Top 10 TV Show Theme Songs

Great TV theme songs get stuck in your head, in deep, subconscious recesses accessible only by hypnosis and psychedelics. You can go 20 years without seeing The Beverly Hillbillies, when for no apparent reason, you will find yourself merrily chattering, "Come and listen to a story about a man named Jed..."

Have you noticed that most shows these days don't even have theme songs? Producers will tell you those 45 seconds are better served on show content, especially when most people just zip past the opens with their DVRs. Accountants will tell you that most new shows fail, and it doesn't make sense to commission an original song or spend the money licensing an existing tune when the program might last 13 episodes. All this leaves us cold - with most shows going right into the action with a "cold open."

Celebrating the lost art of the proper show open, these are our picks for the Top 10 TV themes of all time. Warning: listening to these may lead to highly contagious earworms.

10: "I'll Be There For You" from Friends (The Rembrandts)

Friends was the TV series that became the canonical show of Generation Y and millennials everywhere. Could there be anything more millennial than a show about single young adults and roommates whose hub of activity is a coffee house? The theme, written by Allee Willis and Michael Skloff, is about the loyalty of friends, who will be there for you no matter how much you screw up your life. Willis, the funky diva behind Earth, Wind & Fire's "September" and "Boogie Wonderland," told us they asked for a song that was "Kooky, but commercial." She quickly banged out a 60-second piece that would later be turned into a full song and released as a single. Willis says it's "the whitest song I ever wrote." (Check out the Songfacts interview with Allee Willis.)

9: "Good Ol' Boys" from The Dukes of Hazzard (Waylon Jennings)

From 1979 to 1985, The Dukes of Hazzard was the guilty pleasure of American male viewers - let the ladies have their Dallas! Giving birth to a whole dictionary of cultural jargon including "Daisy Dukes" for short-short cut-off jeans and "Count the cousins" for confusing Southern family trees, it was spurred on to even greater success by the theme song. Who else would you have chosen for the job but already-famous country-music singer Waylon Jennings? Jennings released the song as a single in its own right with altered lyrics in 1980, where it hit #1 on the Hot Country Singles chart and #21 on the Hot 100. Jennings was also the narrator on the show, known as "The Balladeer."

8: "Love Boat Theme" from The Love Boat (Jack Jones)

Without a doubt one of the most popular and most recognized TV theme songs ever, just a few opening notes of the Love Boat Theme will conjure the image of the Pacific Princess churning the briny blue with cast and credits framed by life preservers and anchors with a heart motif. Paul Williams, who also wrote "Rainbow Connection" and played Little Enos Burdette in Smokey and the Bandit, wrote the delightfully cheesy lyrics. He told us: "Charlie Fox gave me this melody, said that it was a new series called The Love Boat, it was about a cruise ship. We honestly didn't think it was going to last 6 weeks. We thought, who's going to watch a series about a cruise ship? And so he sent me the melody, and I thought, what's this all about? It's all about love, you know. Every episode was going to be about these three little stories... you know, meeting and falling in love, going through life stuff. And 'BOM ba da.' It's an important note, it's gotta be an important word. 'Bom, ba dee da da da,' so it's 'boats,' 'ships,' ba dee da da, you know, 'tits,' 'ba dee da da'... There's a lot of stuff you could stick in there, but the thing that seemed to work best is, 'Love, exciting and new, come aboard, we're expecting you.'" (Check out the Songfacts interview with Paul Williams.)

7: "Bad Reputation" from Freaks and Geeks, American Chopper (Joan Jett)

The anthem for outsiders and misfits everywhere, Bad Reputation has gotten around in the movies. It's been used in the soundtracks for Shrek, 10 Things I Hate About You, Baby Mama and The Bad News Bears. So it makes sense that it would become the theme song for the TV shows Freaks and Geeks and American Chopper. Written by Joan Jett and Kenny Laguna, it has also been ranked #29 by VH1 in their list of best hard rock songs of all time - an impressive feat considering that it's never been released as a single! Kenny Laguna, who was also Jett's producer and mentor, told us that this was intended to be her signature song, reflecting the fact that in her early career no record label would sign her.

