There are TV show theme songs that go down in history as some of the most recognizable: The Rembrandts’ I’ll Be There for You for Friends and Where Everybody Knows Your Name from Cheers by Gary Portnoy and Judy Hart-Angelo are two that instantly come to mind. We also can’t forget the Golden Girls theme song Thank You for Being a Friend by Cindy Fee or Joe Cocker’s With a Little Help From My Friends that plays at the beginning of every The Wonder Years episode.
But these songs, while recognizable, not to mention tunes you can’t help but sing along to, don’t hold a candle to some of the best TV theme songs of all time. The best songs have much more depth and interesting stories behind how and why they were chosen or created. Some don’t even contain lyrics. But the songs evoke emotion and perfectly capture what the viewers are about to tune into for the next 30-60 minutes of each episode of the respective shows with which they are associated.
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Simply called Dexter Main Title by Rolfe Kent, the 1:40 track that opens each episode of Dexter is a signature entry into every episode. It shows the character’s typical morning routine sequence, designed the mirror his ritualistic behavior. He starts by killing a fly on his arm, moves on to shaving, and cuts a piece of ham and fries it up with eggs for breakfast. Dexter (Michael C. Hall) washes it all down with fresh squeezed blood orange juice, and French pressed cup of coffee. He finishes by gripping his floss and shoelaces tight before tossing on a crisp, white T-shirt.
As the actions simulate his ritualistic killings, complete with blood and blood-like images (a cut from shaving and hot sauce), flesh (ham), and torture (cutting and squeezing the orange and pressing down on the French press), a sense of urgency intensifies in the track. Yet the strings are oddly soothing and casual. It’s one of the most recognizable tunes that gets fans excited for each episode.
Stranger Things is known for having a solid soundtrack through its seasons, filled with ‘80s tunes. The show singlehandedly resurrected songs like Kate Bush’s Running Up That Hill and Metallica’s Master of Puppets. But it’s the theme song that truly defines the series’ entire run. A haunting synth track, by design to pay homage to the era, it was composed by Kyle Dixon and Michael Stein from the synth band S U R V I V Ewho were also responsible for the score and seasons 1 and 2 soundtracks.
While the song technically doesn’t have a name beyond just Stranger Thingsit was developed from a sketch called Prophecy. The addictive tune sounds like a heartbeat, with the ominous sounds building and building as it continues, as if someone (or something) is chasing you. It’s no surprise the tune earned an Emmy for Outstanding Original Main Title Theme Music in 2017.
There’s an interesting story behind the theme song for Mad Men. It was written as a rap song by DJ RJD2 and Aceyalone way back in 2006, called A Beautiful Mine. The show’s creator Matt Weiner heard an instrumental section of the song being played as a segue between two stories on the NPR podcast Marketplace and instantly fell in love with it.
After rearranging and chopping up the song, an instrumental version based on the original is what you hear at the beginning of every episode. The accompanying visual is an animated black and white cut-out image of a man in a suit jumping from his skyscraper building and plummeting to the ground, only to return to his seat, drink and cigarette in hand. Originally, the theme song was supposed to be penned by Beck, but he turned down the contract. That might be for the best. The Mad Men theme song might not have any lyrics, but the instruments and beat are fitting. The tune has a ‘50s style to it as well, even if unintentionally so.
Called the Seinfeld Theme with song and lyrics by Jonathan Wolff, it’s another purely instrumental track that has a playfulness to it that’s so fitting to the show. It’s a combination of synthetic tones with funky bass notes that scream 1990s. Wolff reportedly composed the pacing of the song by measuring the beats Jerry Seinfeld uses to tell his jokes. The idea was to keep rhythm with his words, and for the song to sound like jokes being told between the melodies. This would prevent the song from competing with the short stand-up moment shown in the opening sequence of every episode.
Reportedly, when some individuals behind Seinfeld wanted to change or update the song, Seinfeld creator Larry David refused. Today, decades later, all it takes is one note for fans to instantly recognize this theme song.
The Walking Dead
What’s so great about the opening theme song for The Walking Dead is that it’s typically accompanied by different background imagery in every episode, giving a fresh visual along with it each time. Composed by Bear McCreary, who has written for shows like Battlestar Galactica and Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., it’s a simple mix of sounds for a short 34 seconds. But it makes an impact.
The song creates a sense of danger, as though you’re watching people run from zombies chasing after them, urgently trying to escape monsters dining on their flesh. It’s suspenseful, and the tempo increases such that you feel as though the walls are closing in slowly until meeting your end. It’s a beautiful composition that has become synonymous with the show.