For Part 2, read The 25 Greatest TV Theme Songs of All Time: Spoken-Word.
For Part 3, read The 40 Greatest Animated TV Series Theme Songs
How do you determine the greatest TV show theme songs of all time? It’s a daunting task. Consider that, in 2016, more than 1,400 shows ran on prime-time television in the United States — that doesn’t include streaming — and most of those shows had some kind of opening sequence with music. Tom Morello of the band Rage Against the Machine suggested that bands should be considered for the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame on the basis of “impact, influence, and awesomeness”; we’ll use a similar criteria of catchiness, memorability, and appropriateness to rank TV theme songs. We’ll also be breaking this list into three distinct categories: live-action, animated, and spoken-word/voiceover themes. We begin with Part 1: Theme songs for live-action shows.
50. Veronica Mars
2004-2007, 2014, 2019; “We Used to Be Friends” by The Dandy Warhols
This 2003 Dandy Warhols track was both bracingly of-the-moment and completely appropriate for the Kristen Bell-led teen detective show. Veronica Mars ran three seasons, had a film continuation released in 2014, and will return for a multi-episode run on Hulu this year.
1994-2004; “I’ll Be There for You” by The Rembrandts
We’re practically legally obligated to include this one. The Rembrandts co-wrote the original minute-long version of the tune with Friends producers David Crane and Marta Kauffman, Kaufman’s husband Michael Skloff, and musician Allee Willis. The song became so popular, with DJs playing it on the radio, that the group recorded an extended version for a single, and a companion video was produced featuring the six leads of the show. The release was a massive hit around the world between 1995 and 1997, and notched No. 1 positions on the U.S. Mainstream, Adult Contemporary, and Airplay charts.
48. Tie: Perry Mason and Ironside
Perry Mason: 1957-1966 by Fred Steiner
Ironside: 1967-1975 by Quincy Jones
Raymond Burr headlined two much-loved dramas with highly regarded theme songs. Legal drama Perry Mason’s theme had a jazzy swagger that befitted the character borne from Erle Stanley Gardner’s detective stories (some of which ran in The Saturday Evening Post). Ironside featured Burr’s wheelchair-bound crime solver and a theme by the legendary composer and producer Quincy Jones. It was the first TV theme to have its sound rooted in synthesizer.
2002-2003; “The Ballad of Serenity” by Joss Whedon
The first Joss Whedon show on the list, the space western Firefly boasted a theme composed by the writer himself. It was performed by Sonny Rhodes, and remarkably infused the space theme into a traditional country tune.
46. Buffy the Vampire Slayer
1997-2003; by Nerf Herder
Joss Whedon gets a lot of credit for revitalizing genre TV. His first hit, based on the film that he wrote, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, came packed with a great theme. It starts with a nod to the old Universal horror days with a fugue on organ. Then it rips into four-on-the-floor post-punk surf-rock, turning the old themes on their heads in the same way that the show stretched horror tropes.
45. The Adventures of Brisco County, Jr.
1993-1994; by Randy Edelman
This weird western starring Bruce Campbell ran for only 27 episodes in the mid-1990s. However, it earned a cult following and is fondly remembered by TV critics. Incredibly, the theme lives on, having been appropriated by NBC for its Olympics coverage since 1996.
44. Gilligan’s Island
1964-1967; “The Ballad of Gilligan’s Island” by George Wyle and Sherwood Schwartz
In one of the theme songs that actually states the show’s premise, “The Ballad” explains how the S.S. Minnow got lost in a storm with seven very different people aboard. The words and music were by George Wyle and show creator Sherwood Schwartz.
43. The Fall Guy
1981-1986; “The Unknown Stuntman” by Dave Somerville
Producer Glen A. Larson wanted to develop a show featuring a stunt man. Coincidentally, his friend (and frontman of The Diamonds) Dave Somerville had written a song about a stunt man for a show that never went forward. Inspired by the song, Larson created the character of Colt Seavers, a stunt man and bounty hunter. Lee Majors, having worked with Larson on The Six Million Dollar Man, signed on to play Seavers and even sang the theme song. The “I’ve been seen with Farrah” line was a reference to Majors’ then-marriage to Farrah Fawcett of Charlie’s Angels; she also appeared in The Fall Guy pilot.
