Top 20 Greatest TV Theme Songs of All Time

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Top 20 Greatest TV Theme Songs of All Time

VOICE OVER: Tom Aglio WRITTEN BY: George Pacheco
These are the theme songs that get us excited to watch our favorite TV shows! For this list, we'll be ranking the catchiest and most enduring theme songs to hit the small screen. We'll be including both instrumental themes, as well as songs with lyrics, but saving animated programs for another day. Our countdown includes "The Brady Bunch" (1969-74), "The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air" (1990-96), "Sesame Street" (1969-), "The X-Files" (1993-2002; 2016-18), and more!
Transcript
These are the theme songs that get us excited to watch our favorite TV shows! For this list, we’ll be ranking the catchiest and most enduring theme songs to hit the small screen. We’ll be including both instrumental themes, as well as songs with lyrics, but saving animated programs for another day. Our countdown includes "The Brady Bunch" (1969-74), "The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air" (1990-96), "Sesame Street" (1969-), "The X-Files" (1993-2002; 2016-18), and more! What’s YOUR favorite TV theme song? Let us know in the comments!

#20: “The Addams Family” (1964-66)


What makes a great, classic TV theme song? Well, memorability, for one. A certain level of catchiness that makes it an earworm, certainly, but not necessarily to the point where we want to run in the opposite direction. Composer Vic Mizzy seemed to know that “less is more” when writing the opening to “The Addams Family,” since it hinges on only a couple of instruments (a harpsichord and bass clarinet) and some iconic finger snaps to make its mark on television history. The lyrics describing The Addams’ overall… well, “ookiness” doesn’t hurt things, either, and we feel like the song definitely helped push “The Addams Family” from being a short-lived sitcom into the enduring brand it is today.

#19: “Miami Vice” (1984-90)


Can you remember the last time when a TV theme song actually entered the Billboard Hot 100, never minding climbing all the way to NUMBER ONE? Well, that’s exactly what happened to musician and composer Jan Hammer, when his hit theme to “Miami Vice” became nothing short of a worldwide phenomenon. The primetime cop show was massively influential in terms of visual style, not to mention the inclusion of major 1980s pop hits on its soundtrack. It was Hammer’s instrumental score that helped carry the show, however, taking the Czech-American musician’s jazz-fusion background and blending it with high-energy rhythms and the futuristic synthesizer sound of the day. And you know what? It still kicks major ass.

#18: “Sanford and Son” (1972-77)


Music industry icon Quincy Jones has composed some truly incredible music for the world of cinema. One particular tune stands out for the small screen, however, and it’s his song “The Streetbeater,” perhaps better known as the main theme to the classic 70s sitcom, “Sanford and Son.” The song has been featured on Jones’ solo albums, his “Greatest Hits” collection, and was even released as a single to help promote the show. “The Streetbeater” is very much indicative of not only Jones’ natural ability to get funky, but the overall grooving jazziness that permeated Blaxploitation hits like “Shaft.” The “Sanford and Son” theme is a feel-good, foot-stompin’ anthem that never fails to get us movin’.

#17: “Three’s Company” (1977-84)


Sometimes, TV shows feel the need to slightly alter their theme music from season to season, depending on the length of their intro. “Three’s Company” actually did this a lot, with composer Joe Raposo’s swingin’, semi-disco theme tune either being edited down, or extended, depending on which season you happen to be watching. The core remains generally the same, however: a jaunty, slightly-funky melody, and the lyrics featuring a call-and-response duet between singers Julia Rinker and Ray Charles (no, not that one). There’s even a little bit of room for the instruments to spread out a little, before Charles and Rinker return for their vocal rendezvous. It’s super fun, and very much indicative of the sexy 70s.

#16: “The X-Files” (1993-2002; 2016-18)


Chris Carter’s “The X-Files” was a TV hit that was indebted to the “monster of the week” format found on such innovative 70s shows as “Kolchak: The Night Stalker,” but stood out on its own by bringing a fresh, extraterrestrial approach to the table. This also applied to the music of composer Mark Snow, which shifted a bit from traditional orchestral themes or catchy rock tunes in favor of an evocative, synthesized piece that emphasized “The X-Files’” atmosphere and elements of mystery. The theme was all darkness, danger and this unsettling fear of the unknown. And who could forget that classic whistling noise? Honestly, it still haunts our dreams to this day.

#15: “Dallas” (1978-91)


You know it, you love it. You just gotta hum it the SECOND it hits your ears. It’s the opening theme to “Dallas,” that most decadent of primetime soap operas. Well, you have composer Jerrold Immel to thank for that TV earworm, as the L.A. musician worked writing a lot of music for CBS over the years, including other hit shows like “Knots Landing” and the small-screen adaptation of “Logan’s Run.” It’s the “Dallas” theme for which Immel is best known, of course, thanks to its bold ‘n brassy melody that’s emphasized by juuuust enough of a groovy disco backbeat. This theme practically screams its “richness” from the heavens, evoking mental images of ten-gallon hats, expensive dresses, and all sorts of juicy, closed-door backstabbing.

