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Top 10 TV Themes -- Most Memorable TV Theme Songs

Updated on March 5, 2012

Name That Tune

I truly believe that a show's opening song can make or break the program. Take the Twilight Zone, for example. Yes, it's a great show, but that foreboding theme in the beginning is what ties it all together and sets the entire tone for the series. You may catch a particular episode and be like, "Oh, yeah, it's the Twilight Zone," but as soon as your hear those familiar notes, you KNOW exactly what it is. It's the show's brand, if you will.

Many shows have themes I like (and some don't, but I'll get to that another time). That said, choosing only 10 of these was extremely difficult. In order to do so, I tapped into both my experience as a writer and musician and sought out intros that are:

a) Catchy - meaning the theme stays with you and you feel compelled to sing along.

b) Musically interesting - meaning that random notes weren't just strung together; the composer really thought about the opening and how it would reflect the show's tone.

c) Clever - Some themes didn't need lyrics because the music said it all. With others, though, it was the words that put it over the top.

d) Appropriate for the show - The Twilight Zone's theme rocks, but imagine if it had been used for the Golden Girls or vice versa. No, that really doesn't work either way!

Of course, all of my choices here are subjective, but I hope my explanations shed some light on why I like these themes so much. I'd love to hear from you, though, whether you agree with me or have other ideas. So go ahead, share your thoughts and debate my choices!

And now without further ado.... the top 10. Drumroll please...

Hawaii Five-0 Theme

The Runners-Up

The Addams Family
The Mary Tyler Moore Show
Beverly Hills, 90210
I Dream Of Jeannie
The Facts Of Life
The Love Boat
Three's Company
Laverne & Shirley
The Brady Bunch
Batman
Law & Order
The Flintstones


Hawaii Five-0

Speaking of drums, who can forget that slammin' bammin; percussion riff in the Hawaii Five-0 theme. That alone makes this opener a standout! However, the rest of the tune is pretty cool, too. It does exactly what it's supposed to do and brings to mind various surfer songs, such as "Wipeout." The continuous motif - "Ba ba ba ba bah bam, ba ba ba ba baaaa...." with the pulsating undertones of the drums and bass conjures up images of a wave cresting and falling. Plus, the heavy, accented beat hints at this being an action series. No words were spoken in this theme, but from the credits, you knew exactly what the show was about.

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Six Feet Under

Quiet, leaping notes sneak you into this theme, making you think of -- what exactly? Ghostly footsteps in the night? Chemicals dripping through test tubes? In either case, both are appropriate for Six Feet Under, the riveting drama about a family of undertakers.

As the tune continues, the haunting wail of an oboe slips into the forefront, sounding a little like a cry. Meantime, the percussive "Ding!" in the background brings to mind the chiming of a clock ... as everyone's time runs out and they head closer to death. It's a beautiful opener, which cleverly and subtly brings out the show's message.

Six Feet Under Theme

The Golden Girls

"Thank you for being a friend..." What I like about this theme is that it sounds as if something Dorothy, Rose, Blanche and Sophia would've said to one another. The song is a pretty up-tempo tune, but it's those lyrics about friendship and loyalty that truly capture the essence of the girls' relationship. It's also age appropriate for these mature women; if a grunge or rock version of the song had been produced, for example, it would've sounded silly.

In addition, I like the way the show cleverly uses short instrumental variations on the opener as a bumper between "acts." It sets the tone for each scene and provides a very theatrical element to the program, so that you feel as if it's live -- and you're in that house with the four of them. The music simply pulls together an already wonderful show -- and no matter how many times I watch reruns, I always, ALWAYS, find myself singing along.

The Golden Girls Theme

All In The Family Theme

DVDS Golden Girls, Bonanza And All In The Family

All In The Family

"Boy, the way Glen Miller played... Songs that made the hit parade..."

Let's face it, "Those Were The Days" is not the best sounding piece of music. And the performers -- the characters Archie and Edith -- were not the greatest singers. But their screechy, out-of-tune take on a nostalgic old song was a realistic slice of life.

C'mon, how many of us have elderly relatives who like to sit around the piano and belt out (often badly) old show tunes or holiday music? And in Archie and Edith's case, they know each other so well, and have apparently sung this song together so many times, each knows exactly which line to take! The opener is the ideal way to showcase a loving, but definitely not perfect, couple, who've been together for a long time.

Cheers Theme

Cheers

"Where Everybody Knows Your Name" is one of my favorites because it's a nice-sounding tune and spells out exactly what people look for when they go to an old, familiar haunt -- especially folks like Norm and Cliff, who rarely seemed to leave! Like the Golden Girls theme, it's a simple, "cozy" tune with a strong message about friendship. Even if you've never heard the song before, it sounds familiar -- and there's a comfort to that, just as there was for Cheers' often-lonely patrons.

DVDs Twilight Zone, Gilligan's Island And Hawaii Five-0

Bonanza

"Dom, dah-dah-dah-dah, dom, dah-dah-dah-dah, dah, daaahhh..."

For me, Bonanza wins the prize as having the theme song most likely to stay in your head all day long. But that's because it's a great song! The rollicking motif brings to mind a galloping horse through a prairie. Then there's that middle syncopated bridge which resembles a square dancing tune. All of these elements in this simple theme perfectly kick off the Western-inspired show.