1978-1991, revived 2012-2014; by Jerrold Immel
Jerrold Immel broke into television composing scores for Gunsmoke in the early 1970s. He would go on to write the theme for Dallas and score 55 episodes of the show. He also created themes for other shows like Dallas spin-off Knots Landing and the third season of Walker, Texas Ranger. The Dallas theme, an improbable blend of western film tropes and disco, remains instantly recognizable.
41. The Munsters
1964-1966; by Jack Marshall
The surf-inspired theme for monster comedy The Munsters received a Grammy nomination in 1965. Some readers might recognize the song from Fall Out Boy’s 2015 song “Uma Thurman,” which used the theme as the source for its primary sample.
40. WKRP in Cincinnati
1978-1982, 1991-1993; by Tom Wells and Hugh Wilson with Steve Carlisle vocals
This theme joins The Fall Guy theme (and many others) in expressly describing what the show is about. In this case, it mainly reflects the story of station program director Andy Travis (Gary Sandy). After a decent run on CBS, the show became enormously popular in syndication. It was revived for a short run in the early 1990s, and retained the theme (albeit updated a bit, musically).
39. Game of Thrones
2011-2019; by Ramin Djawadi
Based on the hugely successful A Song of Ice and Fire novels by George R.R. Martin, HBO’s Game of Thrones became a worldwide fantasy phenomenon. The music of the show has inspired orchestral concerts and tours. The majestic main theme is by composer Ramin Djawadi, whose body of work includes creating additional music for Hans Zimmer scores for movies like Iron Man, Batman Begins, and Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl.
38. Sanford and Son
1972-1977, and for Sanford 1980-1981; “The Streetbeater” by Quincy Jones
The popular Redd Foxx/Demond Wilson sitcom featured the catchy funk of Quincy Jones. Though the song never charted, Jones nevertheless included it in his Greatest Hits collection. The theme was also used for Sanford, a brief revival that Wilson declined to join.
37. The Brady Bunch
1969-1974; by Frank De Vol and Sherwood Schwartz
The theme from The Brady Bunch serves as a microcosm of our bigger list. Song explains the plot? Check. Co-written by a show creator? Check. Sherwood Schwartz again? Check. Used in revivals of the show? Check. The song certainly gets credit for quickly establishing the premise of a blended family, and it proved popular enough to generate variations or instrumental motifs used in the nine variation spin-offs and continuations of the show. The tic-tac-toe board layout of the opening sequence and the song itself have been parodied many times, including a recent take by the actors of the Marvel Cinematic Universe.
36. Good Times
1974-1979; “Good Times” by Dave Grusin and Alan & Marilyn Bergman, performed by Jim Gilstrap and Blinky Williams
Both Sanford and Son and Good Times, along with a couple of upcoming entries on our list, were developed by super-producer Norman Lear. Lear didn’t shy away from controversial topics or blue-collar characters, and Good Times was an exemplar of that. The theme’s lyrics reference the hardships that the Evans family faced in the projects, notably the hard-to-hear-unless-you-know-the-words “hangin’ in a chow line.”
35. Laverne & Shirley
1976-1983; “Making Our Dreams Come True” by Cyndi Grecco
If Norman Lear was the king of 1970s sitcoms on CBS, his counterpart at ABC was Garry Marshall. He hit with The Odd Couple and followed with phenom Happy Days. Happy Days generated a remarkable seven spin-offs (two of which were animated). The first, and most successful, was Laverne & Shirley, which followed two single gals who first appeared on Days as friends of the Fonz. Laverne herself, Penny Marshall (Garry’s sister), contributed the hopscotch chant that comes before the song in the opening credits.
