The 50 Best TV Theme Songs of All Time

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The 50 Best TV Theme Songs of All Time

In 2008, Paste claimed “there’s no denying we’re past the golden age of the TV show theme song.” Nearly 10 years later, with new shows popping up weekly on every conceivable (and previously inconceivable) platform, we’re not so sure. Television is arguably as good as it’s ever been, but have the songs survived as the integral element they once were? In a way, yes: The two biggest shows that aired between 2008 and today, Mad Men and Breaking Bad, both led off every episode with a memorable credit sequence that captured an essence of the show—Mad Men’s ratting drums and melodramatic strings, Breaking Bad’s simmering slide guitar and sinister hissing. But it was basically mood music, kind of like the screeching techno that leads off Silicon Valley now. Sometimes those wordless ditties are pure gold, like the harrumphing waltz that begins every Curb Your Enthusiasm—or, for that matter, M*A*S*H*—but it’s not exactly the stuff of Archie and Edith at the piano or the old-timey photos ahead of Cheers, when a show’s theme could tell you a little story by itself. (Silicon Valley’s end credits are getting a lot of the talk these days).

On the other hand, the advent of a) forward-thinking streaming series, like Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt on Netflx, and b) great shows suddenly appearing on formerly anonymous networks (Crazy Ex-Girlfriend on The CW) has opened the floodgates to anyone who wants to nail a theme song and set their show apart. Where does Kimmy Schmidt’s remix magic rank with the greats? Which old-school classics hold up best? How great is it, really, to rhyme “horse” with of “course”? Here are the 50 Best TV Theme Songs of All Time.

50. The Rockford Files
(Mike Post and Peter Carpenter)
You might not know the names of Post and Carpenter, but between them they composed theme music for a mind-boggling number of shows, including CHiPs, Magnum P.I., The A-Team, Hunter, Hill Street Blues, The Greatest American Hero, Doogie Howser M.D., Quantum Leap and Remington Steele. If you’re in your 40s, you can claim all you want that Prince provided the soundtrack to your childhood—but it was really Mike Post. —Josh Jackson

49. WKRP in Cincinnati
(Tom Wells and Hugh Wilson)
For the most part, it’s a standard late-’70s theme song, but then it closes with the magical “WKRP in Cincinnaaaaaati.— The tune is a perfect match for the middling radio station at the show’s center—”if you’ve ever wondered whatever became of me…”—and it was an original song written specifically for the show. —Josh Jackson

48. The Olympic Games on NBC
(John Williams, “Olympic Fanfare and Theme”)
Better than Charles Fox’s Monday Night Football theme music. Better than the intro to Wide World of Sports. This piece originally composed by Williams for the 1984 Games in Los Angeles has been the heart of NBC’s Olympic coverage ever since. His NBC Nightly News score is pretty great, too. —Josh Jackson

47. Rawhide
(Ned Washington, Dimitri Tiomkin)
Few shows have ever been introduced with shouts of “Hiya!” But the Western that gave the world Clint Eastwood also gave us one of the best scenes in The Blues Brothers. —Josh Jackson

46. The Flintstones
(Hoyt Curtain)
They’re the modern stone-age family, don’t you know. And you do, because no matter how much TV you did or didn’t watch as a kid, somewhere in your brain there is a picture of Fred Flintstone sliding down the back of his dinosaur crane (amazing how domesticated they all seemed to be, given what we know happened at Jurassic Park) into his waiting rag-top car. Fun fact: the famous big-band rave-up was not the theme song for the first two-plus seasons. It arrived during the third season, and was later added to the first two for syndication. —Matthew Oshinsky

45. Mr. Ed
(Jay Livingston, Ray Evans)
The first verse simply rhymes “horse” and “of course” four times. That’s innovation! But the second verse throws in such curveballs as “source,” “endorse,” and… uh… back to “horse” and “course.” But for a TV show about a talking horse and his beleaguered human friend, there’s nothing wrong with simple. —Josh Jackson

44. Friends
(The Rembrandts, “I’ll Be There For You”)
It’s easy to dismiss The Rembrandts’ “I’ll Be There For You” as nothing more than a piece of pop culture fluff. But really, to paraphrase Chandler Bing, could there be a more perfect song about the friends you make your family? The song captured the zeitgeist of the moment and still makes me want to dance in a fountain with my umbrella and clap, clap, clap. —Amy Amatangelo

43. Sesame Street
(Joe Raposo, Jon Stone, Bruce Hart)
The iconic kids show devises new versions year after year, but the foundation is always there, and it never fails to put a smile on your face. But we’re going back to the beginning here, when the air was actually clean. Here’s a 1988 version sung by Gladys Knight & The Pips. —Josh Jackson

