Music

Great TV Theme Music

Craig Stevens as Peter Gunn (The Grapevine via YouTube)
What makes a TV theme great? The music may be enjoyable on its own — but it should also sell the show.

Editor’s Note: The below is a version of a piece that appears in the current issue of National Review.

Ricky Cobb, a sociology prof in the Chicago area, tweets under the handle “Super 70s Sports.” He is very clever and very popular. He comments on more than sports. A while back, he said, “When you’re discussing the greatest TV theme songs, I’m coming to that party with Fred G. Sanford.”

That struck me as an excellent choice. Quincy Jones wrote the theme to Sanford and Son, the immortal sitcom. He called his piece “The Streetbeater.” It is funky, groovy, and irresistible. It will put a spring in your step (as you beat the streets).

I also thought of Danny Elfman’s theme to The Simpsons. Leonard Bernstein once said, “I’d give five years of my life to have written The Stars and Stripes Forever.” Many of us would give a couple of years — a couple of months? — to have written the Simpsons theme. One suspects, and hopes, it has made the composer a pretty penny. The piece promises wacky fun — and is wacky fun all on its own.

In an online column, I took up the subject of TV themes, and invited readers to send me their nominations, their favorites. The invitation struck a chord (no pun intended). Many people wrote quite personally. TV is a personal thing, and so is music.

“Perhaps I am moved by nostalgia,” one note began — and a lot of others began in similar fashion — “but I have always loved the theme from Our Miss Brooks (the radio show, although the TV version used the same theme at first).” Our Miss Brooks ran on the radio from 1948 to 1957. Its theme — whistling and whimsical — was written by Wilbur Hatch.

Another reader spoke of his father, who lived a rocky life, and died when our reader was just 14. He loved The Jeffersons, the father did — which begins with a rousing, striving, aspirational gospel song: “Movin’ On Up.”

“Countless times,” said another reader, “I have crooned the Baretta theme to my children and grandchildren, as they sulked over some just punishment.” One line of that song goes, “Don’t do the crime if you can’t do the time.” Another line goes, “Don’t roll the dice if you can’t pay the price.”

Years ago, a husband and wife moved from Boston to Virginia. He tormented her all the way down with the Green Acres theme. As you may recall, Eddie Albert sings, “You are my wife!” Eva Gabor sighs, “Goodbye, city life!”

One man has a special appreciation of the Bewitched theme. “It may have to do, however, with my adolescent interest in Elizabeth Montgomery.” More than a few of us could sing a few verses of that song.

What makes a good TV theme? Good music, for one thing — music for its own sake. Yet a TV theme should sell the show, too: It should set the mood, or establish the tone. There is an old line — an old truth — about advertising: An ad can be wonderfully funny, touching, or brilliant — but if you can’t remember the product afterward, the ad is no good.

On another occasion, we might take up the subject of ad jingles. Millions can sing “Like a good neighbor, State Farm is there.” The phrase — the musical phrase — was written in 1971 by . . . Barry Manilow.

In my judgment, “Love Boat” is a superb TV theme song. It is both cheesy and alluring — like the show, right? “Love, exciting and new. Come aboard, we’re expecting you.” Route 66, too, has a superb theme. The music says, “The open road. Confidence. A bright day ahead.”

Nelson Riddle, writer of so much music, wrote that theme. It is instrumental, having no words. Or it is a “song without words,” if you like. (I have borrowed Mendelssohn’s heading.) The Sanford and Son and Simpsons themes, too, are songs without words. And, like Riddle’s road music, they serve their shows brilliantly.

What about songs with words? Well, some TV songs have lyrics that enter our national language. Earlier this year, I wrote of going to a golf range, where there is an element of camaraderie. “Sometimes you want to go where everybody knows your name,” I quoted. That comes from the Cheers theme.

“Who can turn the world on with her smile?” Chances are, you are familiar with that question. And the next one: “Who can take a nothing day and suddenly make it all seem worthwhile?” What beautiful lyrics, and they belong to “Love Is All Around,” which is the theme song to The Mary Tyler Moore Show.

Sometimes, you need the words of a theme song to explain the premise of the show. Why, in fact, is Eva Gabor living on a farm? Why are those hillbillies living in Beverly Hills? How did the Bradys become a bunch? (They are an example of what we now call a “blended” family.) How did that disparate group of people come to be on a desert island (Gilligan’s)? The theme songs to all of those shows tell you just what you need to know.

Some themes are instantly and forever recognizable by just a few notes. Take four notes in an ascending scale, followed by two snaps of the fingers, and you have the Addams Family theme (composed by Vic Mizzy, who also gave us the Green Acres song).