34. The Facts of Life
1979-1988; by Al Burton, Alan Thicke, and Gloria Loring
Season 2 onward
Much like the show, the theme had two distinct versions. The first version was used for season 1 and featured star Charlotte Rae and a number of the seven featured young ladies trading lines. When the show was retooled for season 2 (which included replacing four of the girls — one of whom was a young Molly Ringwald — with Nancy McKeon’s Jo), portions of the lyrics were rewritten, including the addition of the more famous “You take the good, you take the bad” opening line. From season 2 on, the theme was performed by co-writer Loring, known for her role on Days of Our Lives and her later hit song Friends and Lovers.
33. Diff’rent Strokes
1978-1986; by Al Burton, Alan Thicke, and Gloria Loring
The Facts of Life actually spun off from Diff’rent Strokes, so it was logical to have Burton, Thicke, and Loring write both themes. However, on this earlier program, Thicke sang lead. This was just one facet of Thicke’s incredibly diverse career that ran the gamut from composer to singer to talk show host to lead actor on the successful sitcom Growing Pains.
32. The Mary Tyler Moore Show
1970-1977; “Love Is All Around” by Sonny Curtis
It’s hard to overestimate the impact of The Mary Tyler Moore Show. Having a single career woman in the lead was a huge deal at the time, and the incredible cast and crew (including creator and sitcom writing/directing legend James L. Brooks) powered the show to 29 Emmy wins over its run. The Sonny Curtis theme became an empowering anthem, and Mary’s hat toss at the end of the opening is an iconic TV moment. The theme has been covered by a number of artists, including Joan Jett and Minneapolis-based Hüsker Dü, who parodied the show’s opening in their music video; Hüsker Dü frontman Bob Mould still performs the song as an encore on his current solo tours.
31. The Sopranos
1999-2007; “Woke Up This Morning (Chosen One Mix)” by A3
British electronic act Alabama 3 (called A3 in the U.S. to avoid confusion with country band Alabama) blended their modern approach with the mood of a bluesy murder ballad. The tune, set against a spare opening of mafia underboss Tony Soprano driving home through New Jersey, evokes the dark tone of the series.
30. The Dukes of Hazzard
1979-1985; “Good Ol’ Boys” by Waylon Jennings
Country legend Waylon Jennings nailed the spirit of a show about car chases and misadventures with his plot-explaining anthem. Extremely popular, the single reached No. 21 on the pop chart and hit the top of the Hot 100 Country chart in 1980. Jennings also served as narrator for the series.
29. All in the Family
1971-1979; “Those Were the Days” by Lee Adams, Charles Strouse, and Roger Kellaway, performed by Caroll O’Connor and Jean Stapleton
The No. 1 show in America from 1971 to 1976, and another of Norman Lear’s murderer’s row of monster CBS hits, All in the Family’s plots turned on the clashes between bigoted Archie Bunker (O’Connor); his ostensibly silly but deceptively wise wife, Edith (Stapleton); their liberal daughter, Gloria (Sally Struthers); and her ever-more-liberal husband, Michael “Meathead” Stivic (Rob Reiner). The show had five definitive spin-offs (a couple of which spun off their own shows). The theme featured leads O’Connor and Stapleton opining on better days (at least as how Archie saw them).
28. The Jeffersons
1975-1985; “Movin’ On Up” by Jeff Barry and Ja’net Dubois, performed by Dubois
One of the spin-offs from All in the Family featured the extremely popular neighbors, George and Louise Jefferson, played by Sherman Hemsley and Isabel Sanford. The theme charts the Jefferson’s move from their old neighborhood to their new high-rise thanks to the success of George’s dry-cleaning chain. The Jeffersons holds the distinction of having the most seasons of any sitcom with a primarily African-American cast. Musical side-note: the late regular cast member Roxie Roker (Helen Willis) is the mother of rock star Lenny Kravitz.
27. The Andy Griffith Show
1960-1968; “The Fishin’ Hole” by Earle Hagen, Herbert Spencer, and Everett Sloan
One of the most memorable themes ever is one of the simplest. Largely whistled (by Hagen), actual musical instruments don’t come in until about halfway through the 30-second theme. The tune is absolutely unmistakable.
