TV Theme Songs: The Soul of a TV Show

TV Theme Songs: The Soul of a TV Show

Television theme songs (and the opening credits sequences designed to accompany them) are an art form that is seldom given the careful study it deserves. In fact, theme songs are not as prevalent as they once were, producers opting to jump right into the story with the credits playing over the opening scene.  Something is lost in this abrupt start of a television show, a bit of magic that may not be essential, but that certainly transports us with its melody and lyrics.

I have often mused that the TV theme song is the soul of a television show, establishing the spirit, premise, and world of what we are about to watch. It speaks from the show’s heart and transitions audiences from their daily grind toward a world that will allow them escape for chunk of time.  In the cases where there are lyrics, they are often upbeat messages that inspire courage or strength, or that hint at a better world or a new life on the horizon. The tunes are catchy, earworms that stay with us so that when we hear them the following week we are indoctrinated to tune in. It creates a Pavlovian response in us: time for my show.

For this article, I am concentrating on theme songs with lyrics, but that is not say that there aren’t theme songs that are just instrumentals that aren’t just as effective. That will be a piece for a different day. Today, however, I have poured through hundreds of TV theme songs WITH lyrics and have chosen the twenty-five most-effective at setting up their show’s premise, artfully conveying the show through their opening credit sequences, and creating earworms that will never relent from drawing you in.

Top-Twenty-Five TV Theme Songs with Lyrics:

25. “I’ll Be There For You” from Friends
Music and Lyrics by Michael Skloff and Allee Willis
This opening montage has become somewhat iconic, featuring the six titular characters (Ross, Rachel, Chandler, Joey, Phoebe, and Monica) dancing in and around a fountain. The song “I’ll Be There for You” climbed the Billboard charts to #1, one of the few TV themes songs to achieve this honor. Performed by the band The Rembrandts, the song is a list of all the ways that life can go wrong, but that good friends will always see you through.

24. “The Best of Both Worlds” from Hannah Montana
Music and Lyrics by Miley Cyrus
“The Best of Both Worlds” was not only an effective television theme song, but a popular one that had kids (and parents) singing along. The premise of the show is simple: a teenage rock star wants to have a normal life AND the life of red carpet glamour, so she operates as two different personas. Sometimes she is her real self, the awkward Miley, and sometimes she is her alter ego, the pop sensation Hannah Montana. The song is a spirited celebration of having your cake and eating it too, sung by the show’s star Miley Cyrus. 

23. “The Brady Bunch” from The Brady Bunch
Music and Lyrics by Frank De Vol and Sherwood Schwartz
Admit it. You started singing this one to yourself as soon as you saw it. “Here’s the story, of a lovely lady…”. The theme song of the The Brady Bunch succinctly and memorably sets up the premise for two families joined together by marriage, playing the story out with tic-tac-toe style grid and a sky blue background. The song was sung by the Peppermint Trolley Company for Season 1, and it was sung by the Brady Kids for the remainder of the show’s run. 

22. “It’s a Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood” from Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood
Music and Lyrics by Fred Rogers
You might laugh to see this one on the list, but if you think about it, you must admit that it did what it set out to do and did it to great effect. The warm welcome of Mr. Fred Rogers inviting little kids to join him and his neighborhood friends for a half-hour of learning, playing, and self-esteem building is perfect. It’s a gentle, inviting song that puts the listener at ease. This is a great way to make kids feel special and ease them into the show. Rogers sang the song with each episode, changing out of his suit coat and dress shoes and into a softer look of a cardigan sweater and a pair of slippers. A revised version of the song is currently the theme for the animated program Daniel Tiger’s Neighborhood, inspired by Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood’s Neighborhood of Make-Believe characters.

21. “Welcome Back” from Welcome Back, Kotter
Music and Lyrics by John Sebastian
Another TV theme song to reach the top of the Billboard Charts was “Welcome Back” from Welcome Back, Kotter. The song, a reflective, gentle number, captured the situation of the title character, a former Brooklyn troublemaker who had grown up, become a schoolteacher, and returned to the community of his youth to teach high school and make a difference. The song was written and performed by John Sebastian of the band Lovin’ Spoonful. The opening credits feature a montage of images from Brooklyn, painting a sad picture of the Brooklyn’s ghetto neighborhoods of the 1970s.