42. Malcolm in the Middle
(They Might Be Giants, “Boss of Me”)
The Johns (Flannsburgh and Linnell) have also written solid theme songs for The Daily Show, The Oblongs, Mickey Mouse Clubhouse and Higgly Town Heroes. But “Boss of Me” was their broadcast highlight, earning the prolific duo their only Grammy win in 2002. —Josh Jackson

41. Veronica Mars
(The Dandy Warhols, “We Used to Be Friends”)
Veronica Mars was about teenage detective, but it was also about the struggles of navigating the tricky waters of high school. A paen to the perils of adolescence and young adulthood, the melancholic “We Used to be Friends” pretty much sums up how friendships change as we grow up. Veronica knew this and The Dandy Warhols spoke to the teenager in all of us. —Amy Amatangelo

40. Jeopardy
(Merv Griffin, “Think!”)
Lots of game shows have memorable themes, but the Jeopardy song has become so ubiquitous that it’s hard to remember it has gone through several iterations since Merv Griffin first wrote it. Whatever updates they give it, though, that inescapable melody remains the best way to annoy someone when they’re trying to think of something. —Matthew Oshinsky

39. The Courtship of Eddie’s Father
(Harry Nilsson, “Best Friend”)
The early 1970s saw a string of shows dealing with single parenthood, but only one of them had a theme song by Harry Nilsson. “People let me tell you ‘bout my best friend….” —Josh Jackson

38. Scrubs
(Lazlo Bane, “Superman”)
Lazlo Bane’s “Superman” is another example of a pre-existing song that got new life in TV. The Santa Monica band originally released the quirky banjo song in 2000 for The Tao of Steve soundtrack and later included it on its 2002 record All the Time in the World. With Scrubs’s funny, heart-warming plot of medical interns finding their way in the harsh medical world, Lazlo Bane’s refrain—”I can’t do this all on my own / no, I’m no superman”—became the show’s perfect summary song. —Hilary Saunders

37. Weeds
(Malvina Reynolds, “Little Boxes”)
Activist-songwriter Malvina Reynolds’s satire on conformity might be the best song for a show about a caffeine-addicted soccer mom so desperate to survive in a suburban hillside of “ticky-tacky” (read: stucco) after her husband’s sudden death that she starts dealing drugs. Eventually in the series, heroine Nancy Botwin’s (played by Mary-Louise Parker) path would stray from her fictional town of Agrestic, Calif. and Little Boxes would cease to be the opening. But that world (and, therefore, the song) always stuck with her, as we saw when everything came full circle in the series’ end. —Whitney Friedlander

36. Square Pegs
(The Waitresses)
As good as the theme song is, and despite the fact that Devo actually guest-starred, my favorite musical moment on Square Pegs was when Johnny “Slash” Ulasewicz deadpanned his new song. “I’m tired. I’m really tired. I’m so tired. I’m totally tired. Totally.” I have no idea why I still remember that scene, but I do. —Josh Jackson

35. What’s Happening!!
(Henry Mancini)
Who knew that the same composer responsible for Peter Gunn also wrote the music to accompany Rerun dribbling a basketball? This instrumental soundtracked more than its share of high-fives and unnecessary snacks from 1976 to 1979. —Josh Jackson

34. Welcome Back Kotter
(John Sebastian)
Nearly a decade after the break-up of Lovin’ Spoonful and the mostly unsuccessful solo career that followed, Sebastian found himself with a No. 1 hit when he wrote “Welcome Back” for TV. Apropos for a show that starred the king of all comebacks John Travolta. —Josh Jackson

33. The Andy Griffith Show
(Earle Hagen, Herbert Spencer, Everett Sloane, “The Fishin’ Hole”)
That’s co-writer Earle Hagen you hear whistling the intro, but I was more impressed with this version by some guy’s parrot. —Josh Jackson

32. The Monkees
(Tommy Boyce, Bobby Hart)
One of the few TV themes that counts as a real-life hit for the characters in the show, who were fictional renderings of real musicians paying themselves. That was the meta beauty of The Monkees, who had a great tune and a classic ‘60s refrain: “We’re the young generation, and we’ve got somethin’ to say.” —Matthew Oshinsky

31. The Brady Bunch
(Sherwood Schwarz)
Sherwood Schwarz created both The Brady Bunch and Gilligan’s Island, and wrote the theme songs for both with the since-abandoned belief that a theme song should clearly communicate the show’s premise. This may be the most detail-oriented theme in history. —Josh Jackson

