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What's Your Favorite TV Theme Song?

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#1 of 38 OFFLINE   Professor_Echo


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Posted June 01 2008 - 08:43 AM


Original music that has helped define shows is becoming a product for nostalgia.

By Paul Farhi,
Washington Post

May 31, 2008

Earle Hagen and Alexander Courage, who died days apart this month, were maestros of a musical genre that faded some years before they did. They composed TV theme music, those signature snippets that sent Pavlovian signals to viewers.

It's fair to say they don't make TV theme composers like them anymore. In fact, it's fair to say they don't make many TV theme composers of any kind anymore. The TV theme song, though not gone, is ailing. Indeed, if TV theme songs had a theme song these days, it would be a single descending penny whistle note.

Hagen, 88 at the time of his death, wrote some of the most memorable and beloved tunes of no more than a minute in length. He is perhaps best known for his themes to "The Dick Van Dyke Show" and "The Andy Griffith Show" (that's him on the soundtrack, whistling). He also wrote themes from the 1960s and early '70s, including those for "I Spy," "That Girl," "Mod Squad" and "Gomer Pyle, U.S.M.C."

Courage, also 88, was less prolific, but his name will endure as the author of the "Star Trek" theme, which has perhaps the most famous four-note opening since Beethoven's Fifth.

TV themes, great and not-so, used to abound. At their best (think "Gilligan's Island," "The Brady Bunch," "The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air"), they did more than just worm into your ear and settle there for a lifetime. They introduced characters, established plots, set a program's mood and tone.

Often, no lyrics were needed. Quincy Jones' musical theme for "Sanford and Son" magically conjured a junkyard and the shambling Fred Sanford. Paul Anka's "Tonight Show" theme was inseparable from late night and Johnny Carson. The "Miami Vice" theme, set over a pastel-perfect credit sequence, efficiently evoked the '80s decadence to follow. Same with Danny Elfman's nearly 20-year-old theme song for "The Simpsons."

TV shows don't do that anymore, or at least they don't do it the way Hagen and Courage and theme-writing legends like Mike Post ("Rockford Files," "Hill Street Blues," "Law & Order") did it in a quainter, slower era of television. Few network TV shows now open with extended title-and-theme sequences. Instead, they open "cold," with the action and dialogue immediately in progress after the conclusion of the preceding program. The opening credits tend to be perfunctory; apart from a few brief chords, "Lost" and "Grey's Anatomy" barely bother with music at all.

The reason is largely a result of the competitive dynamics of TV: so many channels, so little time to hook viewers. "Executives at the broadcast networks are operating in a climate of fear," says Jon Burlingame, author of "TV's Biggest Hits," a history of theme music. "They're paranoid that if they haven't grabbed you in the first two minutes, you'll go away."

Shorter opening sequences also mean more money. Why waste a full minute on an introductory sequence -- as shows regularly did up through the 1980s -- when half or more of that time can be devoted to another commercial? Themes may also be superfluous in the fast-forwarding TiVo age.

The demise of the theme may have been signaled by Garry Shandling's spoof of theme music in his 1986 Fox sitcom, "It's Garry Shandling's Show." The lyrics: "This is the theme to Garry's show . . . . This is the music that you hear as you watch the credits . . . . "

The last great TV theme, Burlingame says, was "I'll Be There for You," a song written for "Friends" by Michael Skloff and Allee Willis and performed by the Rembrandts. The theme for the '90s show proved so popular that a full-length version of it made Billboard's charts as a single, one of a number of TV themes ("Mission: Impossible," "Hawaii Five-O," the Partridge Family's "C'mon, Get Happy") to become hits.

The more recent strategy has been to license a pop song as theme music. "Dawson's Creek" may have started this trend by employing Paula Cole's "I Don't Want to Wait" as its theme (well, "The Lone Ranger" used Rossini's "William Tell Overture" a few years before that). "The O.C." played the same game, as did all of the "CSIs," which are keeping the Who in residuals.

"It's almost the reverse of what it used to be," says Jay Campbell, whose website, TelevisionTunes.com, contains more than 6,000 sound files of TV theme music. "Now, instead of the song reminding you of the show, the show reminds you" of the single.