26. The Muppet Show
1976-1981; “The Muppet Show Theme” by Jim Henson and Sam Pottle
Though certain parts of the song changed over the course of the five seasons, the core of “The Muppet Show Theme” remained the same. The song was performed by creator Henson, Frank Oz, and other operators via their various characters. In a move similar to the later “couch gag” on The Simpsons, each episode’s theme song ended with a different noise emanating from Gonzo’s horn, usually followed by a punch line.
25. Danger Man/Secret Agent
1960-1962, 1964-1968; “Secret Agent Man” by P.F. Sloan and Steve Barri, performed by Johnny Rivers
Danger Man was a British TV series featuring Patrick McGoohan as secret agent John Drake. It had a short U.K. run but became an unexpected hit in the U.S. during summer reruns under the name Secret Agent. Part of the new success was owed to the rocking U.S. theme song, which became a No. 3 hit on the Hot 100. This prompted a resurrection of the show that ran from 1964 to 1968. At the end of the final season, McGoohan left and launched the unofficial sequel, cult classic sci-fi show The Prisoner.
24. Space: 1999
1975-1977; by Barry Gray and Vic Elmes
Space: 1999 didn’t have a long run, but it left behind several generations of fans. The show was led by Martin Landau and Barbara Bain (who were married at the time and had starred in Mission: Impossible together) and shot in the U.K. The premise turned on the inhabitants of Moonbase Alpha, who have to try to survive when the moon is knocked out of Earth’s orbit. The theme opens with portentous classical sounds, and then kicks into full-on sci-fi disco. It’s very of its time, but awesome lives forever.
23. The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air
1990-1996; “Yo Home to Bel-Air” by DJ Jazzy Jeff & The Fresh Prince with Quincy Jones
Someone had the idea to put the wildly charismatic Will Smith, the “Fresh Prince” of hip-hop duo DJ Jazzy Jeff & The Fresh Prince, in a sitcom. Someone was a genius. The show was a huge hit and launched Smith into an even more successful film career. The theme, which is actually called “Yo Home to Bel-Air,” puts the show’s premise and Smith’s talent on full display.
22. The Golden Girls
1985-1992; “Thank You for Being a Friend” by Andrew Gold, performed by Cynthia Fee
Though most people associate this song with the TV series, Gold’s original recording of Thank You for Being a Friend hit No. 25 on the Hot 100 in 1978. Re-recorded for the series by Fee (and re-recorded again for later spin-off, The Golden Palace), the tune is now indelibly associated with Dorothy, Sophia, Rose, and Blanche.
21. Doctor Who
1963-1989, 1996, 2005-present; by Ron Grainer
It’s been 56 years since the first Doctor stole the TARDIS and began his adventures through space and time. Played today by Jodie Whittaker, the official 13th doctor (and first female), the character continues to command a devoted international following. The theme was composed by Grainer, but the studio wizardry of Delia Derbyshire and Dick Mills incorporated the electronic sounds that made it legendary. Though there have been a number of versions, you know that theme when you hear it.
20. The Monkees
1966-1968; “(Theme from) The Monkees” by Tommy Boyce and Bobby Hart, performed by The Monkees
We’ve covered the origin of The Monkees more than once in this magazine. The theme itself was written by Boyce and Hart, the songwriting team that also composed other Monkees tunes, like “Last Train to Clarksville” and “(I’m Not Your) Stepping Stone,” as well as other 1960s hits like “Come a Little Bit Closer” for Jay and The Americans.
19. Sesame Street
1969-present; “Can You Tell Me How to Get to Sesame Street?” by Joe Raposo
What can you say about Sesame Street? A giant of educational programming and the generator of countless beloved characters (and the proving ground for The Muppet Show), the show has won an unbelievable 189 Emmy awards during its run. The theme itself ran in its original form until 1992; since then, occasional and subtle changes in pacing and instrumentation have been made, but it’s still a classic.
18. Hill Street Blues
1981-1987; by Mike Post
Created by Steven Bochco and Michael Kozoll, Hill Street Blues changed television almost immediately. From its diverse cast to its multi-episode stories to its handheld cameras and innovative editing, the show broke ground in different levels of writing and production, earning 98 Emmys during its run. The instrumental theme by veteran TV composter Mike Post hit No. 10 on the Hot 100 in 1981.