20. “The Big Bang Theory Theme” from The Big Bang Theory
Music and Lyrics by The Barenaked Ladies
The Big Bang Theory, a sitcom about the friendship between math and science nerds who treat comic books like holy texts and video games as an art form, needed a theme song that embraced that world of geek chic. Fortunately, the band Barenaked Ladies knows a little something about embracing the unconventional and the theme they concocted for the show was a celebration of the science that that got the earth started and evolved to the world we know today. What many people don’t know is that there is an even longer version of the song than we see in the opening credits.

19. “According to Our New Arrival” from Mr. Belvedere
Music and Lyrics by Judy Hart-Angelo and Gary Portnoy
Performed by Leon Rebone, and with music and lyrics by Judy Hart-Angelo and Gary Portnoy who had written the popular theme song for the TV show Cheers, “According to Our New Arrival” is a jaunty little ditty that tells the story of the world-traveled, proper, butler Mr. Belvedere who takes a job serving the rough-around-the-edges Owens household. The songs muses “Streaks on the china never mattered before. As you drop-kicked your jacket as you came through the door no one glared”, capturing the Owens’ perplexed reactions to living the good life under Mr. Belvedere’s constant scrutiny.  

18. “Those Were the Days” from All in the Family
Music by Charles Strouse and Lyrics by Lee Adams
All in the Family was a groundbreaking sitcom, tackling more controversial and topical issues than any other TV show in history (save, perhaps, Designing Women and Murphy Brown). The conservative and bigoted character of Archie Bunker was constantly put in the position of facing the ever-changing world of the early 1970s, often at odds with his liberal daughter and her activist husband. “Those Were the Days” sung by Archie and his wife Edith (Carroll O’Connor and Jean Stapleton) was an ironic theme, a song that wistfully longed for the days of Herbert Hoover and a more conservative America. Interesting side note: the song was written by Charles Strouse (music) and Lee Adams (lyrics) who together wrote the score for the Broadway musical Bye, Bye, Birdie, and Strouse also wrote the music for the musical Annie.

17. “Where Everybody Knows Your Name” from Cheers
Music and Lyrics by Judy Hart-Angelo and Gary Portnoy
The quiet twinkle of a piano opened-up into this catchy and wonderful song that conveyed the feeling of what it was like to frequent a favorite haunt “Where Everybody Knows Your Name”. Cheers, set in a Bostin bar of the same name, was inhabited by a batch of kooky patrons and bartenders who knew how to make any everyday joe feel welcome. It became out home away from home. The theme song played over an opening collage of old-fashioned, historical pictures of inside the bar.

16. “Making Our Dreams Come True” from Laverne & Shirley
Music by Charles Fox, Lyrics by Norman Gimbel
We all remember how it started: “Five-Six-Seven-Eight Schlemiel, Schlimazel, Hasenpfeffer, Incorporated. We’re gonna do it!” as Penny Marshall and Cindy Williams clopped down the street as the two young women on their own ready to “make their dreams come true”.  The song “Making our Dreams Come True” was an energetic montage of scenes from the show interspersed throughout `scenes of Laverne and Shirley working at their place of employment in a Milwaukee brewery. The song is sung by Cindy Grecco.  

15. “Brand New Life” from Who’s the Boss?
Music by Larry Carlton and Robert Kraft, Lyrics by Martin Cohan and Blake Hunter
Who’s the Boss was a sitcom about evolving gender roles in America in the 1980s. Tony Micelli, a former professional baseball player, is forced to retire due to an injury. He secures a job as a housekeeper in the Connecticut home of the wealthy ad executive, divorcee, and single mother Angela Bowers. The theme song “Brand New Life” has a tentative, reflective melody, conveying the insecurities that each of these two courageous characters are experiencing as they venture into their own unchartered territories. The song was recorded three-times for the show, with a different singer onboard for each inception:  Larry Weiss (1984–86), Steve Wariner (1986–90), and Jonathan Wolff (1990–92).

14. “Meet The Flintstones” from The Flintstones
By Hoyt Curtin
From the moment that the end-of-day whistle screeches and we watch Fred Flintstone slide down a dinosaur, get into his car and head home to pick up his family and friends for a night at the Drive-In movies, we are indoctrinated into the world of this Stone Age family. “Meet the Flintstones”, the theme song for the prime time animated cartoon The Flintstones, is an earworm that sticks with you like no other theme song. What most people don’t know is that, for the show’s first two seasons, a different Hoyt Curtin song called “Rise and Shine” opened the show. It wasn’t until Season 3 that the iconic song was added to the show.

