Music composed for television had, until recently, never been taken seriously by scholars or critics. Catchy TV themes, often for popular weekly series, were fondly remembered but not considered much more culturally significant than commercial jingles. Music for Prime Time is the first serious, journalistic history of music for American television. Jon Burlingame, author of Music for Prime Time and one of the nation’s leading writers on the subject of music for films and television, has selected his favorite TV themes through the years for this playlist.
Listen to his selections for TV’s greatest themes and read on to learn about the composers and their creations.
1. “Peter Gunn” by Henry Mancini (1958)
“Peter Gunn” is among the first well-known, widely recognized themes for television. The jazz approach for a suave private detective (who happened to hang out at a jazz club) immediately became the only acceptable music for practically every cop and private eye series (and movies) for the next few decades.
2. “Rawhide” by Dimitri Tiomkin and Ned Washington (1959)
Dimitri Tiomkin, who wrote such famous western movie scores as “High Noon” and “Gunfight at the OK Corral,” wrote this cowboy song for a cattle-driving drama for TV starring Clint Eastwood long before he became a movie star. It became one of singer Frankie Laine’s biggest hits and made a fortune for its composer because he insisted on owning the music publishing rights.
3. The Andy Griffith Show theme by Earle Hagen (1960)
The best-known and most fondly remembered theme by one of the pioneers of TV music; Hagen would go on to write themes for The Dick Van Dyke Show, I Spy, That Girl, The Mod Squad, and many others. Incidentally, he whistled the tune himself and often said that was the one and only time he ever whistled at a recording session.
4. The Twilight Zone main theme by Marius Constant (1960)
The great Bernard Herrmann composed the original theme for Rod Serling’s first season, but it was replaced for season two by this strange tune by an obscure French classical composer—who wasn’t even consulted and didn’t know his musical snippets (written for the CBS music library) were being turned into a TV theme. It has, over time, become musical shorthand for “something weird is happening here.”
5. Jerry Goldsmith TV themes (1961-1995)
One of the all-time great Hollywood composers, Jerry Goldsmith started in TV and, while he became an Oscar-winning film composer, he often returned to TV to write themes for old friends who helped start him in the business. In order, they are the spy show The Man from U.N.C.L.E., medical series Dr. Kildare, high-school sitcom Room 222, sci-fi series Star Trek Voyager, homespun period drama The Waltons, and ’70s detective drama Barnaby Jones. Some of these were among the most popular shows of their time.
6. The Addams Family main theme by Vic Mizzy (1964)
Vic Mizzy was a funny songwriter who wrote funny comedy themes (“Green Acres” was also his); he came up with the finger-snapping incorporated into the titles of this offbeat half-hour. The show only lasted two seasons, but the theme outlived the original to become a part of the 1990s movies and the ongoing animated series. The harpsichord accompaniment of this theme now resonates in the harpsichord of the Netflix series Wednesday, based on one of the ’60s characters.
7. “Secret Agent Man” from Secret Agent by P.F. Sloan and Steve Barri (1965)
This was the first successful rock ‘n’ roll theme for TV (The Beach Boys had done a sitcom theme the year before, but the show was cancelled and the boys never issued a single). Johnny Rivers sang it and it became a top-10 hit on the radio. The show was a British import, and CBS thought it needed a musical update to attract a younger demographic. The guitar hook became the first thing that young guitar players learned to play back in the mid-1960s.
8. “Mission: Impossible” by Lalo Schifrin (1966)
Maybe the most famous spy theme ever. Schifrin turned this into a top-40 hit in 1967. It’s one of the reasons there’s now a series of movie thrillers starring Tom Cruise—the theme is so identifiable that it became a marketing tool for Paramount to “sell” viewers on its big-screen franchise. Schifrin became a well-known film composer after that (Dirty Harry, Rush Hour) but this remains his best-known work.
9. “Hawaii Five-0” by Morton Stevens (1968)
This was one of the ’60s most dynamic themes, an exciting musical backdrop for a long-running cop show starring Jack Lord. Its original main-title imagery is so iconic that it was largely replicated by the creators of the reboot decades later. And the theme was so crucial to the reboot that composer Brian Tyler made CBS dig out the original arrangement to re-record for the new series.
10. The Persuaders! theme by John Barry (1971)
Widely considered among the greatest themes in the history of British television, this hummable waltz-time theme for offbeat percussion instruments was written by the veteran James Bond composer John Barry, whose “Goldfinger” and “Thunderball” were big hits in both the US and UK. The series starred Roger Moore (before he was 007) and movie star Tony Curtis, and it remains a favorite of action-adventure TV buffs of the era.
11. Hill Street Blues theme by Mike Post (1981)
Mike Post is responsible for some of the best-known TV themes in history (LA Law, Magnum P.I., The A-Team, The Greatest American Hero, Law & Order) but this is probably my favorite. The Hill Street Blues theme was written for the legendary Steven Bochco series, an ensemble police drama that won many Emmys and remains one of the great cop shows of all time.
12. Dynasty theme by Bill Conti (1981)
Along with Dallas, this was one of the top-rated prime-time soaps of its time, a drama about the rich and famous. Bill Conti of Rocky fame composed this very regal theme for the series. He always said that he could never be inspired by the original title, “Oil,” but when they renamed it “Dynasty” this tune came right away.
13. “Where Everybody Knows Your Name” from Cheers by Gary Portnoy and Judy Hart Angelo (1982)
This is merely the greatest song about a bar ever written. It’s a sitcom theme, yes, but one that conveys the locale, the people, the mood, and is so catchy and memorable that, decades later, it still resonates. The two-minute version has extra verses and it’s sung by one of the songwriters.
14. Game of Thrones main title by Ramin Djawadi (2011)
This theme for the HBO fantasy became a sensation with millions of YouTube—an earworm for cello, tribal drums, and orchestra that introduced us all to a dark and dragon-filled world. The composer won two Emmys for his music, and he redid the main theme for the prequel House of the Dragon.
15. Succession main title theme by Nicholas Britell (2018)
A brilliant fusion of classical and hip-hop influences, this Emmy-winning theme by popular composer Nicholas Britell (Moonlight, Andor) serves as a great accompaniment to one of the most popular cable series of our time.