17. The Love Boat
1977-1986; by Paul Williams and Charles Fox
Singer Jack Jones performed the title tune that was used for the first eight seasons of the show; Dionne Warwick did the version used in the final season. The Love Boat was part of ABC’s hugely successful Saturday night lineup, airing ahead of fellow hit Fantasy Island. The two series even had a crossover episode; another episode guest-starred Charlie’s Angels. The show also had the distinction of being one of the few hour-long American series to employ a laugh track.
16. Miami Vice
1984-1989; by Jan Hammer
A No. 1 hit for Jan Hammer in 1985, the Miami Vice theme was as cutting-edge and of-the-moment as you could find on TV. Packed to bursting with synth, electric guitars, and Cuban rhythms, the piece aimed to evoke the titular city, action, and fashion all at the same time. It won two Grammys in 1986. Music was an integral element of the show, with classic and current hits splashed across every episode of its run.
15. The X-Files
1993-2002, 2016-2018; by Mark Snow
We revisited the history of The X-Files in September 2018 for the show’s 25th anniversary. At the time, we commented on the “famously spooky opening theme.” Mark Snow composed the theme; it was used in the nine original seasons, the two revival seasons, and in both theatrical films.
14. Wonder Woman/The New Adventures of Wonder Woman
1975-1979; by Charles Fox and Norman Gimbel
Wonder Woman had an unusual production history. Given the greenlight for a series after a TV movie, actress Cathy Lee Crosby was replaced with Lynda Carter. The first season, set during World War II, ran on ABC. CBS picked up the show for the next two seasons, but moved the setting to the 1970s. Accordingly, the iconic theme song, with its World War II references, was retooled as an instrumental. Unlike some superhero themes that would never be used today, the classic still pops up in places like Wonder Woman’s guest appearance on Batman: The Brave and the Bold.
13. The Greatest American Hero
1981-1983; “Theme from the Greatest American Hero (Believe It or Not)” by Mike Post and Stephen Geyer, performed by Joey Scarbury
An action-comedy about a high school teacher who gets a superhero suit from aliens (but loses the instructions), The Greatest American Hero had a decent three-season run in the early 1980s. The theme song was an even bigger hit, going to No. 2 on the Hot 100 in America and charting in five other countries. It ended up being the 11th biggest hit song of 1981 in the States.
12. Twin Peaks
1990-1991, 2017; “Falling” by Angelo Badalamenti and David Lynch
Visionary film director David Lynch did the unthinkable in 1990. Along with writer Mark Frost, he created a TV series for a major broadcast network. The short first season was a critically praised, must-watch hit. However, difficulties with the network, a loss of momentum after the revelation of Laura Palmer’s killer, and constant time-slot disruptions (due, in part, to the Gulf War) led to the show not being renewed after the second season. Lynch, Frost, and much of the cast revived the series on Showtime in 2017. The theme, Falling, was derived from a song that Lynch and his frequent collaborator Angelo Badalamenti wrote for singer Julee Cruise. A single with both the instrumental and Cruise versions charted in over a dozen countries between 1990 and 1991.
11. Peter Gunn
1958-1961; by Henry Mancini
One of the most instantly recognizable pieces of television music ever created, the Peter Gunn theme brought Henry Mancini an Emmy and two Grammys, including Album of the Year in 1959 for The Music of Peter Gunn. The album itself hit No. 1 on the Billboard Album Chart. Frequently covered and used as a musical cue in film, the song received a second life in the 1980s as the music for the enormously popular Spy Hunter video game.
10. Happy Days
1974-1984; by Norman Gimbel and Charles Fox
It’s not often that a second theme song becomes the one that’s most associated with a show. The first season used a re-recorded version of Bill Haley and His Comets seminal Rock Around the Clock for the opening, with the Happy Days theme (with Jimmy Haas on lead vocals) playing over the end credits. From the second season to the tenth season, the Happy Days theme was moved to the front; the 11th season featured an updated version with Bobby Arvon on lead vocals.
