The Corner

Music

Have Gunn, Will Travel

Three forces in American music, gathered in Los Angeles on April 19, 1994: John Williams (left), Henry Mancini (center), and Quincy Jones (right) (Fred Prouser / Reuters)

Great TV theme music — a great subject. I have written a piece on the subject, with the help of readers: here. A while back, I asked readers to tell me about their favorite themes. I had written about “The Streetbeater,” the Quincy Jones piece that introduces Sanford and Son. Also Danny Elfman’s music for The Simpsons.

Let me quote from my piece today: “Many people” — i.e., many readers — “wrote quite personally. TV is a personal thing, and so is music.”

A question: What makes a great TV theme, or a good one? My answer (in part):

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.

You may think the Love Boat theme is cheesy — but so is the show, and the theme song harmonizes with the show perfectly. Plus, we can still remember it — many of us can — years later. That’s success, baby.

Talk about success: Vic Mizzy wrote four notes, followed by two snaps, for The Addams Family. This music is almost as recognizable as “Happy Birthday.” Marius Constant wrote four notes — repeated — used for The Twilight Zone. Universally known, almost.

In my piece, I write, “Can you imagine having written four notes that virtually the whole world knows? I can see Beethoven — thinking of his Fifth Symphony — nodding yes.”

Constant was classically trained, by Messiaen and Honegger, among others. So was Dimitri Tiomkin, by Glazunov, for one. Tiomkin was a Jewish refugee from the Soviet Union who helped create the sound of the American West: through such themes as his Rawhide song. What a country, what a world.

About Glazunov, I wanted to make a point, here on the Corner — a personal-ish point. Sometimes people ask me what the “theme” music of my Q&A podcast is. It comes from the last movement of Glazunov’s Symphony No. 5 in B flat, Op. 55, “Heroic.”

Readers “nominated” many TV themes over and over — those to Barney Miller, The Rockford Files, Taxi, Hawaii Five-0, etc., etc. A great many people mentioned the theme to Peter Gunn, written by Henry Mancini. I have to confess something to you: Not only had I never heard the music, I had never heard of the show — which ran from 1958 to 1961. Peter Gunn was a private eye, very, very cool.

I mentioned this to a professor friend of mine — an elegant lady — who I bet hasn’t watched television in 45 years. She sang the theme music immediately, with an appropriately jamming attitude.

Personally, I have lots of favorites — but nothing topping “The Streetbeater,” for Fred G. Sanford, or Danny Elfman’s stroke of Simpsons genius. Again, for my piece today, go here.

Recommended

The Latest