Magazine

Globe Magazine

How the DJ for the Red Sox and Patriots gets fans psyched up

Meet TJ Connelly, who has perfected the art (and science) of a winning soundtrack for some of Boston’s best players and their fans.

TJ Connelly waves from his booth at Fenway Park.
Natasha Moustache
TJ Connelly waves from his booth at Fenway Park.

IT’S A TYPICAL MONDAY MORNING in late April, and TJ Connelly wakes at 4:30 to get to WZBC, the station at Boston College, for his 6 a.m. radio show. From 9 to 2, he works as an entrepreneur and app developer in downtown Boston. Then, just before 2:30 in the afternoon, he arrives at Fenway to get ready for 3:20 batting practice.

Connelly is 39 years old, with flowing dark hair and a long beard. Today, he’s dressed in a ratty black golf shirt and gray checked pants. As the players trickle onto the field, Connelly looks through an open window in the production booth high above home plate. He’s standing before a Yamaha soundboard, black headphones around his neck, clicking on a laptop that holds more than 35,000 songs. And for the next seven hours, he will toil at what may be the world’s coolest part-time job: Fenway Park DJ.

Connelly grew up in Milton, and he played the drums, clarinet, and bass guitar. After high school, he skipped college and became a programmer. During the Internet bubble, money fell from the sky. But then the bubble burst. To make ends meet, he took a job as a bouncer at a college bar in Kenmore Square. There he spent long hours watching over the dance floor and paying close attention to the DJ. “He’s drinking for free, all the girls are talking to him, and he’s playing super-loud music,” Connelly says. “I was like, ‘Well, that’s better than my gig.’ ” So he decided to become a DJ.

Advertisement

He worked some weddings, but his primary job was at the Improv Asylum in the North End. At a dance club or a wedding, DJs have time to plan the right song-by-song sequences. But improv shows forced Connelly to develop quick reflexes and encyclopedic musical knowledge. “It’s really about being able to connect a spontaneous live event with a random musical connection,” he says. For instance, if the performers improvised their way into a scene that involved driving a car, Connelly might quickly queue up a snippet from the Beatles’ “Drive My Car” or the Cars’ “Drive.” To prepare, he’d spend long hours “making bumps” — that is, capturing the perfect few seconds of a song (often the chorus) — so that when he hit PLAY, the audience heard just the right lyrics. Over the next few years, Connelly spun songs at hundreds of nights of comedy.

Get Today's Headlines in your inbox:
The day's top stories delivered every morning.
Thank you for signing up! Sign up for more newsletters here

Around this time, in the early 2000s, Connelly attended a Red Sox game at Fenway. He noticed the music playing over the loudspeakers, including, he recalls, “The Waiting” by Tom Petty. He asked around and found out that Fenway had its own DJ. What a fantastic job, he thought. That season, he sent a letter to the Red Sox detailing his experience as a DJ. He received no reply, but the following spring he sent another letter. Sending the letter became an annual ritual.

Then, in 2005, before he had a chance to mail the letter, the Red Sox called. They wanted him to audition to become the backup DJ. He went to a game, sat in the booth, and in the fourth inning the DJ asked him to take over — it didn’t feel much different from playing music at Improv Asylum, except that Fenway seated 33,000. A month later, Connelly heard he’d got the job, on call if the regular DJ got sick. In 2008, he became the first-string DJ. By the time the Sox opened the 2017 season, he’d worked more than 700 home games.

Some of Connelly’s tasks, such as playing “Sweet Caroline” in the middle of the eighth inning each game, are easy. The more challenging role is to choose the most energizing, motivational music in four different scenarios.

Several hours before the game, he selects the songs Sox players hear during batting practice, tailoring each choice to players’ individual preferences and meticulously tracking the titles, to avoid playing any song too frequently.

Advertisement

During the game, he spins each player’s “walk-up” music, a few seconds of a song as the player approaches home plate to bat. Most players choose their own walk-up songs, but sometimes Connelly makes recommendations or uses his discretion to choose a particular section of a song. Before David Ortiz retired, he would occasionally give Connelly “dealer’s choice” — the right to play whatever song he chose for him every few at-bats.

Between innings, Connelly alternates (according to a schedule created during pre-game) with Fenway’s organist, Josh Kantor. During these breaks, Connelly chooses songs he hopes will keep the crowd energized, sometimes drawing inspiration from his Twitter feed, where fans tweet requests at him.

When the game resumes, Connelly is free to react in the moment. After key plays, he’ll quickly click on “situationals,” snippets of music to celebrate a crucial hit or a big defensive moment. If the Sox turn a double play, for instance, he might quickly punch up Rob Base and DJ E-Z Rock’s “It Takes Two.” If an opposing pitcher throws a wild pitch, Connelly may mock him with a few bars from “Wild Thing.”

Connelly describes his role in a game this way: “There’s energy that comes from the players on the field and back to the crowd, and my job is to be the amplifier in between them. . . . If something good happens in the game, you build on that. If something bad happens, you try to move back away from it. It’s basically like making a mixtape. You take the high songs and the low songs, and you try to create this feeling so that nothing is jarring.”