Burlingame thinks this is a tactic driven by the need for instantaneous acceptance. A familiar song, he points out, may help an unfamiliar new TV show win viewers quickly.

There are a few exceptions, of course. Children's programs, such as the Disney Channel's "Hannah Montana," tend to employ original theme music. And HBO's series tend to have generous opening sequences set to music (think "The Sopranos," "Six Feet Under," "The Wire," "Sex and the City" and "Entourage").

But elsewhere on the tube, an era is almost past.

"It used to be," says Burlingame, "that you'd be in the kitchen getting a sandwich or a soda, and you'd hear that theme. It would remind you that your favorite show is coming on. There was a time when these composers really knew how to capture the essence of a show in music. It seemed so right and appropriate. That's the gift of the composer. I hope we're not losing that."

#2 of 38 OFFLINE   TravisR


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Posted June 01 2008 - 11:20 AM

I think HBO shows still have theme songs because they have a full 30 or 60 minute window. When networks have cut their shows running time down to about 42 minutes an episode, it can be an absolute waste to spend 30 seconds or a minute on a theme when that time can be used for the actual episode.

While it's not the same thing, it seems like shows that are 'without' theme songs (like Lost or 24) just have the theme play over the end credits. Of course, you don't see the end credits on network broadcasts but you can see it on DVD. Posted Image

#3 of 38 OFFLINE   todd s

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Posted June 02 2008 - 03:31 AM

Mission Impossible and SWAT. Posted Image
Bring back John Doe! Or at least resolve the cliff-hanger with a 2hr movie or as an extra on a dvd release.

#4 of 38 OFFLINE   Ockeghem



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Posted June 02 2008 - 05:23 AM

Mine are probably Mission: Impossible, the closing theme to the second season of The Outer Limits (original series), and Perry Mason (provided it is the slower tempo version, used at the beginning of the original series as opposed to the version of the theme used on the menu for the DVDs or the version used in the made-for-t.v. movies that came out several years later). I also like the dissonances employed in the theme for The Invaders.

#5 of 38 OFFLINE   JoshuaB.


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Posted June 02 2008 - 05:33 AM

When I was a kid I loved the Get Smart theme (and the shots of Max walking through all those doors helped), but my favourites today would be Angelo Badalementi's theme for Twin Peaks, Millennium (Mark Snow), Buffy the Vampire Slayer (Nerf Herder) and The Flash (Danny Elfman).

#6 of 38 OFFLINE   Ockeghem



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Posted June 02 2008 - 05:42 AM

Professor Echo,

That was a really interesting read. Thanks for posting.

I own three volumes of Television's Greatest Hits. I will frequently put them on while we are doing things around the house. Our children love the themes, even though many of the tunes are (obviously) before their time. There is just something about good music that catches one's attention.

From the article:

"There are a few exceptions, of course. Children's programs, such as the Disney Channel's "Hannah Montana," tend to employ original theme music...".

This theme ("The Best of Both Worlds") has been played in our home probably more than any other since March of 2006. I would estimate approximately several hundreds of times. Posted Image

#7 of 38 OFFLINE   FrosteyV


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Posted June 02 2008 - 07:44 AM

Buffy the Vampire Slayer, SWAT, Peter Gunn, Lawman, The Virginian, the High Chaparral, The Rifleman, Hawaii Five-O

#8 of 38 OFFLINE   BobSchneider


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Posted June 02 2008 - 04:59 PM

Oh my just one, HMMMMM well in no real order because I almost like the all equally, I spy, Secret agent (american intro), Wild Wild West, S1, S2, S3 man from uncle, Mission Impossible, McCloud, 1st verison of Kojak, Hawaii Five-0, Stargate SG-1, 1st verison Space:1999, Buffy, SWAT, The Prisoner, Mannix, Streets of San Francisco, The list could go on and on LOLPosted Image Posted Image Posted Image
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#9 of 38 OFFLINE   Dale MA

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Posted June 02 2008 - 10:03 PM

Hawaii Five-O Miami Vice Mission: Impossible The Twilight Zone Twin Peaks The X-Files

#10 of 38 OFFLINE   LizH


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Posted June 02 2008 - 10:48 PM

My favorites: Mission: Impossible Miami Vice Airwolf Hawaii Five-O Streethawk Knight Rider Magnum P.I. The Addams Family

#11 of 38 OFFLINE   John DeAngelis

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Posted June 03 2008 - 02:17 AM

Nelson Riddle's "Route 66" and Vic Mizzy's (I think) "Green Acres" are pretty perfect in totally different ways.

