“See no one told you life was gonna be this way…” if you’re feeling the urge to clap right now, you have just felt the effect of a really good TV theme tune.

From the very first television broadcasts, music has been used to introduce the viewers to what they’re about to see, and over the years, it has been refined into an art form. But what elements make up a truly great theme?

First, It’s Got To Be Catchy

This may be obvious, but the best themes are usually songs that are pleasant enough to be heard over and over again. Indeed, some shows’ opening songs are more famous than the episodes themselves! However, in most cases, a popular series and theme tune go hand in hand – how many of us hummed along as we sat down to watch Game of Thrones every week?

The quality of the songs isn’t accidental, as accomplished artists and producers are often brought in to write something that people won’t mind hearing once a week for the next five years (or more). Most recently, the great Mariah Carey wrote and performed “In the Mix” to accompany the opening titles of American comedy Mixed-ish, while Latin American icon Gloria Estefan provided the theme for the 2017 remake of One Day at a Time.

Current artists are also getting in on the action. Puerto Rican Grammy winner iLe’s haunting “Vienen a Verme” (“They Come to See Me”) invites us into the world of Colombian drama El Chapo, combining stories from the past with a voice of the present.

Capture The Spirit Of The Show

While some shows feature the title and/or some kind of brief synopsis in the theme, most present a tune that echoes the overall sentiment. ‘80s sitcom Cheers talked about going to a place “where everybody knows your name”. Royal drama The Crown has a grand but slightly unsettling orchestral score. A theme song should set the tone for the storylines to come, like a siren to prepare the audience to laugh, gasp, cry or simply stop what they’re doing and pay attention.

An excellent example of this is Danish show The Bridge, which features the haunting theme “Hollow Talk” by Choir of Young Believers. A gentle piano accompanies foreboding lyrics such as “Never said it was good, never said it was near/Shadow rises and you are here”. While not addressing the plot directly, the song is in keeping with the dark and gritty feel of the Nordic noir crime series, with the opening credits showing aerial views of the city our heroes are trying to keep safe. You may not know the title of the song, or be familiar with the band, but once that piano starts playing, you know exactly where you heard it from.

The Theme Should Be A Constant…

You might think that the rise of streaming, with its ‘Skip Intro’ button, will have made the TV theme less important to the modern viewer. The truth is that streaming companies pour a lot into their opening titles, with shows like Disney’s The Mandalorian creating an already-iconic theme tune and making custom artwork for the credits. That’s because it’s more than a sign that the show is about to start. It’s an audio signature for the character, whether it’s Seinfeld’s bass riff or Sex and the City’s spicy Groove Armada track, they become as much of a character as the leads.

There’s also a lot of nostalgia in those notes. Long-running Australian soap opera Neighbours has seen a lot of characters come and go over its 35 years on television, but the timeless theme tune has been a constant presence, reminding us that “everybody needs good neighbours”. New vocalists or arrangements may come in, but the DNA of the song is always there, because the show is always there for the viewer.

…But It’s Ok To Freshen Things Up Occasionally

Speaking of new arrangements, tinkering with the titles can be useful for shows that strive to sidestep the audience’s expectations. The theme song for all five seasons of HBO’s award-winning cop drama The Wire was “Way Down in the Hole” by Tom Waits. However, five different versions of the song were used for each season, each reflecting a different emphasis. Season 4, for example, featured a more hip-hop-inspired track to accompany the season’s setting in the Baltimore school system and its focus on younger characters.

British crime show Peaky Blinders may be set in the early 20th century, but its opening moments are usually accompanied by Aussie band Nick Cave and The Bad Seeds’ murky blues number “Red Right Hand”. During the run of the show, different covers of the song have been inserted into certain episodes to denote a change in the narrative, including versions by UK indie legends Arctic Monkeys and punk royalty Iggy Pop. Such choices throw the viewer off balance, and let them know not everything is as it was.

If At First You Don’t Succeed…

It may surprise you to know that some of the most famous shows in the world didn’t always have their iconic theme tune. Whether it’s due to a change in direction, or simply that the first one didn’t work, a number of famous themes were a second choice.

While sitcom Friends became synonymous with “I’ll Be There for You” by The Rembrandts, the pilot for the show featured a different song and title altogether. The series was initially meant to be called ‘Friends Like These’, and the pilot opened to the bouncy ‘90s hit “Shiny Happy People” by REM. However, the rockers refused to allow the song to be used for the show, and the producers hired The Rembrandts to write something with similar energy.

Japanese anime Death Note had two separate themes for its two seasons – the first a more mainstream rock anthem, “The WORLD” by band Nightmare, followed by the decidedly more metal “What’s Up, People?!” by Maximum the Hormone. In the ‘70s, American sitcom Happy Days was famed for its theme tune of the same name, but for the first two seasons the rock ‘n’ roll anthem “Rock Around the Clock” by Bill Haley & His Comets welcomed viewers back to the ‘50s.

Finally, It Helps If The Star Can Sing!

“Well, this is a story all about how my life got flipped-turned upside down…”

If you’re nodding along to that opening line, chances are you’re envisioning Will Smith spinning in a chair in the opening credits of sitcom The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air. The theme was so popular with fans that it became a top ten hit for DJ Jazzy Jeff & The Fresh Prince in many countries.

That’s obviously one of the more famous examples of a TV star singing their own theme tune, as the future A-lister narrated his own backstory. However, a few other leads have also gone into the recording booth to make their own title song. Zooey Deschanel provided her vocal talents for her show New Girl, Kelsey Grammer did a jazzy number in the end credits of Frasier, and perhaps unsurprisingly, Miley Cyrus was behind the theme for Hannah Montana.

You might be surprised, however, to learn that certain actors were singers at all – let alone that they sang for their shows. Before finding international stardom with the Bond series and Shakespeare in Love, Dame Judi Dench had an ‘80s British sitcom titled A Fine Romance, and the Shakespearean actor sang over the credits. The result is a little dated, but we’re impressed!

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