Welcome to a Random Pop Culture Top 10! Or Top something, anyway. Today’s topic…the most iconic instrumental television theme songs.
Now, to be on my list of iconic television theme songs, a few things have got to be true. First, it probably has to be the theme of a pretty successful TV show, something that has been around for a while–it’s hard to imagine something is “iconic” if it wasn’t actually all that popular. The theme has got to be something which did a good job representing its show in some way. And it has to somehow stand out against the crowd.
And of course, it has to be something I’m actually familiar with–probably a TV series that I actually personally connected to in some way. Because there are a lot of shows that are out there that I haven’t watched. And some of them are very popular, like Game of Thrones, or The Walking Dead, or Mad Men, or The Sopranos, or Breaking Bad, for instance. I assume all of those shows had theme songs of some sort, but I don’t know any of them.
And of course, since this is a list of instrumental themes, it’s got to be one that didn’t have lyrics, or rather, where the lyrics were not commonly played. So on this list there won’t be any Gilligan’s Island, The Patty Duke Show, Friends, The Brady Bunch of Mystery Science Theatre 3000.
What else won’t be there? Well, some well-known themes like the ones for Little House on the Prairie (by David Rose) or Miami Vice (by Jan Hammer), which were both serious contenders for this list, but just didn’t make the cut. Nor will you find my personal Honorable Mention…
The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy (1981)
Journey of the Sorcerer by Bernie Leadon. Recorded by the Eagles for their album, One of These Nights in 1975.
This British science fiction comedy only ran for one season of six episodes back in the early 1980’s, bit once upon a time it was one of my favorite things. The theme was also used in other Hitchhiker’s projects, like the original radio show, the record albums, and even a bit in the 2005 movie, so it’s definitely gotten around. But even so I’m happy to admit that the theme is a bit too niche to be legitimately iconic, although when it comes up on my playlist, it totally brings vibes from the show with it.
So if that’s all stuff that does not make it on…what does?
12. Peter Gunn (1958-1961)
Peter Gunn Theme by Henry Mancini.
Unique on this list for me because I have never actually seen an episode of Peter Gunn, but I know the theme. The great Henry Mancini composed the driving, intense jazz and rock-infused theme for this private eye series (the first detective actually created for television, apparently). As TV progressed, jazz-based action scores became pretty common for a while, but this is apparently where it all started. You may never have seen Peter Gunn, and you may not know the theme off the top of your head, but chances are you’d recognize it if you heard it, which you can below.
11. The Office (2005-2013)
The Office Theme by Jay Ferguson, performed by the Scrantones.
Yeah, the American version of The Office. I’ve never seen the British one–did it have a theme song? In any case, the American version of the mockumentary had a jaunty, joy-filled theme by composer Jay Ferguson, and recorded by a band that didn’t have a name at the time (just a short time before the show debuted) but later appeared on the show, having dubbed themselves the Scrantones (the show took place in Scranton, PA). For many fans like myself, the happy tune perfectly captures the spirit and vibe of the program, and listening to it just makes you feel like you’re about to see something that’s going to make you laugh.
10. Star Trek (1966-1969)
Theme from Star Trek by Alexander Courage
I wasn’t going to include any themes from the Star Trek franchise since while most of them are at least fine, none really stand out to me as great. But then I thought about how one of the criteria for this list is that the theme is able to represent the program well, and I realized I could not leave off the title music for the original Trek. But I’m not really including it for the whole piece–it’s really just the opening few seconds which are so finely composed, they might represented the show you are about to watch more clearly than any instrumental theme has before or since.
The first four notes expertly capture the idea of lights appearing in the night sky, while the fanfare that follows the idea of seafaring vessels boldly exploring new lands. Star and Trek, perfectly spoken in less than 15 seconds of wordless music. It’s so perfect that Star Trek has been doing variations of the theme for decades since.
Incidentally, there are lyrics for this theme. I have no idea what they are, but they were written by Gene Roddenberry himself, apparently so he could be entitled to half of any royalties that the music generated–demonstrating if true that whatever else he accomplished, the man was a bit of a weasel.
9. Get Smart (1965-1970)
Theme by Irving Szathmary
This popular comedy not only had a great theme but one of the best title sequences in television, with series star Don Adams as Agent Maxwell Smart heading to a mission by passing through an absurd number of doors to get to what was presumably his high-security office.
