The 25 Best Original TV Theme Scores and Songs of All Time
Awhile back the kids and I were playing "Guess that tune", a game in which we hum or whistle a song and the other players have to guess what it is. Surprisingly, most of the songs we came up with were all from TV shows. This got me to thinking about all the wonderful and memorable music that graced us all thanks to television.
The following list is only a viewer's list, of course, but as I've viewed more TV than I care to admit I thought compiling and posting it would be fun. I began by writing down my top 100 choices for best TV theme scores and/or songs, and then shed the list of any piece of music that was not original. For lack of being original I sadly had to exclude a few otherwise terrific theme scores such as those for Rawhide, Wings and Alfred Hitchcock Presents.
Additionally, the themes that made it to my list also had to be technically ambitious and/or complimentary of the television show for which they were composed. Lastly, the themes had to pass my charm test -in other words they had to be a tune that endeared itself on one level or another to a listening audience.
Making the Honorable Mentions: the themes from Cheers, Monk, Deadwood, The Monkees, Three's Company, Frasier, The Sopranos, Spider-Man and Taxi
Trivia Question: the shows ranking in my #20 and #1 spots starred the same actor. Can you name this actor?
The 25 Best Original TV Theme Scores and Songs of All Time
Composed by Les Baxter, whistled by Muzzy Marcellino
When I was a kid my Mama wouldn't let me watch "scary stuff" as she was afraid it would hurt me psychologically. What she didn't realize is that the theme of one of her favorite shows, Lassie, had me on the verge of tears every single blasted time I watched it with her. Afterward, having watched whatever dramatic and physically grueling ordeal Lassie went through during the course of 30 minutes I'd go to bed completely devastated. Oh yes, I spent a lot more time tore up about poor Lassie than I ever did after watching a scary movie at one of my friends' homes. Good grief, talk about psychological damage. I still wake up nights from nightmares about Lassie trying to pull that ranger dude out of the forest fire and if I hear that theme my eyes start tearing up. Nightmare On Elm Street never disturbed me so much. Poor, sweet, brave Lassie. Sniff..
24. Pee Wee's Playhouse
Specifically the opening theme as this show had an ending theme, too. Composed by Mark Mothersbaugh, sung by Cyndi Lauper (credited as Ellen Shaw).
What can you say? This song was whimsical, catchy and Cyndi Lauper sang it!. A charming song for a hilarious show that had as many adult fans as kids. Unless you count those cops with the bad attitude who invaded the adult theater. Shame on cops with bad attitude and too much time on their hands. But yah! for the brilliant people who brought the episodes out again on DVD!
Composed by Jane French and John Henry Kreitler
The Daytime television program, Passions, was unique by all soap opera standards. To sum it up, take the familiar, hackneyed soap opera formula, blend it with a good dose of Dark Shadows, add a little Broadway and throw in a heaping helping of comedy; toss it all together and you had one of the most enjoyable shows to ever hit daytime TV. Even my husband watched this show and loved it.
In a smart move the creators hired French and Kreitler to compose the theme music, and their collaborative creation turned out to be the song Breathe. This beautiful song with its stirring New Age melody and crisp, romantic lyrics went on to become an award winner and additionally made the pop chart lists. And unlike the only real competition it had at the time -the theme of The Young and The Restless- it was totally original to its platform.
22. The Addams Family
Composed by Vic Mizzy
Every TV family needs a theme song and what better to showcase the goth alternative to Father Knows Best as a theme people will forever identify it with? And while I know the lyrics of The Addams Family song by heart, I'd pay heck trying to just remember the Father Knows Best theme. For that matter I'd play heck trying to think of any reason on the face of the earth anyone in their right mind would even watch Father Knows Best. Thank the gods of gothic humor for Charles Addams.