#12 of 38 OFFLINE   Katherine_K


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Posted June 03 2008 - 02:25 AM

Battlestar Galactica (current series) Doctor Who (original and current, but not the 1980s versions)

#13 of 38 OFFLINE   Ennsio


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Posted June 03 2008 - 03:59 AM

Mission Impossible Knight Rider Magnum PI I loved the way the Mission Impossible episodes would start out with the initial setup scene and then the high energy theme song would come on and pump up your excitement for the show that you are about to watch. That was a really effective theme song in terms of capturing the viewer's interest in the show IMO.

#14 of 38 OFFLINE   MishaLauenstein


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Posted June 03 2008 - 04:07 AM

Some good ones have been mentioned. I really like: Open All Night, Mama Malone, Clueless, The Best Times, The Munsters, The Dukes of Hazzard, The Fall Guy, Paper Dolls, Mariah, My Two Dads, Charles in Charge
40% Ben Katz + 30% Bobby Hill (Texas) + 20% Monica Geller + 10% William Dent. (Wardrobe by George Costanza)

#15 of 38 OFFLINE   Charles H

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Posted June 03 2008 - 06:37 AM

Charles Hoyt

#16 of 38 OFFLINE   heathjack


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Posted June 03 2008 - 07:34 AM

Family ties, boy meets world, the wonder years, and perfect strangers. ones that just has music earlly edition and Quatman leap. I also like the incdabile hulk at the end of the show they always play sad theme song.

#17 of 38 OFFLINE   Brian GT

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Posted June 04 2008 - 07:55 AM

Hawaii Five-0 Mission: Impossible The Streets Of San Francisco And for some reason the first season theme for Space: 1999. Works best with the video highlights running with it though.

#18 of 38 OFFLINE   Aryn Leroux

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Posted June 04 2008 - 11:54 AM

The Rockford Files is the best theme song ever created in my opinion..

But here are some favorites of mine:

Hardcastle & McCormick - Theme 1 Hardcastle & McCormick - Theme 2 The Rockford Files St. Elsewhere Hill Street Blues Magnum, P.I. - Theme 1 Magnum, P.I. - Theme 2 Airwolf
The Equalizer
The Fall Guy
Family Ties The Greatest American Hero Hart to Hart Knight Rider The Love Boat MacGyver Miami Vice Northern Exposure Picket Fences Quantum Leap Falcon Crest Remington Steele Riptide Simon & Simon - Theme 1 Simon & Simon - Theme 2 Eight Is Enough Matt Houston Scarecrow and Mrs. King

#19 of 38 OFFLINE   Yee-Ming



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Posted June 04 2008 - 04:57 PM

Why "for some reason"? That was an awesome theme. Second season's sucked, though. Posted Image

I can agree with most suggestions already put forward, so won't repeat them, but I must say Hawaii Five-O has to be one of the most iconic.

I also loved the original Battlestar Galactica's, now reprised as the "Colonial Anthem" in the new series. Wish they'd play it more often in the new show.

Of recent shows, West Wing's was great. Frasier's, even though only a few bars, set the tone quite nicely, as did his outro song.

For older shows, the A-Team -- both the voiceover that set up the premise of the show, and the subsequent theme itself.

#20 of 38 OFFLINE   ChrisCook



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Posted June 04 2008 - 05:52 PM

I have too many favorites to list, so here are some (and in no particular order): MacGyver (my all-time favorite) Star Trek: The Next Generation Star Trek: Deep Space Nine The Fall Guy Danger Bay Early Edition (W.G. Snuffy Walden theme) Due South Avonlea The X-Files Stargate SG-1 Nowhere Man Sherlock Holmes (Granada Television Series) The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy ("Journey of the Sorcerer") Quantum Leap (I always get a kick out of seeing my birth year among the dates that get flash across the opening credits.) Northern Exposure Quincy M.E. JAG China Beach The Hogan Family Monk Psych Everwood Friday Night Lights Corner Gas

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