By all accounts, Connelly is very good at what he does — so much so that in 2013 a New England Patriots executive asked, “Why can’t our music be more like the music at Fenway?” The Patriots hired Connelly as a special consultant — his key message after attending a few games: Play a wider variety of songs — then asked him to DJ a single game on November 24, 2013.

Advertisement

The opponent was the Denver Broncos, and the game was being televised on Monday Night Football. The Patriots fumbled on their first three possessions. With two minutes left in the first half, the Pats were down 24-0. The crowd was dead silent.

Looking out from the DJ booth, Connelly said to the production staff, “We need to get these people dancing.” The producers were skeptical: On a miserable, cold night and with the fans starting to boo the Pats, that’s simply not possible, they told him. Connelly smiled, queued up Daft Punk’s “Get Lucky,” and cranked the volume.

Connelly could see the wave of recognition — “Oh, it’s that song” — ripple through the stands. People stood up. Many began singing along. Some danced. “It was perfect,” Connelly says with a smile.

After halftime, with Connelly spinning songs to keep the crowd on its feet, the Patriots began an epic comeback, ultimately winning on an overtime field goal. A few days after the game, a Patriots executive approached Connelly: “Maybe you’d like to come back?”

In 2014, Connelly became the Patriots’ permanent DJ while keeping the Fenway Park gig, too. Since then, the Patriots have won two Super Bowls.

Maybe that’s just a coincidence. Or maybe it isn’t.

 If the Sox turn  a double play, for  instance, Connelly might quickly punch up Rob Base and DJ E-Z Rock’s “It Takes Two.” If an opposing pitcher throws a wild pitch,  Connelly may mock  him with a few bars  from “Wild  Thing.”
Alex Teng/file
If the Sox turn a double play, for instance, Connelly might quickly punch up Rob Base and DJ E-Z Rock’s “It Takes Two.” If an opposing pitcher throws a wild pitch, Connelly may mock him with a few bars from “Wild Thing.”

SURELY THERE’S BEEN A MOMENT IN YOUR LIFE — on the dance floor at a wedding, through your earphones when you’re on the elliptical, or over the car stereo on the commute home from a bad day — when a certain song came on and suddenly your energy changed. It turns out there is an entire body of scientific research aimed at finding out why that happens — and which songs are best at boosting your performance.

Scientific analysis of music isn’t new. One study published in 1911 examined how music from a brass brand affected the performance of bicyclists in a New York City road race. But over the last 15 years, this field has become far more robust. That’s largely due to technology — the iPods, smartphones, iTunes, and streaming music services that let people easily create their own playlists. But technology isn’t the only factor. Much of the scientific outpouring has been driven by the work of a British researcher named Costas Karageorghis.

Karageorghis grew up in South London, in a flat above a used-record store. Each morning he’d wake to the thumping bass resonating from the store below. When he was younger, he played a variety of musical instruments — he continues to play piano as an adult — and ran track. At college, he decided to combine his two passions. Now a professor at Brunel University in London, Karageorghis is the world’s foremost researcher on the interplay between music and physical performance, publishing more than 90 scientific papers and writing three books, including Applying Music in Exercise and Sport.

 Much of Karageorghis’s research tries to tease out exactly what it is about a piece of music that makes it motivational. It focuses on four components: its rhythm (beats per minute), its musicality (the melody and harmony), its cultural impact (its pervasiveness or general perception within society), and its association (that is, how an individual links a song to a certain life experience, memory, or media representation). The first two, rhythm and musicality, are “intrinsic” qualities that stem directly from the music itself; the last two are a function of how a piece of music exists within culture and will differ from person to person.

In Karageorghis’s model, rhythm and musicality are the most important drivers of a song’s persuasive quality. “The key to a motivational track is that it physically energizes, stimulates, and activates,” he says. “A piece of music can do this on many different levels. It has to do with tempo or speed. It might have to do with rhythm or accentuation. . . . Music may also be motivational through a process of classical conditioning, so that a piece of music is associated with motivational imagery.” One of the best examples of that, Karageorghis says, is the music from the Rocky movies; when most people hear the songs, they recollect the motivational training montages, which gets them pumped up.

So if someone is working out and a highly energizing song comes on, what happens? One effect is synchronization, particularly if you’re engaged in a rhythmic activity such as running, rowing, or cycling. A song with the right beats per minute can help pace your movements through a workout. (Research by Knox College psychologist Heather Hoffman has shown this is also true for sex: The beats per minute of a song can affect tempo during intercourse.) The right music can improve an exerciser’s mood. It can assist with what psychologists call “arousal control,” which means keeping the athlete energized. It can create a sense of disassociation or distraction, in which the athlete’s mind drifts away from unpleasant sensations of exercise. It can make an athlete feel as if she’s working less hard than she really is. And beyond perceptions, study after study has shown that motivational music can lead to measurably better performance in a variety of exercise settings.

“In a sense, music can be thought of as a type of legal performance-enhancing drug,” Karageorghis and coauthor David-Lee Priest wrote in one paper.

