staircase of its Dome.
The song is in countless videos, played in internal and external university concerts (a recent one with the Boston Pops), at the end of basketball and football games, graduations, you name it.
Notre Dame so understands the value of its music — and infuses it into a plethora of touchpoints and emotionally fortify their university.