#14: “The Brady Bunch” (1969-74)


There’s just something comforting about sitcoms from the late-60s and 70s, especially those that laid out all of the important plot details for the audience, right from the jump. “The Brady Bunch” did this, and did it with style. So much style, in fact, that the show’s grid of “headshots” quickly became an iconic part of television history. Beyond this, that theme song does indeed “tell the story,” of how two parents blended their families together, with all of the growing pains that entails. The first season’s theme was performed by the psychedelic rock band The Peppermint Trolley Company, while subsequent seasons were recorded in-house at Paramount, while still retaining all of that warm 1960s sunshine.

#13: “Happy Days” (1974-84)


We all know how important it is for a sitcom to set the proper mood, especially when that show is set during a specific time period. Both “Happy Days” and its spin-off “Laverne & Shirley” were set during the 1950s, and needed to get that point across with their respective theme songs. “Happy Days” was itself a spin-off from an anthology series titled “Love, American Style,” and actually utilized a re-recording of the classic tune “Rock Around the Clock” before eventually adopting the theme we all know and love. There’s a sense of nostalgia and innocence to the melodies at play, and the themes to both shows retained these elements, despite the storylines eventually moving on into the 1960s.

#12: “Gilligan’s Island” (1964-67)


It’s perhaps one of the most infamous snubs in theme song history: the omission of The Professor and Mary Ann from the original “Ballad of Gilligan’s Isle.” Yup, both characters were referred to as “…the rest” in the original, season one version, with the pilot episode even forgetting to mention Ginger! It was actually star Bob Denver’s influence that helped fix this, starting with the show’s second season. It’s here where the most well-known version of the “Gilligan’s Island” theme hits, with its sea-shanty structure and memorable lyrics allowing for MAXIMUM sing-a-longs.

#11: “M*A*S*H” (1972-83)


“M*A*S*H” means a lot of different things to a lot of different people. It was a hit movie before it was broadcast on television, before then becoming the most watched TV finale in history. For younger people, it may have been the show their parents or grandparents watched before bed, but we ALL remember its main theme. Johnny Mandel’s original film version was a folk song with lyrics by Michael Altman, but the TV version wisely chose to go instrumental, with outstanding results. The “M*A*S*H” theme is surprisingly melancholic for television, thanks to that delicate acoustic guitar intro, but the horns do temper this feeling a little bit, bringing things together for a short, but sweet slice of television pop for the ages.

#10: “The Big Bang Theory” (2007-19)


Okay, so we may gently rib how sitcom themes of the 1960s were quite verbose in the lyrical department, but “The Big Bang Theory” one-upped all of those shows by straight-up including a rap about the creation of the known universe! Producer Chuck Lorre and crew pitched the idea of recording the theme tune to the Barenaked Ladies, and the results… well, the results were pretty awesome. It’s lovably nerdy in the best possible way, while also fast-paced, catchy and super-melodic. There’s even some cool synthesizer noodling in the background to keep things interesting, while the singers keep the song fresh, loose and fun.

#9: “The Golden Girls” (1985-92)


It’s a rare occasion when the lyrics to a TV theme song become part of the cultural zeitgeist, let alone an older show that continues to inspire, generation after generation. The roots of “Thank You for Being a Friend” are actually even older, dating back to a 1978 album by singer-songwriter Andrew Gold. It was later covered by Cynthia Fee, adapted for “The Golden Girls” and voila! Television history is born. The actual bones of Gold’s song are fantastic, despite the songwriter’s claim that “Thank You for Being a Friend” was a “throwaway thing” he wrote in “about an hour.” It feels sincere, honest and direct: a punchy sort of theme song that’s thankfully endured long after its initial shelf life.

#8: “Sesame Street” (1969-)


Did you know that Joe Raposo, who we discussed earlier in the “Three’s Company” entry, also wrote the all-time classic tune, “Can You Tell Me How to Get to Sesame Street?” Raposo actually did a lot of great work for children’s television, working on music not only for “Sesame Street,” but also “The Electric Company” and “Shining Time Station.” “Can You Tell Me How to Get to Sesame Street?” remains the show’s central theme after debuting on the very first episode back in 1969, and it doesn’t look to be going anywhere any time soon. Raposo’s sincere, wholesome sense of melody simply shines through it all, creating some sort of magic that assists in making “Sesame Street” continue to grow with children of every generation.

