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June 18, 2009


TV theme songs

Mary Tyler Moore opening sequence hat throw

Today's Daily News has a long analysis of the evolution of TV show theme songs. It doesn't seem to be related to anything, but it's pretty good anyway. It starts out with the idea that you can identify someone's generation by which theme songs they know all the words to: "Gilligan's Island" represents one generation, "Brady Bunch" is another, and "Greatest American Hero" is another. Of course, anyone who's in my generation knows all three because of the Golden Age of Afternoon Reruns in the early to mid-80's.

Anyway, the point of the article is that with so many shows on all the network and cable channels, audiences don't have the time or the brain capacity to get to know and love theme songs they way they used to, and many shows have almost completely gotten rid of theme music all together. Think of those 3 seconds of abstract whooshing that seems to be the theme music for "Lost".

There's a long tradition of theme songs that set up the premise of a show and characterized the storyline that extends into recent years. The theme song for "The Mary Tyler Moore Show" [video] about how Mary's gonna make it after all sets the stage for the show in much the same way that They Might Be Giants' "Boss of Me" did for "Malcolm in the Middle" [audio], and that ran until 2006.

Today's producers seem to be less secure about holding viewers, so they cut the long theme song to get straight to the action: "Now that most of us have dozens or hundreds of channels to surf through, and a remote to do it with, the networks are terrified that the minute one show ends, we will start looking around ... The idea is that we shouldn't have time to even think about picking up the remote before we're seeing action from the next show."

Maybe that's why cable networks are comfortable with longer opening sequences with theme songs than networks are, so we get "The Sopranos" [video] and "Weeds" [video] with one and a half minute intros, and on the networks we have a few quick bleeps to introduce "24".

So I'll share a few of my favorite theme songs and TV theme music. Please add any other stellar examples or personal favorites in the comments. (Click on the show names to hear the theme music.)

Miami Vice: My entire family used to be whipped into a frenzy of excitement every Friday night when that Jan Hammer music came on.
Mad Men: That moody, jazzy theme song with the hesitant descending strings somehow captures everything you need to know about the show.
The Jeffersons: I know. It's obvious, it's predictable, it's fantastic. It's by Ja'net Dubois.
Fame: Maybe I'm being influenced by the trailer for the new movie, but the original was really great.
Law & Order: Both the succinct "Dick Wolf Cash Register Sound" and the funky shuffle of the original show's theme music.
The X-Files: Abstract and spooky, maybe most popular ambient TV theme song ever?

The site Television Tunes seems to have every theme song ever--over 11,000.

categories: Culture, Music, TV
posted by amy at 3:58 PM | #

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Boy, that's a lot of themes to remember. I watched way too much TV as a kid.

Our family had the same frenzy for The Muppet Show. Hearing that song brings back good memories.

Also I was a sucker for those disco-ish themes of the 70's. I loved CHiPs and The Love Boat and Dallas.

And I always wanted a CD of Price is Right music. During the summers, I'd watch it every day. Thanks to your tip, Amy, I think I can finally get my 'Price is Right - Starcrossed' ringtone!

Posted by: ORStylee at June 19, 2009 9:26 AM

Dallas: nothing like a symphony orchestra with a synth drum beat to prepare you for high hair and oil crassness.

The Simpsons: I know this was an oversight.

Monty Python's Flying Circus: ditto.

Friends, which I did not actually like or watch, had a perfect song to capture Zeitgeist of the early mid 90s during which the show originally became popular. Or at least it seems that way now when I run across it and get flashbacks to that time.

Posted by: T-Rock at June 22, 2009 12:33 PM

You know, I forgot all about Dallas. It's high-energy and peppy enough to almost be a network news theme song, but that funky little bass riff adds a dollop of pure soapy indulgence. That's a great one.


I probably could have won a brand new dinette set on The Price is Right if I'd had the chance to be on the show when I was 9. Grandma and I adored it; she trained me well in the supermarket pricing arts.

Posted by: amy at June 22, 2009 11:00 PM

I always liked that aspect of the sitcom song's evolution where- in the 50's and 60's the purpose of the song was to explain exactly how the comic situation came to pass: 'And they're cousins! Identical cousins!', usually with an explanatory animated sequence.

The Norman Lear seventies I identify with moodiness and/or topicality in theme songs- WKRP, Different Strokes, Jeffersons, Facts of Life, where there was a strong awareness of what the show was *about*, man- with an accompanying montage of favorite moments.

By the late 80's and 90's, though, it became so that all theme songs were basically interchangeable- where the lyrics for the themes to Who's the Boss, Family Matters, Perfect Strangers, and Full House were just soft rock sentiments about pursuit of dreams and stayin' strong. That was the worst period, I think.

One underrated tune I always liked was the freaky go-go style of the Munsters. Also, as an appreciator of classical music, I am moved by the stirring Dynasty.

Posted by: ooghe at June 26, 2009 4:14 PM

The Munsters: great theme song. It's so ideally suited to the mood of the show: the wackier, funnier, more irreverent version of The Addams Family, which aired in the same years. Addams Family had the conventional expository theme song that sort of undercut its claims of kookiness.

Posted by: amy at June 28, 2009 11:15 PM

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