It's Garry Shandling's Show

The music itself in this theme isn't the most outstanding as the simple changes between two chords make it sound as if some drunk guy dreamed up the orchestration on the spur of the moment. But you know what? It works because that's exactly what it's supposed to sound like as the lyrics tell you:

"This is the theme to Garry's show, the theme to Garry's show, Garry called me up and asked if I could write his theme song..."

As it's sung, you can clearly imagine some poor schlep sitting at his keyboard, sweat pouring down his face as he struggles to come up with something -- anything -- for the premier of this series, which is in a half hour. And it perfectly captures Shandling's program, which was about his shoddily put-together, but ultimately hilarious, "reality show."

Theme For It's Garry Shandling Show

DVDs Cheers, Six Feet Under And It's Garry Shandling's Show

The Twilight Zone

This is an example of a theme where less is more. Those eight disonant opening notes - "Doo-doo, doo-doo, doo-doo, doo-doo" sound like the siren on an ambulance or cop car -- it's never clarified exactly what it's supposed to represent -- but regardless, it sends out a signal that something alarming is coming your way. Something not right. Added over that is the grim-sounding narration which only increases your aniexty. Finally, the tune checks out with a cacophonous tuble of notes ... sending the viewer over the abyss into the Twilight Zone along with the unsuspecting characters.

Twilight Zone Theme

Gilligan's Island

This opener is amazing because it tells the entire plot of the show, and introduces the whole cast, in less than a minute! Moreover, it's musically clever. It's constructed to sound like a traditional sailor song and the way the beat pulses -- it's in 2 -- brings to mind a rocking ship. As a flute player, I especially like the way it weaves in the piccolo underneath the main line of the song. Plus, it goes through three key changes. Again, all of this happens in a very short amount of time. It's simple, it's captivating ... and it's perfect.

The Simpsons Theme Song

An American In Paris -- Inspiration Behind The Simpsons Theme?

The Simpsons

It may seem surprising that I chose a cartoon's theme for No.1, but let me tell you, The Simpsons opener is an extremely difficult and complex musical piece. We played it once in high school jazz band and I was shocked by how hard it was to get it sounding just right. It gave me a new respect for it and the composers who put it together.

For starters, the tune is a classic example of a fugue, which is where you repeat one motif that you keep building upon and building upon. Then there's the clever use of the instruments throughout the piece; the honk of the saxophones and low roar of the brass mimic the sounds of car horns, trains, etc. so it gives the sense of being in a busy setting. In this respect, it shares similarities with George Gershwin's masterpiece, "An American In Paris," in which he, too, used the notes to create sound effects. Because of this, you can close your eyes and even without seeing Bart go through town on his skateboard, know that action is happening -- and that it's in someplace urban.

Also to note are the dissonant chords and syncopations within the piece from the chromatic fall through the notes to the clash of the students playing in orchestra (FYI: Lisa's little sax improv is different in every single intro so the theme is never exactly the same!). Though some parts of the theme sound chaotic, it's organized. As we discovered in my jazz band, every (seemingly) wrong note needs to be in exactly the right place in order for it to still sound musical. It took quite a bit of genius for all of this to be pulled together!

Overall, The Simpsons theme is lively, wacky and a little off-kilter -- much like Homer and his family, and the rest of the gang in Springfield. The opener not only does a fantastic job of setting up the show, but is a memorable piece of music all on its own.

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    • RonElFran profile image

      Ronald E Franklin 

      4 years ago from Mechanicsburg, PA

      Good hub. Although, of course, most of your choices are wrong (meaning they don't agree with mine). How could you possibly leave out the themes from Perry Mason (my nominee as #1 of all time), Peter Gunn, and Mission Impossible? Seriously, I enjoyed the bits of musical analysis you included in your descriptions. Thanks.

    • George Greene Jr. profile image

      George Greene Jr. 

      5 years ago from California PA

      I mentioned this before on another Hubber's list,... No one mentioned John Sebastian 's rendition of "Welcome Back" or Joey Scarbury's "Believe it or not" from the shows "Welcome Back Kotter" and "The Greatest American Hero", respectfully.

    • trusouldj profile image

      trusouldj 

      6 years ago from Indiana

      My 2 oldest kids are 18 and 13. When they were 6 and 1, we would listen to my theme songs cd on the way to and from school. This made the car ride less frantic.

    • Taylorwise profile image

      Taylorwise 

      7 years ago from Austin, TX

      Great hub! I miss the days of "real" TV theme songs...seems like a lot of them are recycled pop songs that just make you go "Huh?" or they're just plain ol' bad......

    • NaomiR profile imageAUTHOR

      NaomiR 

      8 years ago from New York

      Thanks! I did have fun writing it. But I think I spend way too much time watching TV.

    • dohn121 profile image

      dohn121 

      8 years ago from Hudson Valley, New York

      I really liked you selection of TV themes, Naomi. The only ones I would've included is the Dukes of Hazzard, Mission:Impossible, Growing Pains, Family Ties, Diff'rent Strokes...Oh what the heck! There are just too many! I see where you might've had a problem now! Great hub nevertheless! I'm sure you had a lot of fun writing it!

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