To make use of this “drug,” Karageorghis suggests that athletes break a workout into different components — warming up, the endurance component, cool-down, and so on — and create special playlists for each. For rhythmic exercises like running, beats per minute are important, and there are websites to help people choose music with rhythm that matches the pace they hope to set. Distraction and disassociation may be more important during a grueling endurance or interval training workout; slower, more sedate music can assist with cool-down.

Karageorghis, who continues to run, does this himself. During stretching and warm-ups, he listens to up-tempo tracks from artists like Pharrell Williams and Justin Timberlake, and he often circles back to tracks from someone like Michael Jackson, because it reminds him of his formative years as an athlete. He doesn’t listen to music while he runs — he prefers to focus on the running itself — but during cool-down, he’ll switch to jazz pianist Oscar Peterson or some Miles Davis.

Like any tool, music can be misused and can actually hinder performance. For instance, many athletes listen to music while practicing, even though the sports in which they participate don’t allow music during competition. (Running is an example: Serious track competitions forbid competitors from wearing headphones.) This breaks the cardinal athletic rule of “practice like you’ll play.” Karageorghis also sees too many athletes listening to sub-optimal playlists. For instance, many people listen to entire albums by the same artist, even though the tempo and emotional association differ dramatically from one song to the next. Or he’ll see an athlete who’s prone to anxiety listening to highly arousing, stimulating music (for example, the Black Eyed Peas) before a competition, when something that’s likely to be energizing but a bit less agitating (such as Enigma, or even a classical piece) might be better.

 In a few years, Karageorghis hopes to understand even more about how music can help drive performance. Most of what we know is based on behavioral experiments, in which people listen to different types of music (and a control group listens to no music at all) while completing different activities, and they are closely measured, monitored, and compared. But that doesn’t give researchers a window into what’s happening in their brains at a neural level — and that’s what Karageorghis hopes to someday discover. “Ultimately what I need is a functional MRI machine that can be used in an exercise environment,” he says, noting that such an innovation could be available in the 2020s. “That would really open up this field and allow me to answer the burning questions.”

A FEW MINUTES INTO BATTING PRACTICE one afternoon, Connelly is playing “Super Disco Breakin’ ” by the Beastie Boys. Lots of the rap songs preferred by many Red Sox players contain expletives, so Connelly has painstakingly edited “clean” versions. During today’s batting practice, the team hears 19 songs by artists including Jay-Z, Cypress Hill, and Kendrick Lamar. If Connelly spots a head bobbing along, that song will likely show up again in his batting practice mix.

The visiting team, in contrast, will be forced to practice to organ music.

Players have different motivations in choosing their walk-up songs (for batters) and intro songs (for pitchers). Connelly remembers one player using an unlikely Miley Cyrus song because it made him think of his daughters, and he drew a connection between succeeding at the plate and being able to provide a good life for his family. Some players don’t care much about the music and let Connelly play whatever he likes. Connelly recalls how former Sox relief pitcher Andrew Miller, now with the Cleveland Indians, didn’t express any song preference until Connelly introduced him with a snippet of the Johnny Cash song “God’s Gonna Cut You Down.” The next day, a call came from the clubhouse. “That one. Every time. It’s perfect.”

Sometimes songs feature lyrics that so nicely describe the narrative of a team’s season that they become unofficial anthems. During the 2013 run, in which the Red Sox came back from last place to win the World Series, the Drake song “Started From the Bottom” became part of the musical rotation. That same year, Shane Victorino’s choice of the Bob Marley song “Three Little Birds” became a fan favorite, with the crowd chanting the lyrics — “Don’t worry about a thing, ’cause every little thing gonna be all right” — even after the music stopped.

As the game gets underway, Connelly is constantly thinking about songs that might be appropriate for a given situation. Some of his prowess stems from the long hours he spends preparing. For instance, he keeps ready an entire folder of songs for rain delays, including “Here Comes the Rain Again” and “Invisible Sun.” He has a song ready in case a fan reaches out from the stands to interfere with a ball in play (“Keep Your Hands to Yourself”) or if a fan jumps onto the field during play (“What Do You Do With a Drunken Sailor?”).

More often, he relies on quick reflexes. During one game that I spend alongside him in the production booth, the atmosphere is tense. In the fourth inning, the Sox are down 2-0, and the opposing Blue Jays get two runners on.

The next batter tries to bunt and hits a tiny blooper toward shallow third base. Sox third baseman Pablo Sandoval lays out to make a spectacular diving, belly-flopping catch.

 Just as the crowd begins to roar, Connelly clicks on the theme song from Superman. It hits the PA system, and the crowd gets even louder.

It’s exactly the amplification Connelly aspires to achieve. Looking down on the crowd, he gives a satisfied smile.

“I sit here waiting for those moments.”

Daniel McGinn is an editor at Harvard Business Review. This article is adapted from “PSYCHED UP: How the Science of Mental Preparation Can Help You Succeed” by Daniel McGinn, to be published on June 6 by Portfolio, an imprint of Penguin Publishing Group, a division of Penguin Random House LLC. Copyright © 2017 by Daniel McGinn. Send comments to magazine@globe.com.

This article has been updated to correct the call letters of Boston College’s radio station, WZBC.