1972-1983; “Suicide Is Painless” by Johnny Mandel with lyrics by Mike Altman
The TV series spun out of the successful 1970 film by Robert Altman; that movie featured a version of Suicide Is Painless complete with lyrics. Those lyrics were written by the director’s son, who was only 14 at the time. The elder Altman would later note on The Tonight Show that the song’s use in the film and TV series had subsequently earned his son over $1 million in royalties.
8. The Twilight Zone
1959-1964, with revivals in 1985, 2002, 2019; by Marius Constant
We’re breaking our own rule by including an entry from the forthcoming Greatest Spoken-Word Themes list here, but we have to do it. This is another theme that switched between seasons. While season one did contain Rod Serling’s immortal speechifying in the intro, it had fairly standard music by Bernard Herrmann. With the second season, the theme gave way to the familiar, unsettling theme by Marius Constant.
7. The Addams Family
1964-1966; by Vic Mizzy
A piece that’s destined to live forever on Halloween compilations and in sports arenas, The Addams Family theme might contain the most famous double-snaps of all time. It’s also one of the few lasting themes to prominently feature harpsichord. Fun note: the spoken “neat,” “sweet,” and “petite” were supplied by Lurch himself, Ted Cassidy.
6. Mission: Impossible
1966-1973, 1988-1990; by Lalo Schifrin
Two TV series. Six movies (and counting). Covers by members of U2. Innumerable references in popular culture. Lalo Schifrin’s Mission: Impossible is one of the gold standards for theme music. With subtle variations, it was used in the original series, the 1988 revival, and at varying points in each film of the Tom Cruise franchise. Impossible Missions Force trivia tidbit: In the 1980s series, Phil Morris plays the son of the character that his father, Greg Morris, played on the original series.
1966-1968; by Neal Hefti
Jazz composer Neal Hefti was nominated for three Grammys and won one for his work on Batman. The memorable track with a single lyric (“Batman!”) paired wonderfully with the animated intro, evoking the campy and comedic tone of the show. Thanks to the guitar and bass tones on the track, it’s considered an entry in the surf rock genre; it’s been covered by acts like Jan & Dean, The Who, The Kinks, The Jam, and Eddie Vedder (with his daughter, Harper).
1982-1993; “Where Everybody Knows Your Name” by Gary Portnoy and Judy Hart Angelo, performed by Portnoy
One of the great statement-of-purpose themes, “Where Everybody Knows Your Name” received an Emmy nomination in 1983. Widely praised by a variety of publications and websites, it’s generally considered among the best of TV show theme music throughout the history of the medium.
1975-1976, 2017-present; “Theme from S.W.A.T.” by Barry De Vorzon, performed by Rhythm Heritage
A spin-off of the hit show The Rookies, S.W.A.T. only lasted two seasons. This was, in part, because of controversy surrounding the level of violence on the show. The indisputably awesome funk-driven theme song, however, was a No. 1 hit for Rhythm Heritage and sold over a million copies. A version of the music was used in the 2003 film adaptation, which starred Samuel L. Jackson. In 2017, a CBS television reboot starring Shemar Moore debuted; it uses an updated version of De Vorzon’s theme by Robert Duncan.
2. The Rockford Files
1974-1980; by Mike Post and Pete Carpenter
The effortless cool of James Garner as P.I. Jim Rockford was conveyed in this terrific number by Mike Post and Pete Carpenter. Incorporating electric guitar and some very 1970s keys, “The Rockford Files” had a four-month chart run in 1975, eventually hitting No. 10. It also won a Grammy in 1975.
1. Hawaii Five-0
1968-1980, 2010-present; by Morton Stevens
Sometimes the best is just the best. Endlessly covered, a staple of marching bands (it’s the unofficial “fight song” for the University of Hawaii), and awesome enough to be used again for a series remake 20 years later (the original was re-recorded with some of the same musicians), we’re confident in saying that “Theme from Hawaii Five-0” is the greatest. Apart from composing film and television music, Morton Stevens was Sammy Davis Jr.’s arranger and occasional conductor from the 1950s until Davis’s death in 1990. Morton himself passed away in 1991, but we have a feeling that this tune is never going away.
Read Part 2: Spoken-Word here.
Featured Image: Shutterstock
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