From the elaborate to the simplistic, from the Game of Thrones’ orchestral number to the guitar twangs and bongo drumming of Breaking Bad, television theme songs take on a host of different forms and invoke a kaleidoscope of emotions amongst audiences. A forgettable theme can often harm a show’s ability to retain cultural relevance, but at their most successful, theme songs can tap into the zeitgeist and define the essence of a programme in just 30 seconds. In the case of The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air and its accompanying rap, you’d be hard-pressed to find a 90s kid ignorant of the fact that Will Smith is from “West Philadelphia, born and raised” and for those who haven’t so much as glimpsed an alien from BBC’s Doctor Who, the likelihood that they can still manage a few bars of the theme song is very high. When the popularity of a theme song transcends the necessity to watch the show itself, it almost grants it legendary status, and particularly impressive examples that have truly stood the test of time include The Addams Family and the laughably dated 1960s Batman.
Yet, for certain bands, writing a killer theme for a hit TV show could inadvertently prove to be the kiss of death and existing independently from the show they belong to could be the very thing they crave. Phantom Planet’s ode to California on The OC proved to be their last. Lazlo Bane, who initially rejected Zach Braff’s request to pen the Scrubs’ theme tune, soon joined them in pop-rock obscurity, but the most notable example is undoubtedly The Rembrandts. It remains a cardinal rule to clap along to I’ll Be There For You during every Friends binge, yet ‘name two Rembrandts songs’ is surely the one question on a pub quiz that no one has a chance of answering.
In television’s modern era, there has been a noticeable shift towards more sophisticated title sequences to complement theme songs. The iconic opening title sequence of The Simpsons, alongside Danny Elfman’s score, utilises further opportunities to create running gags and perfectly characterises its main cast and the town of Springfield. As American cable TV shows such as Game of Thrones have flourished, so have their comprehensive two-minute intros, which provide a creative freedom and, in the case of Dexter’s disconcertingly playful theme in a show about a serial killer, speak to the overall tone of the show.
Whilst upbeat comedies, Arrested Development and Parks and Recreation, have suitably jaunty theme songs; the The Mighty Boosh’s theme reflects the charming absurdity of the show, and in terms of sci-fi, few themes have been as preposterously terrifying as Mark Snow’s for The X-Files. Meanwhile, Angelo Badalamenti’s score for David Lynch’s cult classic, Twin Peaks, perfectly captures the tranquil eeriness of the show’s domestic gothic and similarly, it is almost impossible to imagine either Friday Night Lights or The West Wing without the rousing compositions of W.G. Snuffy Walden (who coincidentally also takes the accolade for Greatest Name Ever).
Judging theme songs on musical quality does not always speak to their merit, however, and the wave of teenage nostalgia inspired by the likes of That’s So Raven and Saved By The Bell is often more rewarding than a perfectly orchestrated piece of music. The popularity of a theme song also has the tendency to directly correlate with the popularity of the programme. Both the drum beat that heralds every Eastenders cliff-hanger and the trumpet solo that floats over the houses of Coronation Street are as instantly recognisable as God Save The Queen, but this perhaps stems more from the public’s collective love of soap operas. Popularity, however, is probably not enough to make the Downton Abbey theme any less of a snooze-fest.
The painfully twee themes of 1960s suburban family dramas are a distant memory – unless parodied by the likes of New Girl – for just as television itself has transformed dramatically over the course of the last 50 years, so has the art of the theme song. Whether a theme song provides the comfort of nostalgia, a sing-along or even just a brief musical synopsis, they are so frequently an inexorable element of the show they belong to. Imagining a television world without them seems impossible, even if it is the theme (or lack of) to Lost.