21. Kung Fu
Composed, arranged and orchestrated by Jim Helms
I have to admit -and hopefully my husband will never see this- but I absolutely hate the show, Kung Fu. Some shaven-headed white guy (David Carradine) trying to pass himself off as Chinese, making his way through the old West without a horse and combatting evil with only the power of his feet. If the smell off his soles didn't defeat the bad guys, at least his constant use of "enlightening" insipid words of wisdom could be counted on to put most viewers to sleep. At least this show had a fantastic theme going for it. Without this fantastic theme I may never have been tempted to watch it; and if I hadn't watched it I would never have discovered the depth of pain an hour's worth of sheer boredom can produce in the human body.
Master Po: Close your eyes. What do you hear?
Caine: I hear the snoring from the audience.
Master Po: Can you not hear the grasshopper at your feet?
Caine: No, the grasshopper has just cut his wrists in frustration. But I hear his blood spilling to the ground..
Master Po: This is good.
Caine: Master Po, how do you know this thing is good?
Master Po: Because I am cooking my special grasshopper stew tonight.
Caine: What about the audience, Master Po?
Master Po: I don't think there will be enough to go 'round.
Caine: No, I mean should we wake them so they will watch the rest of the show?
Master Po: You are a cruel little bastard, aren't you?
20. Law & Order
Composed by Mike Post
Sophisticated, gritty and even hummable, the theme of Law & Order quickly became one of the most easily recognizable TV tunes in the world. But if there’s one sound fans of the show cherish more than the theme it’s the sobering echoing doink, doink gavel sound between segments.
19. Green Acres
Composed by Vic Mizzy
Mr. Mizzy had a knack for creating memorable and witty songs, and just like his theme for The Addams Family, this one became a cultural favorite. And more so than that one the Green Acres theme has been used and re-used in a host of media spoofs and comedies that have nothing to do with the show. But fans don't mind; it was a kick-ass comedy show on it's own merit.
18. The Beverly Hillbillies
AKA, “the Ballad of Jed Clampett”. Composed by Paul Henning, performed by Jerry Scroggins, Lester Flatt and Earl Scruggs
From the same creative team that brought TV's Green Acres and Petticoat Junction, this show threw humble mountain folks into the midst of snobby upper crust society in Beverly Hills, California. Sure, the Clampett family members were stereotypical southern archetypes, but by the same token the writers poked a good deal of fun at the very culture that stereotyped southerners. Ambitious and campy, fan fondness for the wacky characters was only superseded by the show's catchy theme song. In fact The Ballad of Jed Clampett peppered the Country billboard charts for months way back in 1962, and held the #1 spot for three solid weeks that year.
17. Gilligan's Island
Composed by Sherwood Schwartz and George Wyle
This lovable tune quickly gained popularity back in my parents' generation, and even today you'd be hard pressed to find an 30+ American adult who doesn't know the lyrics of Gilligan's Island by heart. If they don't know the complete lyrics, you can darn well bet they know the tune. And if they don't know the tune? Then it's likely they grew up on a deserted island.
Composed by Jerrod Immel
The highly popular show, Dallas, had an easily identifiable theme song, one that was at once dramatically exuberant and melody simplistic. It became a staple of television theme compilation albums and even today I often hear it on muzak recordings piped into doctor and dentist waiting rooms.
But as popular as the Dallas theme is, it has always seemed to cry out for lyrics. In my younger days my friends and I even came up with what we thought were lyrics ideal for the melody; ones we felt were sincere to the general storyline. Here's a snatch you can try singing along with it if you remember the melody:
Down in Dallas
On a great big ranch
Lives oilman Jock Ewing and his spouse,
Together with younger sons and their wives
This filthy rich family share a house.
Out of the house
Working as a ranch hand
Lives Jock’s bastard son, the handsome Ray
He doesn’t like guys but wears tight jeans
And gets it on with niece Lucy in the hay.
Now J.R. Ewing
is a real lady’s man
Even as wife Sue Ellen’s got a nice rack
He’s known by everyone as the Dogcatcher
For all the skanky b*tches that he sacks.