Can you imagine having written four notes that virtually the whole world knows? I can see Beethoven — thinking of his Fifth Symphony — nodding yes.

Speaking of four notes: The first four of the Twilight Zone theme — those screwy, dizzying intervals — are lodged in our brains. When I was in school, people would sing them when confronted by something weird or mysterious. You had entered the twilight zone, you see. (The music was composed by Marius Constant, a Romanian who went to Paris to study with, among others, Messiaen and Honegger.)

How about the theme to Mission: Impossible, with its stout bass figure? This is the work of Lalo Schifrin, who grew up in Buenos Aires (and then, like Constant, went to Paris). What a thrill it was, one year, when Schifrin came on a National Review cruise.

We can think of dumb songs: “A horse is a horse, of course, of course” (Mister Ed). “George, George, George of the Jungle.” “It’s Howdy Doody time!” But are those songs really dumb? Here I am, in 2021 — more than half a century later — talking about them.

One afternoon, I was talking with Lee Hoiby, the (classical) composer. We were talking about popular standards — “Tangerine” and so on. I asked for his opinion on a number of songs. “Is this one good?” “How about this one?” Ultimately, he said, “You know, if they’ve lasted, they are almost by definition good.”

Some TV theme songs work as stand-alone songs, quite apart from the shows they serve. In addition to some I have already cited — “Where Everybody Knows Your Name” (Cheers) — think of “Happy Days.” And “Suicide Is Painless” (M*A*S*H). And “Moonlighting.” And “Those Were the Days” (All in the Family)!

Quick aside: The music for “Those Were the Days” was written by Charles Strouse, who also did Annie and Bye Bye Birdie.

One reader wrote to say he did not like “And Then There’s Maude,” because it is a feminist anthem. Okay, but what a feminist anthem! (“Lady Godiva was a freedom rider. She didn’t care if the whole world looked.”)

There is a category of TV theme music I would characterize as “urban cool.” Think of the themes to Barney Miller and The Odd Couple. Both of those shows are set in New York. Peter Gunn is set in a city unspecified. Its music reflects some urban cool, too — also danger and excitement, for the protagonist is a private eye.

Many, many readers nominated the Peter Gunn theme as the best TV theme of all, or at any rate near the top. It is by Henry Mancini — who, in one passage, repeated, suggests Ravel’s Boléro (consciously or not, and I suspect consciously).

A long way from urban cool — though cool in its own way — is “The Fishin’ Hole,” the theme music to The Andy Griffith Show. It is the personification — the musicalization? — of carefree happiness. One of its three co-writers, Earle Hagen, does the whistling we hear.

Of westerns, there used to be a great many. And they had music to suit. Perfectly typical of this genre is the theme song to Rawhide, whose music is by Dimitri Tiomkin. He was born, Jewish, in the Russian Empire. He studied at the Saint Petersburg Conservatory, with Glazunov, among others. He was able to flee the Bolsheviks. Once in Hollywood, he helped create the sound of the American West. Isn’t the human imagination remarkable?

Aaron Copland, too, helped create the sound of the American West — through such scores as Rodeo and Billy the Kid. Copland was not a Jewish refugee or immigrant from the Russian or Soviet Empire, but his parents were. Copland grew up in Brooklyn, N.Y. Whether he ever saw a butte, desert, or canyon — besides Manhattan’s — I don’t know.

Classical music has not made many appearances as TV themes. There was a news show — The Huntley-Brinkley Report. It closed with the Scherzo from Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony. Also, William F. Buckley Jr. used Bach for his Firing Line: the last movement of the Brandenburg Concerto No. 2. When you think about it, that fleet, merry trumpet tune doesn’t go with the concept of a firing line. At all. But WFB made it work, as he did most everything else.

Hawaii Five-0. The Rockford Files. Hogan’s Heroes. Hill Street Blues. Taxi. These are shows whose themes were frequently mentioned by my readers, for good reason. I have to think that Hogan’s Heroes was a special challenge, for a composer. What do you do with a sitcom set in a German POW camp?

Rising to the challenge was Jerry Fielding (born Joshua Itzhak Feldman). He composed a march. The snare drums, at the beginning, are slightly menacing. But then the music turns friendly, in a Sousa-like way. Everything will be all right.

Obviously, I could go on and on, having left dozens of worthy themes unmentioned. (Scores of them, you might quip.) I could write a paean to “Meet the Flintstones.” That family lived in the Stone Age. Living in an opposite age were the Jetsons — who got an awfully good theme song, too.

Speaking of ages, epochs, and eras: I can hear critics say to me, “Hey, Gramps, how ’bout some shows from, you know: this century. Heard any good theme music since Reagan was president?” Fair enough — but perhaps we can wait for the more recent themes to ripen into classics.

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