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What makes a great tv theme song?

When you think of your favorite television theme songs, what do they have in common? Does it have to do with images, lyrics, music, or just a feeling?

Sometime in the middle of the night last night, I started thinking about television theme songs. I think it’s because I had the Doogie Howser, M.D. song in my head for some reason, and that led my brain in a free-streaming association (again, this is in the middle of the night) of my favorite TV themes.

At first, this post was going to be just that: a list of my favorite television theme songs. But then I started wondering if anything groups my favorites together. Do I only prefer original songs for the show? No. Only instrumentals? No. My list is compiled of a bunch of different types of songs, which, to me, all serve their purpose extremely well. Or, I just like them a lot.

I think that, at least partially, what makes a theme song effective is its ability to pair itself with the images on the screen. I’m thinking particularly about the Doogie Howser theme again, where the dinky little synthesizer is nothing special, but the images of newspaper clippings (providing a chronology of Doogie’s accomplishments) are given a change to stand out.

The Six Feet Under theme, written by Thomas Newman, is another chilling piece when juxtaposed with the images of death. But this is one that would stand on its own for me, because I think the music has that eerie, depressing quality even without the rest of the opening credits.

Another instrumental piece, and one of my all-time favorite themes, is the Friday Night Lights theme. I love Explosions in the Sky! The way a lot of this opening is shot — from the perspective of someone driving through the town — puts you right inside Dillon and it feels incredibly familiar even after only one or two watches. (On a side note: Explosions in the Sky is great to listen to on your iPod in a plane, train, or what have you.)

I also (back before the theme was just truncated to a few bars after a season or two) appreciated Grey’s Anatomy‘s use of images in their opening title sequence. The IV drip/martini; the surgical tools/eyelash curler; tying the scrubs/zipping the dress were all very funny to me when I first saw it. And while I don’t really care for “Cosy in the Rocket” (by Psapp), I do like that little snippet of the song they now use at the beginning as the title appears on screen.

It’s little catchy pieces of a theme song that brings me to my next example: Fringe. The theme, written by J.J. Abrams, is simple, yet striking. As Carla (and other Clackers) keep reminding me, Fringe is a great show, and for some reason I stopped after Season One. I do plan to catch up, and soon! Every time I think of the show, I can’t seem to get those last series of arpeggios from the opening theme out of my mind! This piece of music is what I associate with Fringe, and I consider that a good thing.

Speaking of associating a theme with a show, I want to give The Wire a mention. This opening theme song is unique, because the song used in all five seasons, “Down in the Hole,” is sung by a different artist each time and is paired with scenes from that current season. My favorite is definitely Season Four, when performed by DoMaJe. (I’m sure you disagree with me! Fight it out!)

If you stop and listen to the lyrics, you can find connections between what they say and what the show portrays. “You gotta keep the devil / way down in the hole” to me represents each character’s dark side; their weaknesses, and what they have to struggle to tame. That could be drugs, alcoholism, infidelity, homicide, government corruption, prostitution, or any number of things.

Similarly, The Dandy Warhols‘ “We Used To Be Friends” is a great little summary of Veronica’s plight in Veronica Mars: “A long time ago, we used to be friends / but I haven’t thought of you lately at all.” I love how this song is used in the opening title. (Except in Season Three. What happened? Those of you who appreciate this, please, let me in on the secret.)

And, finally, there’s just the simple fact that nostalgia plays a great role in what I think constitutes a “great” theme song. Growing up, if there was one show I always watched, it was The Wonder Years.

I’m not too crazy about the Joe Cocker version of “With A Little Help From My Friends.” However … when used in The Wonder Years, it’s awesome. I don’t know what it is. Maybe it’s because I knew this song from the show years before I knew it as a Beatles cover.

Another theme that I enjoy simply because it reminds me of my younger days — when watching the TGIF series on Fridays was the highlight of my week — is the theme from Perfect Strangers (written by Jesse Frederick and David Pomeranz). To this day, I still get chills when I think about the lyrics: “Standing tall, on the wings of my dream / Rise and fall, on the wings of my dream … It’s my life and my dream / Nothing’s gonna stop me now.”

These are lyrics to live by, no matter who you are. And they’ll always be true.

What are your favorite theme songs? Opening titles? What do you think constitutes a great theme song?

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14 Responses to “What makes a great tv theme song?”

April 7, 2011 at 3:27 PM

I love love love the theme song for “Rescue Me” ..the song is C’mon C’mon by the Von Bundies. I sing it at the top of my lungs!

Also, love “The Office” little ditty. I ff thru opening credits on other shows but I always stop and let this play.

April 7, 2011 at 3:53 PM

I agree that it isn’t just one thing, it’s a combination of the images along with the right song/melody that sets the right tone for the show. Sometimes it helps if it’s something you can hum along to, or sing along with, but not always.

As far as setting the right mood, you were right to mention the “Friday Night Lights” credits. The music hasn’t changed, just a few of the credit slates, but it always conveys exactly what the show is going to be about.

If you’re looking for a theme song that simply takes you right to the show and became synonymous with it, there’s the “Friends” theme with the gang dancing around with everyone at home singing along to I’ll Be There For You.

I miss the days when we had minute-long credits, when it re-established the premise so that it was easy for new viewers to start watching. I think of something like “The Greatest American Hero” in that regard, I think that credit sequence is over 2 minutes long, and it’s one of the most recognizable themes ever.