Refrain: that he sacks, sacks in Dal-las!
Yes, we weren't any Oscar Hammersteins, but hey, we tried.
15. The Andy Griffith Show
AKA "The Fish'n Hole", composed by Earl Harry Hagen and Herbert W. Spencer, and performed by Hagen.
You know it has to be a pretty darned good theme if its remembered by millions without the original lyrics but simply as a whistled tune. Not only was "The Fish'n Hole" a memorable tune, it was happy and relaxing. When my husband and I first married he had this bad-tempered cat, and the only way that creature would allow anyone to touch her was by whistling this tune. I guess it meant she had really good taste in vintage theme music. Of course she would run any time she heard the soundtrack from Rawhide or The Godfather, so I can't be too sure there.
14. The Munsters
Composed by Jack Marshall (btw, father of Frank Marshall)
TV Land brings this classic show out each year around Halloween. Which is sad, I think, as it was a real hoot of a Sitcom. And that theme music, all so gothiclaly 60's groovy. Yep, it was hip for its day. The only part cooler than the theme or the talented Fred Gwynne in the role of Herman Munster were those to-die-for jazzed up cars the Munsters drove!
13. The Incredible Hulk (closing theme)
AKA "The Lonely Man Theme"; Composed by Joe Harnell
This one is the only closing theme on my list and the show itself was rifled with silliness, all the more evident for the makers' attempts to keep it serious. Honest to goodness - explain how a man can morph into a 7-foot monster, bursting out of every stitch of clothing he's got on except for his undies? However, just like the Lassie Whistle mentioned earlier, this hauntingly beautiful score had the power to make me break into childlike weeping. Now childlike weeping was ok when I was a child and didn't know if poor Lassie was going to survive the next devastating tribulation on her quest to selflessly help human beings. Sure, the Hulk and Lassie shared similar fates -both misunderstood by human beings and abused by human beings from time to time. But c'mon, if the Hulk decided to take a dump on the lawn nobody was going to chase him off with a broom!
So I don't know why I cry every time I hear this theme. But yeah, I love it.
12. The Waltons
Composed by Jerry Goldsmith
This is another television theme song that has appeared frequently on compilation albums. Rich in melody, with just the right amount of an Appalachian nuance to appeal to real Southerners, The Waltons theme is gorgeous and enduring. Also, if you play the original soundtrack album backward you can hear a lap harp moan the words, "Suck it up, Little House on the Prairie!" Or at least, that's the rumor around here in Appalachia.
11. National Geographic Television (original theme)
Composed by Elmer Bernstein
This exhilarating composition was -and still is- a hallmark in the annals of television scores. Just hearing a snippet of it can raise the hair on your arms -in a very positive way, as opposed to the hair raising and the underlying muscles tensing when there's an annoying used car dealership on the air. This rich score signaled the beginning of another awesome hour or two learning about incredible subjects - like the fascinating migration habits of gerbils and the exciting mating rituals of giant Sloths. Yes the National Geographic theme is an absolutely electrifying score. It is so powerful, in fact, that it practically has the magical ability to lure and trap viewers into watching a show about stuff we'd otherwise not waste a bag of microwave popcorn over.
And scientists say the supernatural isn't real. Pooh!
10. The X-Files
My ex-husband saw the very first episode of this series and excitedly told me it was the best show he'd ever seen. So I watched the next episode, and that night for some unexplained reason there was no theme in it. My ex remarked he was sure the first episode did have a theme song. So I tuned in for episode three and, wonders of wonders, the New-Agey, technically chilling theme was back in it. Of course, it was very different to most theme music I was used to. But that they'd deliberately left it out of the second episode made me stop and ponder why, why, why?. Later that night while I was trying to go to sleep the theme got into my dreams. I woke up with a headache and the headache and echoes of the theme continued straight through lunch.