13. “The Ballad of Gilligan’s Isle” from Gilligan’s Island
Music and Lyrics by Sherwood Schwartz and George Wyle
The story of the first mate Gilligan, the Skipper of the S.S. Minnow, and their passengers: The millionaire Howells, the movie star Ginger, the brainy Professor, and the farm girl Maryanne, was all set up in “The Ballad of Gilligan’s Isle”, detailing how a terrible storm shipwrecked them on a desert island. Gilligan’s Island was a classic situation comedy and its theme song and its theme song an iconic part of its longevity and popularity. The song, with a classic seaman’s chanty melody, was sung by The Wellingtons for the first season, and for the subsequent seasons it was performed by The Eligibles (which featured the lyric switch from “And the rest” to “The Professor and Maryanne”).

12. “New Girl in Town” from Alice
Music by David Shire, Lyrics by Marilyn and Alan Bergman
Sitcoms, from the 60s through the 80s, were forever using the premise about someone starting over fresh in a new city as a compelling situation for a character. Alice found the title character, played by Linda Lavin, starting anew in Phoenix, Arizona where she takes a job as a waitress at Mel’s Diner as means to support herself and her incorrigible son. Lavin sang the theme song, several times, in fact, as every few seasons the lyrics changed. “New Girl in Town” was essentially Alice’s celebration of the opportunities that starting over can provide. The music was written by theatre composer David Shire, while lyrics were Alan and Marilyn Bergman of Yentl fame. 

11. “Together” from Silver Spoons
By Rik Howard and Bob Worth

Anyone who grew up in the 80s either had a crush on Ricky Schroeder, or envied his character Richard Stratton on Silver Spoons. The reason? Ricky got to go live with his Dad, the owner of Eddie Toys, whose mansion was full of arcade games, a working train, and just about every kid’s playtime favorites. The theme song “Together” is an emotional piece that tentatively tells what happens when two people come together and their lives are changed. Later in the show’s run, a synthesized recording was used and finally a new recording of the song was sung by Ron Dante of the band The Archies for the last season.

10. “Good Times” from Good Times
Music by Dave Grusin, Lyrics by Alan and Marilyn Bergman

The Norman Lear sitcoms of the 1970s did more to open our eyes to problems in American (and the world) than even the evening news. Good Times, about an African-American family trying “keep their heads above water” while living in the projects of inner-city Chicago. Living from paycheck to paycheck (and often on no paycheck), the show’s title and theme song were an ironic commentary on the world the Evans family was living in. Performed by Jim Gilstrap and Blinky Williams, the lively song poked fun at the idea of poverty and all the fun those who were living it were having. 

9. “Moonlighting” from Moonlighting
By Lee Holdridge and Al Jarreau
The silky-smooth song stylings of singer Al Jarreau made Moonlighting and its theme song an elegant (and slightly magical) TV show. Cybil Shepherd and Bruce Willis starred in this romantic comedy about two detectives: the uptight and glamorous Maddie and the coarse and crazy David who fall in and out of love as their work brings the diametrically opposed duo into close quarters, time and again. “Moonlighting” reached #23 on the Billboard Hot 100, its bluesy/jazz orchestrations the perfect sound for a world of gumshoes and love.

8. “The Facts of Life” from The Facts of Life
Music and Lyrics by Alan Thicke, Gloria Loring, and Al Burton

Perhaps one of the most popular sitcoms of all time, and certainly one of the most iconic, The Facts of Life featured Charlotte Rae and Mrs. Garret, the house mother and dietician at the Eastland School for Girls where she offers guidance to her charges. The theme song “The Facts of Life” sung by soap opera actress Gloria Loring, is jubilant earworm about how the changes we go through in adolescence can be both confusing and wonderful. Loring also wrote the song with her then husband Alan Thicke (yes, the Growing Pains dad) and Al Burton. In the first-season, Rae performed part of the song, but a lyric change saw Loring re-recording when the show’s focus was altered.

7. “This Is It” from One Day at a Time
Music and Lyrics by Jeff and Nancy Barry
Ann Romano is a recent divorcee who has moved with her two daughters into an apartment building in Indianapolis, Indiana. She struggles, but succeeds, in getting back on her feet and finding happiness. The theme song from One Day at a Time, “This is It” is an energizing motivator encouraging the listener to get “Up on their feet, somewhere there’s music playing”. Performed by Polly Cutter for the original run, Gloria Estefan revamped the theme song with a Latin flavor for the 2017 remake of the sitcom and she also sang the vibrant number.