30. The Beverly Hillbillies
(Paul Henning, “The Ballad of Jed Clampett”)
That’s Lester Flatt and Earl Scruggs on guitar and banjo, two of the most famous bluegrass musicians of all time. The first time through Jerry Scoggins sings the premise, and then Scruggs goes nuts on banjo. It’s only fitting that such a classic show features the music of such classic musicians. —Josh Jackson

29. The Dukes of Hazzard
(Waylon Jennings, “Good Ol’ Boys”)
The Dukes of Hazzard earned its Southern cred by filming the first few episodes in Georgia and recruiting Waylon Jennings to write and sing the theme song. It was a perfect match—the outlaw country singer telling the story of two good ol’ boys, never meaning’ no harm, who are constantly in trouble with the law. —Josh Jackson

28. Mad Men
(RJD2)
The spiraling “A Beautiful Mine” pulled viewers into the 1960s and the duplicitous world of Don Draper. The theme is at once melodic and discordant, repetitious and distinct, optimistic and pessimistic. The perfect representation for a show that forever changed television. —Amy Amatangelo

27. Barney Miller
(Jack Elliott)
Barney Miller is an example of a show whose theme music might have actually had a more lasting impact than the show itself. Those bass lines are right up there with the ones in the Night Court theme, which of course was also written by Jack Elliot. —Josh Jackson

26. Star Trek:The Next Generation
(Alexander Courage, Jerry Goldsmith)
Combining pieces from Courage’s original Star Trek theme music with Goldsmith’s compositions from the first film, the intro to ST:TNG was, like most every other aspect, an improvement upon the original. (Let the flaming begin!) —Josh Jackson

25. Knight Rider
(Stu Phillips, Glen A. Larson)
The 1980s were all about lovable vigilantes on TV, from Magnum PI to MacGyver to the A-Team. But it was Knight Rider and its free-thinking car that stood apart with its robot synths and addictive tune. It was also the only one that became a Busta Rhymes song. —Matthew Oshinsky

24. The Sopranos
(Alabama 3, “Woke Up This Morning (Chosen One Mix)”
Sometimes there’s no need to write new theme music when you can just use a great existing piece of music that fits perfectly. For The Sopranos, that’s “Woke Up This Morning,” which is still the song we expect to hear every time the HBO title card fades out. —Josh Jackson

23. Golden Girls
(Andrew Gold)
The opening tune for The Golden Girls is as recognizable as the sitcom’s four leading ladies who shared ample amounts of love, heartbreak and laughter in their Miami home. “Thank You for Being a Friend” was originally a 1978 hit by Andrew Gold, but singer Cynthia Fee’s version of the song is a perfect ode to the unbreakable bond between absentminded Rose (Betty White), free-spirited Blanche (Rue McClanahan), quick-witted Dorothy (Bea Arthur) and sharp-tongued Sophia (Estelle Getty). Years later, The Golden Girls theme song still prompts an epic sing-a-long moment and has even inspired a soulful remix on YouTube. —Tai Gooden

22. Curb Your Enthusiasm
(Luciano Michelini, “Frolic”)
You’ve been caught in a trap of your own design. A lifetime of personal etiquette has folded back on itself and bitten you in the ass in a way you could never have expected. There’s only one song that can play now, before the credits roll, and you know it’s “Frolic,” the Luciano Michelini composition that is the calling card for HBO’s Curb Your Enthusiasm and the million-and-a-half creative ways it’s been able to make Larry David lose. —Graham Techler

21. Laverne & Shirley
(Norman Gimbel, Charles Fox, “Making Our Dreams Come True”)
The show was a spin-off of Happy Days—a theme song that could have made this list in its own right—and the theme was composed by the same team of Gimbel and Fox. For the record, it’s “Schlemiel (“a habitual bungler”), schlemazel (“an extremely unlucky or inept person”), Hasenfeffer (“rabbit stew”) Incorporated,” and that’s one-hit wonder Cyndi Grecco singing. —Josh Jackson

20. It’s Garry Shandling’s Show
(Joey Carbone)
Garry Shandling was so far ahead of his time, it’s easy to forget how influential. His first show basically invented the comedian-as-himself sitcom and was among the first to turn the entire premise inward on television itself. The brilliant theme song encapsulated all of it: “This is the theme to Garry’s Show, the theme to Garry’s show / Garry called me up and asked if I would write his theme song / I’m almost halfway finished, how do you like it so far / How do you like the theme to Garry’s Show?” —Matthew Oshinsky