Composer Irving Szathmary not only did the theme but all the show’s music, infusing each episode with the right mix of energetic and comical. The opening theme, specifically, works brilliantly to invite the viewer into the world of high-stakes espionage–it’s a call to adventure, albeit a very silly adventure.
8. M*A*S*H (1972-1983)
Suicide is Painless by Johnny Mandel
Growing up in my household, M*A*S*H was the show–there were over 250 episodes and I’m pretty sure I’ve seen them all multiple times. The series depicted the antics and efforts of a company of doctors and nurses as they attempted to save lives just a few miles behind the front lines of the Korean War.
The opening theme was Suicide is Painless, which had been used in the movie M*A*S*H. There it had lyrics by Michael Altman (director Robert Altman’s 14 year old son) but for the series it was only instrumental. It is haunting and bittersweet melody, sad but not depressing, which was perfectly suited for a sitcom that in was equal parts tragic as it was funny.
7. Hawaii Five-0 (1968-1980, 2010-2020)
Hawaii Five-O theme by Morton Stevens
One of the best known TV themes of all time, thanks to the many years the show (and its reboot) have been on the air, and how well suited the piece is to marching band performance. In the movie The Dish, it’s the song an Australian high school band plays to the American ambassador in order to impress him, and it has even become an unofficial fight song at the University of Hawaii. It’s brash and driving and full of rousing percussion, and works even better against the opening title sequence’s fast-paced montage of Hawaii-based locales and Jack Lord’s steely gaze.
6. Morse (1987-2000, including specials) (and Endeavour)
Theme from Morse by Barrington Pheloung
Barrington Pheloung’s theme for Morse is probably the most beautiful piece of music on this list–an erudite melody which captures both of the show’s twin themes–something mysterious going plus intellectual academia. It was a perfect choice to resurrect the theme for the Morse prequel series, Endeavour, a decade later.
The theme actually includes a recurring motif in which the word “Morse” is spelled out in musical Morse Code. Apparently, Pheloung would also include the name of some of the mystery’s murderers (or a red herring to the same) in his incidental music for various episodes. That is next-level awesomeness.
5. The Rockford Files (1974-1980)
The Rockford Files by Mike Post and Pete Carpenter
The best TV title music captures elements of a show’s story, locale, and tone. The title track for The Rockford Files is all of that, and even more, it’s just a great piece of music. Mike Post and Pete Carpenter used a blues harmonica and a dobro (a guitar used in bluegrass music), amongst other instruments, in order to give the theme the same sort of wry swagger that James Garner brought to the down-on-his luck private detective he was playing.
The Rockford Files theme might not be as well known today as a lot of other TV show music, but it was a big hit back in the day. It was genuine radio hit in 1975, and the show ran for six seasons, as well as a bunch of reunion movies in the 1990’s.
4. Doctor Who (1963-1989; 2005-today)
Doctor Who theme music by Ron Grainer
My personal favorite television show has one of the most iconic TV show themes of all time. Although written by Ron Grainer, it owes much of its success to its original arranger and performer, Delia Derbyshire, who took Grainer’s melody and created something mysterious, haunting, and just a little bit scary. The original version of the theme is pioneering piece of electronic music and was realised through aan extensive process of editing, splicing, speeding up and slowing down each note.
Doctor Who has lasted as long as it has thanks in part to its ability to continually reinvent itself, and its theme song is no exception. Over the years, numerous arrangements have followed on from the original, with significant contributions from Peter Howell, Dominic Glynn, Keff McCulloch, Murray Gold and Segun Akinola.
Now, Doctor Who is my favorite show and maybe my favorite theme song, but I can’t rate it higher than #4 on this list because there are three themes which I think clearly sit at the top of a “most iconic” list. These three themes have all come to represent moods, tones and concepts beyond the shows they were written for, which none of the examples listed above have done.
3. Dragnet (1951-1959, 1967-1970)
Dragnet / Danger Ahead by Walter Schumann
You may or may not have ever seen Dragnet, but you have probably heard it’s confronting opening fanfare. If you’re not sure what I’m talking about just have a look at the video above. It’s become a sort of life shorthand for something dramatic going on, and has found itself repeated, parodied and imitated in many different situations.