#7: “Full House” (1987-95)


You may not know the name Jesse Frederick, but you absolutely know his work. That’s because this composer wrote some of the most iconic T.V. theme songs of the day, particularly for ABC’s classic TGIF lineup. Want proof? How does “Step by Step,” “Perfect Strangers,” and “Family Matters” grab ya? Suffice it to say, Frederick knew a good melody when he heard one, but his work also delivers a lot in a short amount of time. It’s an efficient way of writing that nails mood, theme and lyrical content in just a minute or two. The theme to “Full House” is laid-back, but not lazy; a feel-good anthem that evokes an innocent nostalgia for the simple life. It hits us with all the feels.

#6: “The Jeffersons” (1975-85)


Pop songwriting can be a difficult business, but some songwriters just have the knack for writing a catchy song. They also need to find the proper singer to bring that idea to life, however, which is why we think composer Jeff Barry and actress Ja’net DuBois were meant to meet and collaborate. Barry’s songwriting pedigree was well known prior to “The Jeffersons,” writing or co-writing hits like “Sugar, Sugar,” “Be My Baby” and “Leader of the Pack.” However, his funk and gospel-tinged theme to “The Jeffersons” needed the powerful delivery of DuBois to properly carry the tune to “classic” status. For our money? It was a match made in heaven. “Movin’ on up,” indeed.

#5: “The Muppet Show” (1976-81)


Jim Henson co-wrote the theme to “The Muppet Show” with musical director Sam Pottle in 1976, and it was the latter’s history with the theater which seemed to make the theme so big and bombastic sounding. “The Muppet Show Theme” just feels tailor-made for the sort of old-school, vaudevillian experience the show brought to audiences. There’s a chorus of voices, instrumentation that mixes big band and brass, not to mention Gonzo the Great’s iconic stinger at the end of each episode. We’re not saying that “The Muppet Show Theme” was the only reason why “The Muppet Show” has endured for so long… but it certainly didn’t hurt.

#4: “The Sopranos” (1999-2007)


The selection of songs utilized within the stretch of television’s “The Sopranos” was schizophrenic, to say the least, vacillating from classic soul and pop to jazz and hip-hop. But that’s exactly why we loved it, and that wide-range of musical influences also permeated the main theme tune, “Woke Up This Morning.” The song was written and performed by Alabama 3, and was sort of a sonic mish-mash of propulsive beats, gospel vocals, blues and rock. It’s the furthest thing one might expect to hear for a show about organized crime, but it was this uniqueness that made “Woke Up This Morning” feel tailor-made to introduce “The Sopranos” every week.

#3: “The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air” (1990-96)


Call us crazy, but we don’t think we have to tell you guys too much about “The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air, or its super memorable theme song. The song (and show) went on to become definitive examples of nineties television culture, a perfect storm of Will Smith’s unconquerable charisma, Jazzy Jeff’s musical expertise, and some truly… um, “colorful” wardrobe choices. Speaking of musical expertise, “The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air” was produced by industry icon Quincy Jones, and the song needed final approval by him before hitting the tube. It was just the story of the right song, right people, right time, and this show benefited all the way to the bank.

#2: “Friends” (1994-2004)


Believe it or not, neither of The Rembrandts were involved with the writing of “I’ll Be There for You,” the hit theme song to the 90s sitcom smash, “Friends.” The song was actually composed by the show’s creators and producers, alongside songwriter Allee Willis. Then again, composition is just part of the songwriting process, with The Rembrandts putting their own slick, pop/rock stamp on Willis’ hard work. “I’ll Be There For You” is super upbeat and positive, a jangle-pop tune that almost sounds like a bizarro version of Gin Blossoms. It’s a breezy and lightweight listen that celebrates life, love and friendship over a beat that’s been stuck in audiences’ heads for years.

Before we name our number one pick, here are some honorable mentions!

“That '70s Show” (1998-2006)

HELLO, WISCONSIN!!

“Malcolm in the Middle” (2000-06)

Post-Grunge? Slacker Indie? All We Know Is… It’s Catchy

“The Beverly Hillbillies” (1962-71)

Because It Wouldn’t Be a ‘60s Sitcom if It Didn’t Explain the Plot to Us!

“Knight Rider” (1982-86)

Makes Us Want to Drive Real Fast & Buy a Synthesizer

“The Love Boat” (1977-86)

Because the World Needs More Sexy Seventies Disco Themes

#1: “Cheers” (1982-93)


No disrespect intended to the very fun (and funny!) theme song to “Frasier,” but there’s nothing quite like the OG. It took three tries before songwriter Gary Portnoy and his co-writer Judy Hart Angelo had their song, “Where Everybody Knows Your Name” picked to be theme for the TV sitcom cornerstone, “Cheers.” Thankfully, Portnoy’s earnest, quirky and slightly bittersweet anthem made the cut… after a little bit of re-tooling, of course. Lyrics were slightly altered and Portnoy himself was called in to sing on the track, which continues to live on in commercials to this day. For us, though, this theme to “Cheers” will always evoke the camaraderie and friendship we felt following Sam, Diane, and the gang for so many years.
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