But there are still shows that have titles that make an impact with the shorter sequences, like “The Office” mentioned in the post above. Short and quirky and fun, and instantly recognizable now.

Honorable mention to one of my favorite theme songs/titles, though, and that’s “Bosom Buddies”.. one of my first memories of watching TV was singing along to that. Again, it set up the entire show so anyone could watch it at any time. Also, The “X-Files” theme was really, really strong, even though the graphics in the early seasons were pretty cheesy.

A new favorite of mine is the title sequence to “Justified” with a song and visuals that feels like you’re taking a trip through Harlan County itself.

The bottom line really is that any theme song/sequence that hopes to have an impact on the general viewing audience has to be somewhat catchy or instantly recognizable and representative of the tone of the show. Pairing it with visuals that are also representative of the show will make it an instant classic.

April 7, 2011 at 9:55 PM

Good point about there being not as many longer sequences. I’m thinking of Lost, for example, or Glee, which just has one chord (and, by the way, is quite enough, as any theme song they’d do would be cheesy as hell!). I was thinking about that today when I realized (while writing this) that the Grey’s theme had pretty much gone away and now all you see is “Grey’s Anatomy” with a white screen.

April 7, 2011 at 4:46 PM

I think there’s a lot of different ways for a show’s theme song (and title credits, since they go together) to be successful:

– Lyrics and mood of an existing song (or part of a song) match-up well with the show’s premise or characters. VMars, Smallville, and Friends come to mind. The S3 theme of VMars, while the same song, was re-cut witha much more depressing beats and dreary-looking credits.
– Instrumentals should match the feeling of the show. Fringe’s theme and title evokes the pensive nature of the show, and the variations of their theme help place you in other worlds and times. White Collar’s feels more upbeat and flashy.
– It can also hit at the right time of the teaser. The Shield’s theme was short and not very lyrical, but it always hit at the appropriate time

I have to add that I love when a show will tweak their titles on occasion. Supernatural has always been great at this, and Community has done it a couple times (D&D episode comes to mind)

April 7, 2011 at 5:16 PM

You can’t have a conversation about show theme’s without adding BSG to the mix. So say we all.

April 7, 2011 at 5:54 PM

I’m old school, so I love classic theme songs from I Love Lucy, The Dick Van Dyke Show, The Munsters, The Addams Family, Dragnet, Green Acres, The Beverly Hillbillies, Petticoat Junction, I Dream of Jeannie, Bewitched, Gilligan’s Island … the list goes on. Some told the story of the show, some were just instrumental with animated title sequences but hearing them just brings me back to my childhood. The theme for The Nanny was a nice throwback to those classic shows with a story and an animated title sequence. My current favorite theme song is The Amazing Race, especially now that it’s been slightly re-orchestrated. It’s much more powerful now than the original version, and it really puts you in the right mindset for the show coupled with the images from around the world. It’s just a really good piece of music. 30 Rock has a great theme song too because it just has a whole New York vibe to it. Fringe is also a favorite. For a while there, TV theme songs were almost extinct because that was 30 seconds or so that could be sold to advertisers. Glad they’re making a comeback!

April 7, 2011 at 7:19 PM

Definitly The X Files, Angel, Buffy, Fringe, BSG, Dexter, HIMYM, The Big Bang Theory.

Caprica had a great opening too (but just that:)

The Veronica Mars theme song was my ringtone or a very long time!!!

April 7, 2011 at 10:00 PM

Hearing you say “HIMYM” and “Big Bang Theory” reminds me that sometimes, if I’m watching those DVDs and I leave the main menu on while I’m doing something else, the theme plays over and over again and drives me crazy!! But yeah, I do like those, especially the Barenaked Ladies one. And Dexter is another opening sequence I’m very fond of. The music I’m not crazy about, but I love the images.

April 7, 2011 at 7:20 PM

What makes a good tv theme song is remembering it for the right reasons, not because it makes you want to kick a puppy. I loved pretty much all the music from Lost (yes, even the dreaded, ridiculously over-played crescendo at the end of almost every piece because, well, it became a sort of musical meme after awhile). However, though I love Arrested Development, every show, every season, all of it – hearing the opening theme makes me want to kick a puppy. Repeatedly. I hate it. A lot.

April 7, 2011 at 7:55 PM

The most important thing about a theme song is that you are moving on up. To the East Side. To a Deluxe apartment in the sky-y-y….

April 8, 2011 at 12:41 AM

Just wanted to put in a correction – the theme song to Grey’s Anatomy is Cosy in the Rocket by Psapp, not Nobody Knows by Dido. I’m not actually sure there is a song called Nobody Knows by DIdo.

April 8, 2011 at 9:08 AM

Noted!! It’s funny, because one would think a quick internet search for the lyrics would bring up the correct song. Nope! There are even mp3s/lyrics listed as “Nobody Knows” by Dido, Grey’s Anatomy theme song, etc! I had to go into iTunes and pull up Grey’s Anatomy soundtrack to get the right one. Thank you for bringing that to my attention, and we’ll change it! :)

April 8, 2011 at 10:11 PM

Even if it wasn’t written for the show, I still think Chuck’s theme song is one of the best on television in terms of setting the mood for the show. And IMO, the lyrics of the original song by Cake, Short Skirt Long Jacket, fit amazingly well with the Chuck/Sarah relationship.

April 11, 2011 at 9:07 PM

Oh, I totally missed The Chicago Code’s theme song by Billy Corgan (of the Smashing Pumpkins).

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