A lot of times, when it comes to movies, a great musical score can make a world of difference. There are famous stories about how PSYCHO wasn’t scary until Bernard Herrmann laid in his catchy all string “black and white” score, in particular the screeching violins for the shower scene. John Carpenter’s HALLOWEEN initially didn’t work for the people that saw the rough cut, but it became terrifying after he added his infamous theme. The same can definitely be said for television.
In some cases, hearing the few familiar bars of music at the top of a show can cause a Pavlovian response in the viewer to either smile, maybe pump their fist up in the air, or just get them excited for something that brings them joy every week. As of late, not only has TV been really, really good, but the music provided has been done by some of the greatest modern composers and musicians in the business.
I’ve noticed some of my personal favorite themes all share a few basic elements that make them stand out. All are memorable and catchy as hell. They basically only require a simple 4 note progression. Maybe played on synth. Maybe on strings. And they manage to set the tone the show encapsulates in about 30-40 seconds.
The following all have the formula for a perfect theme. Let’s take a listen to some opening bits that are bound to get stuck in your head for days! And yes, I totally have a playlist in my iTunes of all of the following, in this order.
It’s a shame that CONSTANTINE only lasted one season, as the exploits of HELLBLAZER comics’ John Constantine and the supernatural entities he had to face made for a really fun, entertaining show. Also, Matt Ryan perfectly captured the essence of his comic book counterpart. But more than anything, if the show had been more successful, then we’d no doubt already have it on Blu-Ray, and we’d get an official release of the great Bear McCreary’s score! Above is a video of his main opening title theme, which I absolutely love and think is one of his best pieces of work. It’s got traditional strings, but also a modern metal edge with the synth and guitar sounds, and it’s spooky! Which fits the show perfectly.
THE WALKING DEAD
Bear McCreary for the win again! THE WALKING DEAD is by far one of the biggest shows and cultural phenomenons ever. For the theme, McCreary relies on strings that primarily stay on the same one note to build the tension before shifting to a slightly lower octave. It’s instantly recognizable and does a good job of capturing that same anxiety I get from watching the show every week!
MTV’s hit series based upon the SCREAM movie franchise doesn’t necessarily have a proper opening theme, but this brief and catchy string melody plays over the closing credits. At a quick 30 seconds, it evokes the who-dun-it mystery of the show, hearkens back to the infamous Bernard Herrmann PSYCHO score I mentioned at the top of this article and is more memorable than anything from the 4 movies. And if 30 seconds is too short, you can listen to this theme on a 10 minute loop right here. You’re welcome!
A&E’s BATES MOTEL also doesn’t have a traditional opening theme. It’s just a brief glimpse of the BATES MOTEL sign and the sound of the florescent lights crackling. But this string theme, both an homage to Herrmann’s PSYCHO work and strikingly similar to the SCREAM theme above closes out every episode, usually when I’m still in awe of whatever crazy cliffhanger or curveball the latest episode finished on. You can listen to it right here!
There’s a lot of music through out all 3 seasons of HANNIBAL. Each season has an epic double LP vinyl release devoted to it. The very subtle sounds that open the show during the title sequence are credited to “The Lectors,” but performed by L’Orchestra Cinematique. HANNIBAL always felt more sophisticated, high brow and artsy than the average “horror” show, and this theme equally fits those adjectives.
Let’s take a quick side-step into superhero territory, shall we? No doubt, a lot of you were probably binging the recently released Second Season of Marvel’s DAREDEVIL this week. One of my favorite aspects of the show (among many!) is the opening theme music by John Paesano & Braden Kimball. It’s a simple, 3-chord, catchy melody with a touch of melancholia. It’s a great theme song and I get pumped for the episode every time those first few notes begin!
While we’re talking superhero themes, we have to bring up the great Blake Neely, who is responsible for a good chunk of the DC TV soundscapes including THE FLASH, ARROW and SUPERGIRL. His closing credits music for THE FLASH is only 20 seconds long, but still manages to hit all the traditional motifs of a great TV theme. Amazing!
Yet again, another great theme by Blake Neely, this time for ARROW. This one does have an official release, so you can hear a proper, full song length version of his theme from the opening credits that continues to escalate with driving strings and percussion before exploding in a crescendo of gorgeous, heroic melodies. I don’t run around on rooftops, but if I did, it’d probably be to this music!
Last but not least, I wanted to point out the anomaly in my argument for traditional theme recipes. I miss Showtime’s DEXTER, but the second I hear this upbeat theme by Rolfe Kent, I can picture Miami and all my fictional friends there from the show. I almost feel like this theme represents the happy facade of Dexter’s social persona – the one his friends & colleagues see. Composer Daniel Licht provided the score for the remainder of the episodes and seasons, and “Blood Theme” (embedded below) is the track I consider more to be Dexter’s actual “theme.” The show often closed on “Blood Theme” which definitely follows the template of the above great themes.