Unique amongst all these themes, the Dragnet music (and the show it accompanied) initiated on radio, where it ran for eight years from 1949 to 1957 (meaning that the radio version and TV version were on simultaneously for six years.) The theme is also appears to be derived (intentionally or otherwise) from Miklós Rózsa’s score for The Killers, a movie from 1946. A settlement between the different music publishers allowed both groups to share royalities for the piece, which then became known as Danger Ahead, which was the track’s name on the soundtrack for The Killers.
2. Mission: Impossible (1966-1973; 1988-1990)
Theme from Mission: Impossible by Lalo Schifrin
The driving, pulsating theme for Mission: Impossible is one of the most instantly recognizable theme songs in the world, and is virtually synonymous high stakes operations requiring precision timing and elaborate deceptions. Composed in an unusual 5/4 time (making the original person basically impossible to clap to), the piece has been modified, adapted and parodied endlessly, which is a testimony to its durability as a theme. Notably, the version for the first movie in 1996 by Adam Clayton and Larry Mullen jr. was a hit, certified gold in the United States.
Today, most people know Mission: Impossible as a movie franchise but the TV show was very popular its day. This is the second theme on this list to have drawn some inspiration from Morse code, specifically the letters “MI” if one adaptes the dots and dashes to notes of different lengths.
But what TV show theme could be considered even more iconic than Mission: Impossibel? There is only one…
1. The Twilight Zone (1959-1964, 1985-1989, 2002-2003, 2019-2020)
Theme composed, more or less, by Marius Constant
First of all, let’s face it…the theme music to The Twilight Zone is as iconic as they come. How many of us have not hummed that recognizable four-note refrain when we bump into something spooky or surreal in our otherwise ordinary lives? The show was full odd and mysterious circumstances, and the music perfectly captured that.
But the story of The Twilight Zone theme song is almost as strange as anything that happened in the show…or at least, it’s as surprising.
In The Twilight Zone’s first season, the music was by famous composer Bernard Herrmann (this guy was a legend in his own right–he did the music for movies like Citizen Kane, Psycho, Vertigo, Cape Fear, Taxi Driver and many more), but his theme was an atmospheric collection of eerie chords, and didn’t go over with the network executives very well.
A music director had made a habit of circumventing American union rules by recording cheap bits of music in Europe and then using them in for American television shows. When he needed to get a new theme for The Twilight Zone, he pulled together two tracks by a Romanian-born composer Marius Constant, who had been living in Paris at the time. They were called Milieu No. 2 and Étrange No. 3, but together they became the iconic Twilight Zone theme, variations of which have been used in every version and revival of the show since.
Apparently, it was decades before Constant even realized his music had been used for to create such a popular theme song, and for a long time a rumor persisted that it had actually been written by Bernard Herrmann!
And there we go–my picks for the 12 most iconic instrumental TV show theme songs of all time. When my wife heard about this list, she suggested Bonanza, which certainly would have been a worthy addition–but it’s a show I never really watched so it didn’t occur to me.
4 thoughts on “Most Iconic Instrumental TV Show Theme Songs [Random Pop Culture Top…something]”
This is quite a good list. Thank you, Ben.
When you say “iconic TV themes” the first thing I think of is the Rockford files, so I’m glad you included it. (trivia: prior to the team, Mike Post was best known as the producer of the psychedelic hit “Just Dropped In (To See What Condition My Condition Was In)“ featuring a very young Kenny Rogers.) But I do not know how you left out “Taxi”, or “Sanford and Son”, which I consider to be the finest 55 seconds of Quincy Jones’s career.
And how have you never seen the British “Office”??? Hie thee to Hulu, pronto!
I didn’t know that Quincy Jones wrote “Sanford & Son”. Thinking about it, that one might have made it there if this had been a Top 20 or 25, or if I’d spent more time watching the actual show. “Taxi” didn’t occur to me, though I’d loved the show. Now that you mention it, I think the opening solo “whistle” line is pretty iconic, more than the rest of it is (which is sort of the same rationale that got Star Trek a spot on this list)
The Taxi theme in retrospect is one of my favorites. There was a very subtle pleasantness to it.