I blame some kind of conspiracy. Maybe from the government. Or perhaps the makers of the Blue Hawaii ponies that I downed along with the super-sized taco I ate while watching The X-Files. Not really sure, no.. but I am fairly certain it involved aliens trying to get in my brain while I slept, in a menacing, underhanded attempt to steal my taco sauce recipe.
Nevertheless, I became a fan of the show. And an excellent score, just superb!
9. Dark Shadows
Composed by Robert Cobert
Way back in the 80's there was a sensually hot show on NBC show called, Dark Shadows. It was adapted from a hit ABC soap opera of two decades earlier by the same name. This NBC nighttime show starred Ben Cross and the plot centered around a vampire named Barnabas Collins. As popular as this new Dark Shadows was it was repeatedly preempted due to the Gulf War crisis, which caused a great loss of original viewer interest. After the cancellation I, like many others, were lucky that the original soap re-emerged on the new Sci-Fi network. And there we were allowed to digest the original ongoing story of Barnabas and his company of shape-shifter cohorts and sexy women in low-cut bodices.
Just as delicious as the occult-laden plot twists and forbidding love affairs of Dark Shadows was Colbert's theme music. Lavishly eerie and darkly stirring, this piece still holds its own against more contemporary sinister TV themes. Among those who love horror in general, it is just as popular as the themes of The Omen, The Exorcist and Halloween.
Oh, and I've heard that a major film version of Dark Shadows, directed by Tim Burton, is scheduled for release next year. I will assume that, as customary, Burton will have Danny Elfman do the music for this movie. But as much as I admire Elfman's compositions I do hope Burton goes with the original theme instead of using a new one. Nothing like the classics.
Composed by Neal Hefti
I can't help but love this one! It's so kinetic and ideally reflective of the series' deadpan humorous appeal. It quickly rose on the pop charts in 1966 and there was even a dance developed called The Bat, inspired by one episode in which Batman (Adam West) danced at a disco. A funny show and a very fitting and memorable theme!
7. Tales from the Crypt
Composed by Danny Elfman
Tales from the Crypt was one of the best horror genre shows of all time. And who better to write a smart and savvy theme than the talented Danny Elfman? This one was so good that upon hearing it start up my older kids and I would all go running to jump in front of the TV set. The kids were very young then but we'd all hum it together, swaying in time to the tempo. Even if the kids didn't watch the entire episodes with me we had to watch that intro! There was just something yummy fun about that forbidding, lush music and the camera angle whisking us through the winding staircase toward the Crypt Keeper's lair. And yeah, joining together to make that sinister cackle together at the end was the very best part! Good memories courtesy of one wonderful show!
6. That 70's Show
Composed by Alex Chilton and Chris Bell; originally performed by Todd Griffin, later by the band Cheap Trick
It was a kick-ass song when Chilton and Bell wrote it, and initially recorded by Griffin with real rock spirit -opposed to the bogus spirit found in watered down poser bubblegum like heard in preteen garbage shows such as Disney's Camp Rock. A few seasons later the makers of That 70's Show decided to re-record this theme and this time the sensational band Cheap Trick performed it. Both recordings came with no trite formula and without a trace of rap included. It don't get more authentic than this; though I have to admit I'm partial to Cheap Trick's version.
5. Star Trek (the original)
Composed by Alexander Courage; originally under the title, Where No Man Has Gone Before.
A masterpiece of harmonic structure and innovative orchestra, this theme has appeared somewhere in every single Star Trek media venture since the very beginning. While I could be proven wrong, I will speculate that this score is more closely associated with an entire cultural phenomenon of Sci-fi enthusiasts more than any other piece ever written.
Hearing this composition automatically invokes images of humanity adventuring into the limitless unknown of outer space.. of beautiful newly discovered planets and breathtaking galaxies...of strange and never-before-seen species of life forms..of men with hairless chests and sword cuts over their nipples...of pointy-eared men battling with medieval weapons for the right to make out with pointy-eared babes..of aliens with buttocks on their foreheads...women with heaving breasts and really short colorful hot pants...and even more alien life forms all sharing the cross-cultural ability to speak twentieth-century Americanized English.
