Theme songs take an ordinary TV show and elevate it. Theme songs can transform, transcend, and translate a story to the audience in a more accessible way. Why do you think that it is? Here’s a look into the different types of theme songs and why they are so essential to an enhanced viewing experience.
When you think of your favorite TV show, can you hear the theme song in your head? Do you find yourself doing everyday tasks and having a TV show’s theme song pop into your head? If so, then the show has done its job. It has made an impression on you. One main reason why theme songs are so important is because they leave a lasting impact on the audience. Having a song that stays in someone’s head is a lasting reminder of the show. It could even possibly make people want to watch the show more, just to hear the song again. Of course, there’s the flip side of this that a theme song can get old and draw people away from a production, but I’ve found that most of the time, it’s the former. Plus, these days it’s easier than ever to skip a theme song, whether you like it or not.
In hand with the reminder, a catchy theme song will also produce quick recognizability. Let’s say for example, that someone is watching TV in the other room. A good theme will be recognizable by a fan within seconds and cause them to come into the room and join in watching the show.
A good example of this comes from my own experience. As a kid, I would hear the Barney theme song from another room and instantly light up. As the song continued to play, I’d yell “BARNEY,” run to the living room, grab my big bear chair, and park myself in front of the TV. That recognizable beginning is what hooked me. It told my brain, “Hey, that show you love is on.” A TV theme that does this is doing its job.
Another popularly used way to get viewers to remember a TV show is to put the name of the show into the song. TV shows like Kim Possible, Rocket Power, and The Addams Family did this effectively because they had the show title built into the theme song. You can’t sing the theme song for The Addams Family without mentioning the title at least once.
Some TV show themes are a little slyer with their title placement. Sometimes, they won’t explicitly put it in, but they will include lyrics that will remind you of the show title. A great example of this is The Suite Life of Zach and Cody. The theme song never says the full title, but they have lyrics like, "this is the suite life, we’ve got a suite life." Another example is The Big Bang Theory never saying the full title but ending the theme with "it all started with a big bang."
Sometimes, a theme song is important because it gives first-time viewers (and general fans too), a reminder of what the show is about that they’re going to be tuning into. A great example of this is the theme song for The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air. Not only is it a catchy song, but it’s also an informational song about how the main character ends up in Bel Air where the show is set. Will, the main character, takes you through his story up until then, telling you where he was raised, what caused him to get into some trouble, and why that made his mother send him off to live “with your auntie and uncle in Bel Air.” Barney is similar too, explaining who Barney is and what he does on his show.
There are a couple variations of this explanation-style theme song. I’ll break it down into categories for easier reading.
This is the category that The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air theme falls into. The purpose of this type of theme is to tell the audience in a short and fun way, what the show is about. Other examples of this type of theme song include The Brady Bunch, Fairly OddParents, Gilligan’s Island, Phil of the Future, and Danny Phantom. All these themes do three things.
1) Establish the character(s)
2) Establish their background
3) Explain how they got to the present where the show begins
So, if you were to look at the theme for Danny Phantom, it starts with 1) establishing the main character, Yo, Danny Fenton, he was just 14. Then we get to 2) the background. His parents built a very strange machine designed to view the world’s unseen. Danny took a look inside of it... There was a great big flash, everything just changed. His molecules got all rearranged...When he first woke up, he realized he had snow-white hair and glowing green eyes. He could walk through walls, disappear, and fly! Jumping forward we get to learn 3) how present-day Danny found his purpose. It was then Danny knew what he had to do. He had to stop all the ghosts from coming through. Theme songs like this are important and so effective because not only is it explaining the show to the public, but it is also reminding fans of the show’s origins.
I’m sure you’re wondering, well if it’s talking, is it really a song? What we’re really differentiating here is the theme songs that begin with narration before jumping into a song or it has a tune playing in the background. Examples of this include Powerpuff Girls, Avatar the Last Airbender, Law and Order, and Battlestar Gallactica.
The Powerpuff Girls theme would likely fall in the expositional song category if the introductory exposition was sung since it fulfills the three components above. What puts it into this category is the voice-over narration. The beginning narration lays out the Powerpuff Girls’ origin. Professor Utonium accidentally added an extra ingredient to the concoction--Chemical X. Thus, The Powerpuff Girls were born. Using their ultra-superpowers, Blossom, Bubbles, and Buttercup have dedicated their lives to fighting crime and the forces of evil. From there, the theme song launches into an instrumental part of the song to show the colorful crime fighters and set the scene. This type of theme works just as effectively because if heard enough, people will remember an intro like this just as well.