19. Crazy Ex-Girlfriend
(Rachel Bloom, Adam Schlesinger)
We are, of course, referring to the impossibly perky show-stopping theme of Crazy Ex-Girlfriend’s superior first season. In just 32 seconds, Rachel Bloom and her cast of co-stars in cartoon-form perfectly embody the musical rom-com’s spirit, while neatly offering a quick catch-up for anyone who’s just succumbed to its many charms. Initially opting for the rapid-fire delivery of a rip-roaring Broadway show tune, the theme acknowledges both our hero’s flippancy (“one day I was crying a lot / and so I decided to move to / West Covina…”) and lack of self-awareness (“It happens to be where Josh lives / but that’s not why I’m here”). But amidst calls of “she’s so broken inside” from her animated crew, the toe-tapping tune also finds the time to dispel the notion that the show, and particularly its title, is sexist. Quite simply, this wonderfully playful intro shows that Crazy Ex-Girlfriend is a lot more nuanced than that. —Jon O’Brien

18. The Muppet Show
(Jim Henson, Sam Pottle)
I’ve been going back and watching early episodes of The Muppet Show with my kids, and it’s really the intro that made the puppet show feel like it was ready for prime time. Lord knows it wasn’t early guest stars like Juliet Prowse and Connie Stevens. Every week as a kid, I couldn’t wait to see what would happen to Gonzo when, like Charlie Brown trying to kick a field goal, he tried to blow that last trumpet note. —Josh Jackson

17. The Wire
(Tom Waits, “Way Down in the Hole”)
The Wire’s use of Tom Waits’ “Way Down in the Hole” stands out not only because it’s a great song that fits perfectly with the show, but also because they opted to use a different version of the song each season to best fit the vibe of that year. Season 1 featured the Blind Boys of Alabama’s take on it; season 2 switched to Waits’s original. The following season featured a Neville Brothers version of the song, followed by DoMaJe’s cover in season 4 and a version by Steve Earle—who also had a small role on the show as Walon, Bubbles’ sponsor—in season 5. —Bonnie Stiernberg

16. Peter Gunn
(Henry Mancini)
The P.I. wouldn’t have been nearly as hip if his every move wasn’t accompanied by music from Mancini. The theme music has been covered by everyone from Duane Eddy and Jimi Hendrix to Aerosmith, Pulp and The Cramps. Even Quincy Jones has recorded a version. It was, of course, also the soundtrack to the ‘80s videogame Spy Hunter. Josh Jackson

15. The Addams Family
(Vic Mizzy)
Kudos to Mizzy, who also wrote the theme to Green Acres, for forcing rhymes like “they’re altogether ooky” and “they really are a scree-um.” How did this show get canceled after only three years? —Josh Jackson

14. The Twilight Zone
(Bernard Herrman)
The Twilight Zone theme does for your spine what the Jeopardy theme does for your brain: makes it tense up. First employed during the second season of the original five-season show, those eight spidery notes became the sarcastic singalong retort to anyone who says they’re spooked out by anything. The jazzy number that followed suggests a kind of beatnik dread. —Matthew Oshinsky

13. Doctor Who
(Ron Grainer)
With its tape loops and innovative use of synthesizers and filters, Ron Grainer’s pioneering electronic composition was originally brought to life by the BBC Radiophonic Workshop back in 1963. It’s the rare TV theme that had a major impact on the popular music of its own era and those to come, and one of the most recognizable. The theme has been tweaked several times during the off-and-on 55-year history of the cult show, but the tune itself has aged every bit as well as the time-traveling doctor. —Josh Jackson

12. Mission: Impossible
(Lalo Schifrin)
Flute has never sounded as bad-ass as with the answer to the show’s repeating eight-note riff. The original single reached at No. 41 on the Billboard Hot 100 chart and quickly became the inner monologue to every kid playing a spy game in the yard. —Josh Jackson

11. Fresh Prince of Bel-Air
(Will Smith, Quincy Jones III)
The hip-hop version of The Beverly Hillbillies, Will Smith’s rap caught you up to speed the first time you saw the show: “I got in one little fight, and my mom got scared and said you’re moving with your auntie and uncle in Bel-Air.” Swimming pools, movie stars indeed. —Josh Jackson

10. The Mary Tyler Moore Show
(Sonny Curtis, “Love Is All Around”)
Thanks to the on-screen punctuation it got via star Mary Tyler Moore’s infamous blue beret toss, Curtis’ hopelessly optimistic (and oh, so ‘70s) Love is All Around is most memorable for its final notes. But, it still offers hope and a sense of survival to many. Think of it as a precursor to Friends’ theme I’ll Be There For You: before you find the support group you need to get through your bad day, week, month or year, you need to be brave enough to set out on your own and accept that, despite life’s hurdles, “you’re gonna make it after all.” —Whitney Friedlander

