“Here’s a story…of a lovely lady.”
“Just sit right back and you’ll hear a tale, a tale of a fateful trip”
“Boy, the way Glenn Miller played”
“Come and listen to a story ’bout a man named Jed”
“Da-da-da-dum, <snap, snap>”
“Space…the final frontier.”
Sound familiar? Those words, and many others, are forever embedded in the brains of baby boomers and viewers of retro TV cable channels because they represent the days when television theme songs were an expected and essential part of the entertainment world. If you think it’s hard to write a hit song, try writing a succinct television theme song. To be successful, it had to be catchy, memorable, and sum up the essence of a TV program, usually in thirty seconds or less. It’s amazing how many people can recite from memory television theme song lyrics from 50 years ago.
Whereas once nearly every television program had a theme song with lyrics, now, mostly instrumentals survive. In their heyday, instrumental theme songs became just as familiar as those with lyrics; the wide-open spaces bravado of Bonanza, the off-kilter 5/4 jazz of Mission: Impossible, the jazzy electric bass jam of Barney Miller, the brash big band sound of Hawaii Five-O, the wistful, recorder-led melody from Taxi, and others not only became memorable theme songs, but translated into hit records on the pop charts when full versions were recorded.
Between the 1960s and the early 1990s, many composers made a good living writing instrumental theme songs for television. Some of the most successful and prominent composers included Mike Post (Law & Order, The A Team, The Rockford Files, Hill Street Blues), Quincy Jones (Ironside, Sanford & Son, Police Woman), and Frank De Vol (My Three Sons, Family Affair, The Brady Bunch).
The instrumental television theme song reached its zenith in 1966 with the opening to the British-produced cult series The Prisoner, composed by Ron Grainer, whose expository, lyric-less theme, encompassed the first three minutes of every episode in the series.
Starting in the 1990s, theme songs began to go out of fashion. Sitcoms had already started to forego lyrics for briefer melodies, until finally, even melodies themselves started disappearing. The show that probably started this trend was the immensely influential Seinfeld. Instead of themes, Seinfeld used musical hooks, played by an electric bass, that served as commentary between scenes as well as over credits.
Shorter time allotted to music gave writers more screen time to include additional story material, and soon, the trend started by Seinfeld became the norm. Eventually, other sitcoms, like Everybody Loves Raymond, also utilized minimalist stings in place of more traditional melodies. With the influx of reality shows in the early 2000s, theme songs for sitcoms virtually disappeared from the airwaves. Today, shows aimed at teen audiences on channels such as Nickolodeon and Disney still have lyrics, but most sitcoms do not.
There still remains hope however, on cable channels, which continue to find value in branding a program through an instrumental theme. One of the brightest signs is Jeff Beal’s brooding theme for the Netflix political drama, House of Cards, in which Beal worked with the show’s executive producer, David Fincher, in coming up with just the right combination of instruments and mood to reflect the tone of the program. Beal’s theme was nominated for an Emmy in 2014.
So although the days of theme songs with lyrics appears to still be on the wane, serious composers are still working with producers in making television theme music even more potent than ever.