6. “And Then There’s Maude” from Maude
Music by Dave Grusin, Lyrics by Marilyn and Alan Bergman
Another Norman Lear sitcom that was diving head first into the social issues of the 1970s was Maude. Starring the indelible Beatrice Arthur in the title role, Maude was a progressive in her politics (the anti-Archie Bunker) but often found herself struggling with her own liberal views, thoughtfully analyzing them to death. The theme song “And Then There’s Maude” (performed by Donny Hathaway) was a groovy list song of strong, independent women, everything that Maude strove to be. The song was also hysterically parodied in an episode of Family Guy.

5. “Without Us” from Family Ties
Music and Lyrics by Jeff Barry and Tom Scott

Family Ties was a unique sitcom for the 1980s. It featured two liberal parents (Elise and Michael) who had been hippies in the 1960s, and who were raising their kids in the consumer driven world of Reagan’s America. There eldest-son, a fan of Richard Nixon and a devout Republican named Alex (played by Michael J. Fox) made for an interesting foil for the free-thinking couple. The theme song “Without Us” sung by pop stars Johnny Mathis and Deniece Williams is a touching tribute to family and love, and how we can come through anything in life if we just cling to each other.  

4. “Thank You For Being a Friend” from The Golden Girls
Music and Lyrics by Andrew Gold

Four retired ladies sharing a Miami Beach home did not initially sound like the makings of a hit TV show, and yet The Golden Girls was a smash, so much so that it continues to be just as popular today in reruns. That may have something to do with how enduring its messages about friendship are. The theme song “Thank You For Being a Friend” had been a hit on the radio in 1978 when Andrew Gold sang it. The song is a testament to the tried and true friendship, those people you can always count on in life. For the TV show, it was sung by Cynthia Fee. The song was also utilized for the show’s spin-off The Golden Palace.

3. “Eight is Enough” from Eight is Enough
Music by Lee Holdridge, Lyrics by Molly-Ann Leiken

I’m not sure how many of you will remember Eight is Enough, but in the late 70s, it was a household staple. A family comedy/drama about the Bradfords, a family with eight children who have lost their mother and are adjusting to their new stepmother, Eight is Enough was a warm and thoughtful program. For the first few seasons, a short instrumental covered the opening credits. However, an episode featured the oldest Bradford son David (Grant Goodeve) singing a song called “Eight is Enough” in a talent show, celebrating his enormous clan, became the show’s official theme. The heartfelt, optimistic lyric make you wish you could be a part of this TV family and the melody is inviting and comforting.

2.  “Play it Grand” from Grand
Music and Lyrics by Michael Leeson and Tom Snow

I’m sure many of you are rolling your eyes and saying “Why would he put such an unknown title so close so close to #1”, but I assure you that I wholeheartedly feel that “Play it Grand” deserves its high ranking. The show, about a small town in Pennsylvania where there is a piano factory, was a unique and well-watched sitcom that just didn’t survive being moved around on the schedule and NBC’s lack of commitment to greenlighting the show’s future until it was too late. The show explored three walks of life, the wealthy owner of the piano factory, his middle-class niece and her yuppie husband, and the maid who lived in the local trailer park with her daughter. “Play it Grand” was an elegant opening number with an inspired lyric comparing life to music and making the most of you part in the band. The montage featured the cast scattered about town, lip syncing to the song with irony and charm. Take a minute and watch it and see f you don’t agree what a terrific opening sequence this show has.   

1. ”Love is All Around” from The Mary Tyler Moore Show
Music and Lyrics by Sonny Curtis

It shouldn’t be all that surprising that “Love is All Around” from The Mary Tyler Moore Show holds the #1 slot on my list. The Mary Tyler Moore Show was groundbreaking television about a courageous woman (who would become a role model for millions) who forgoes marriage to instead go to the city of Minneapolis and break into television. “Love is All Around” is such a joyous celebration of both her courage and tenacity that it has become an anthem for women and anyone who decides to go against convention. The song had two versions, one set of lyrics for the first season where we see Mary making her new journey, the second for subsequent seasons where she has already proven her mettle.  Both were performed by Sonny Curtis. And let us not forget that inspiring, symbolic hat toss in the air that punctuated the songs final note.

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