9. Gilligan’s Island
(Sherwood Schwartz and George Wyle, “The Ballad of Gilligan’s Isle”)
It’s a sea shanty with foreshadowing (“A three-hour tour”), suspense (“The Minnow would be lost”), a key change when they make it through the storm and a convenient way to introduce the characters—though the original reduced The Professor and Mary Ann to “the rest.”
Josh Jackson

8. Hawaii Five-O
(Morton Stevens)
Of all the songs on this list, this is the one that you’ll have stuck in your head for the rest of the day. Unless, of course, you can whistle… The theme was later recorded by the Ventures, whose version climbed to No. 4 on the Billboard pop charts. Don Ho and Sammy Davis Jr. also recorded versions (with lyrics!), and Bill Murray famously butchered it as part of his Nick the Lounge Singer bit on Saturday Night Live. —Josh Jackson

7. The Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt
(Jeff Richmond, the Gregory Brothers)
“They alive, dammit!” It’s not just the catchiest TV theme in years. The genius of this song is baked into its concept—a remix that goes viral in the first minute of the pilot episode, right along with the strong females it’s about. It’s not just a TV theme; it’s a cultural theme, too, highlighting our modern obsession with modern obsessions. It’s also got one the best lines: “White people hold the record for creepy crimes.” —Matthew Oshinsky

6. The Jeffersons
(Ja’net Du Boise, “Movin’ On Up”)
How’s this for the inter-connectedness of Hollywood? Du Boise played Willona Woods on Good Times. Janet Jackson was also on Good Times. Justin Timberlake caused a little wardrobe malfunction with Janet Jackson during Super Bowl XXXVIII. Fellow Mousketeer alum Keri Russell starred in Mission:Impossible III. The original Mission:Impossible TV show aired on CBS alongside All in the Family. The Jeffersons was an All in the Family spin-off. Okay, so that was pretty random, but you can’t argue against the greatness of “Movin’ On Up.” —Josh Jackson

5. All in the Family
(Lee Adams, Charles Strouse, “Those Were the Days”)
Few intros are as simple or as memorable as Carroll O’Connor and Jean Stapleton at the spinnet piano live in front of a studio audience every week. This was the first song I (and many others) learned on the piano, as it used only the black keys. But only now have I learned that the closing lyrics are “Gee, our old LaSalle ran great.” Or that a LaSalle was a GM automobile that went out of production in 1940. —Josh Jackson

4. The Simpsons
(Danny Elfman)
Danny Elfman  wrote the score for just about every great movie in the 1990s (Beetlejuice, Batman, Men in Black), but he’s probably best known for the minute and 34 seconds it takes Marge Simpson to check out at the grocery store and drive home. The Simpsons has been on so long—now in its 28th season—Elfman’s orchestral theme with the brief saxophone solo has probably been heard by more television watchers than any in history. And it’s been covered by Yo La Tengo, Tito Puente, Sigur Ros and NRBQ. —Matthew Oshinsky

3. Sanford & Son
(Quincy Jones)
Forget Thriller, “We Are the World” or his work with Frank Sinatra, Ray Charles, Ella Fitzgerald and Sammie Davis Jr. If all Quincy Jones had given us was the funky intro to one of the best sitcoms of the 1970s—the song is actually called “The Streetbeater”—it might have been enough. —Josh Jackson

2. M*A*S*H
(Johnny Mandel, “Suicide Is Painless”)
M*A*S*H was unique in that it was a tragedy with a laugh track. Unlike its war-sitcom predecessor Hogan’s Heroes, M*A*S*H was a black comedy pointing to the absurdity and horror of war. The humor was often of the gallows variety, and the theme song signaled bravery in the face of sadness. The devastating words were written by Robert Altman’s 14-year-old son Mike but wisely left out of the TV version. It didn’t need anything more than a haunting melody. —Josh Jackson

1. Cheers
(Gary Portnoy, “Where Everybody Knows Your Name”)
Portnoy’s prior claim to fame was penning the theme song for Punky Brewster, “Every Time You Turn Around” (oh, you remember it). The greatest TV theme song of all time is sappy as hell, but sometimes we do want to go where everybody knows our name. It does what a great theme song should do—set the scene. Despite the cutting and sarcastic quips flying around the bar, Cheers was at its core as sweet as Portnoy’s introduction. —Josh Jackson

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