At least in our real world we have the common language of music. And the Star Trek theme is one score that I dare guess may be considered a musical classic a century from now.
4. The Twilight Zone
In the case of The Twilight Zone there are two separate themes: the initial score used for the first two seasons, which basically consisted of snippets of sound effects and snatches of discordant music. Composed via the collective contributions of several musicians led by Bernard Hermann, it was eerie, imparting an unbalanced feeling to the ears of the listener.
But it was the second score, first used in season 3 that truly became identified with The Twilight Zone. Composed by Marius Constant, this theme incorporated a frantic heartbeat-like guitar rift accompanied by sound effects much more subtle than used in the other one. The auditory effect of this unconventional combo produced a perception akin to the sound of a fast-approaching vehicle, but a vehicle the listener can't identify or determine what direction its coming from. It was an ingenious piece, one that has never effectively been emulated. It also became the icon of iconic TV themes. If you've ever seen the re-runs just try to look at a photo of Rod Serling and not have this music pop up in your head.
3. Hawaii Five-O
Composed by Morton Stevens
This composition was high-charged with a vibrantly clean orchestration, and it lent a polished intro for a show that in several ways was a ground-breaker in dramatic television. So well-received was this score that it quickly became a hit on pop radio. It was soon covered by several well-known artists, including Sammy Davis Jr. and The Ventures. Some artists that covered it have included the lyrics, but it is best known in the instrumental format. It also became a dancing favorite and has shown up on numerous exercise music albums. Still thrilling to hear, Hawaii Five-O remains a favorite among soundtrack audiences the world over.
Composed by Mark Snow
This show was created by Chris Carter of The X-Files fame, and was an off-shoot of that series. Lead character, Frank Black, is a forensic profiler and former F.B.I. agent and also has the unwanted gift of being able to see through the eyes of criminals. His gift throws him headlong into an investigation of bizarre serial killings, all seemingly connected to events surrounding the Millennium, or end of days as feared around our last turn of the century. The show was dark and very gripping, but unsurprisingly, didn't last more than three seasons. As much as I enjoyed it, the truth is there isn't much of a show about the threats to humanity due to the impending Millennium once the Millennium has come and passed.
This aside, the theme and the background music did survive. An album called The Best of Millennium was released via iTunes, and quickly became a favorite among iTune listeners. The theme itself went on to become to a legend among fans of New Age and Celtic music listeners, and as well has been cited as one of the most frequently used wedding prelude pieces of the last ten years. Ironically, it is also been rated as one of the most family-requested funeral pieces during this time period.
The composition incorporates a central deep-pitched violin melody with restrained string and synthesized accompaniment. The end production is a score that is breathtaking, haunting, nostalgic and tenderly sweeping. In this TV viewer's opinion the Millennium theme is, hands down, the single most beautiful television score ever written or performed.
If you haven't heard the Millennium score yet, you can listen to it now on the following audio selection from Youtube.
So what television theme has ranked as my #1 very Best? Only one could possibly beat out the beautiful Millennium score. But it wasn't a hard choice to make. Actually it was very obvious; a score that has been loved by millions for decades and has no superior in either dramatic orchestration, uniqueness or lasting popularity. You hear this music and your heart rate accelerates. It thrills. It makes you feel cool. And -so I've heard- that by just listening to it while making love brings a little more excitement in the bedroom. Yep, it is just that groovy.
If you still haven't guessed what theme I'm talking about click on the following video for a listen.
Here you go...
The Mission Impossible theme was composed by the extraordinarily talented Lalo Schfrin.
Alrighty. Now that this list is finished, can you answer that Trivia Question I asked? C'mon, you know the answer!
This Hubpages post ©2011 by Beth Perry