This category is for theme songs written specifically for the show. A whole lot of TV shows from networks like Disney and Nickelodeon fall into this category. Bonus points if the vocalist of the song is also the star of the show. The theme songs in this category do not specifically name the character or always give background, but it does set the stage for what the show is going to be about. Some examples include the themes from That’s So Raven, Hannah Montana, Wizards of Waverly Place, and Drake and Josh. Of course, there are other networks that have tackled original songs for shows like The Big Bang Theory and Malcolm in the Middle.
To further break it down, let’s look at some of the lyrics for Hannah Montana. Near the beginning, the song’s lyrics read, "when you’re famous, it can be kind of fun. It’s really you but no one ever discovers." Then you hit the popular chorus, "you get the best of both worlds. Chill it out, take it slow then you rock out the show." For a TV show about a girl who is a pop star that lives a double life as an ordinary girl so that she has a chance at a normal life atop her pop star one, the lyrics work well. It explains the show, but it also never specifically introduces the main character or how she became a pop star. Still, it sets the scene and gives the viewers an idea of what it’s going to be about.
Some of the original songs are a little more subtle, like the lyrics for Big Bang Theory which is basically a song all about the world coming into existence thanks to the Big Bang Theory. Sure, it explains the title, but it doesn’t explain anything about the characters or the story. Once you watch the show and understand the characters, it’s a fitting theme for a show about a group of socially awkward scientists, but before then, it’s just a catchy tune that draws your interest, thus doing its job.
Setting the Tone
Setting the tone with a good theme song is essential to getting your audience ready for the show to begin. If it’s an upbeat, lighthearted show, the song may contain that same feeling. If it’s a serious drama, it may have a deeper, brooding song paired with it. A theme song like this can fall into two categories—instrumental or lyrical. Whether it’s Game of Thrones or Friends, the energy in the theme song sets the mood for the show. Let’s go into a little more depth about the two types in this category.
The theme song for Pretty Little Liars wasn’t written specifically for the show, but it perfectly encapsulates the show’s overall feeling and what it’s about. The opening lyric is, "got a secret, can you keep it?" For a show about teenage girls hiding secrets and a deranged mystery person harassing them for those secrets, it’s a perfect song. Not to mention the ambiance of that song that gives a very unsettling vibe that puts you on edge, which is perfect for a thriller-based show like Pretty Little Liars. On the opposite side of things is the iconic Friends theme song. It’s upbeat, catchy, and full of lyrics that perfectly encapsulate the show and the energy it attempts to portray. For a show about six friends who all go through their own struggles and triumphs, lyrics like, when it hasn’t been your day, week, month, or even your year, I’ll be there for you fit like a glove.
So many modern theme songs fall into this category. These types of theme songs are memorable just by a tune, which means it did its job without needing any words, which is pretty impressive. I mean, if I asked you to think of the theme song for Jeopardy or The Office, it’s probably playing in your head, right? Theme songs that set the tone with just an instrumental tune are found in most modern TV shows these days. There’s Modern Family, How I Met Your Mother, Brooklyn Nine-Nine, The Good Place, and those are just a few of many. A few of my other favorites are Parks and Recreation (which I rarely skip because I love to dance along to it) and Stranger Things.
Looking further at the Stranger Things theme, it works so well because it gives an ambiance that expertly matches the show. It’s a little sinister, a little curious, and uses a lot of bass synthesizers to give off the mysterious vibe that the show revolves around. For a show about an alternate universe where strange monsters can enter our world and cause trouble, the song is perfect. And it doesn’t even need any words to convey that!
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Whether a theme song is made for the show, written to explain the story, or full of instrumental ambiance, a theme song is important because it leaves a lasting impression on the audience. A good theme song will get you to associate it with a show, even if it never says the title. For a favorite show, hearing the signature theme will likely bring you positive feelings, maybe even comfort. Whatever it is, it’s the theme songs that stick with viewers most of all. It’s an essential part of TV. Even as some shows begin to nix theme songs entirely, there are still tons who keep the tradition alive and come up with the catchiest theme songs. Which one is your favorite?
Written by Kristen Petronio