6: "Short Skirt/Long Jacket" from Chuck (Cake)

If you've never heard of the TV series Chuck, you might be missing out big-time. Rolling Stone magazine included the show on its Fall 2007 "We Like to Watch" list, declaring that it "wipes the floor with the other fall debuts." It's had a kind of cursed twilight existence; first it was almost choked by the 2007–2008 Writers Guild of America strike, then it was canceled but saved at the last minute by a fan write-in campaign, and now it is battling for a spot on NBC, who suddenly has 5 less hours of scripted programing to fill thanks to Jay Leno. As for the song, Cake lead singer John McCrea told Rolling Stone that it is about "directly oppositional forces housed within the same mechanism or personage." Give it a listen - you'll be wagging your booty to it even after the first verse. It's not what you might expect for a show about a guy who works at the Buy-More with government secrets embedded in his brain, but somehow it fits.

5: "Movin' On Up" from The Jeffersons (Ja'net Dubois and Oren Waters)

"We finally got a piece of the pie!" Ever since the Obama administration, aspects of African-American media and culture have gained new meaning and sometimes enjoyed new popularity. The Jeffersons is more of a landmark than many in today's audience may realize - it was the longest running TV series carrying a predominantly African-American cast in the history of American television, even beating The Cosby Show by two seasons! Movin' On Up was written by Jeff Barry and Ja'net Du Bois, who also sings the lead backed by a full gospel choir. This might be the only TV show theme song to have used one! Fun fact: Dubois played Willona Woods on Good Times.

4: "Suicide Is Painless" from M*A*S*H (Johnny Mandel)

Another legendary TV theme song, just the first few notes conjure the image of choppers flying over the 4077th in the mind of anyone who's owned a TV set from 1972 onwards. Along with the cult following of the show which endures unabated today, the song "Suicide is Painless" has a number of freaky facts about it. The lyrics were written by a fourteen-year-old boy, Mike Altman, the son of film director Robert Altman, who has joked that his son earned more from the song's royalties than he did from directing the original M*A*S*H movie. Marilyn Manson declared that the song was more depressing and offensive than anything he'd ever written, and covered it for the soundtrack to the 2000 movie Book of Shadows: Blair Witch 2.

3: "TSOP (The Sound of Philadelphia)" from Soul Train (MFSB featuring The Three Degrees)

At a run of 35 seasons and an episode count of 1,117, Soul Train deserves to be called more than just a TV series. It is an institution, a monolith, a mainstay - practically its own media corporation. The list of guest stars alone could fill a bookshelf with the who's-who of American music. For a show this big, you need the theme that makes people sit up and take notice. In the first couple of seasons, "Hot Potatoes" by King Curtis was good enough, but when the show's host Don Cornelius wanted something different, he went to the team of Kenny Gamble and Leon Huff, who helped define the Philadelphia Soul sound with songs like "Back Stabbers" and "Me And Mrs. Jones." They obliged, and "TSOP (The Sound of Philadelphia)" became the Soul Train theme. It went through many incarnations and covers during the run, effectively becoming the Soul Train sound. Hey, is this show coming back or what?

2: "The Fishin' Hole" from The Andy Griffith Show (Earle Hagen)

It's a common cliche to say that The Andy Griffith Show represents a simpler time in America. While that may be where the show was set, it's easy to forget that it was first produced and broadcast during the turbulent '60s - nearly the whole decade (the entire original Star Trek series aired during its run). As such, it became almost defiantly out of step with the times. As for the song, it's not only one of the most recognized tunes ever to come out of a TV set, but also one of the most famous whistled songs ever recorded. Those are Earle Hagen's salty puckered lips delivering the sweet notes, and it was composed by Hagen and Herbert Spencer, with lyrics written by Everett Sloane. Did you say lyrics? Yes, but they were never used, just like the lyrics to the theme from Star Trek.

1: "Where Everybody Knows Your Name" from Cheers (Gary Portnoy)

As TV show theme songs go, this one has something special working for it. There's that rich piano, reminding you of the Boston bar scene. A simple melody; you can sing it after a few beers. Warm, cozy lyrics, welcoming you to the comforting embrace of your corner pub. It was written by Gary Portnoy and Judy Hart Angelo, specifically for the show after several rejected attempts - it was Portnoy's first time co-writing a TV show theme. Portnoy told us: "Coming from a background as a pop songwriter - as opposed to say, a jingle writer - I approached the Cheers theme - and all that followed - as 'songs' rather than 'themes.' I was never that cognizant of how long they ran until we were done with the writing." Cheers ran from 1982-1993, but it got horrible ratings when it started and almost didn't make it past the first season. The song, however, immediately caught on with viewers and NBC responded to demand for the sheet music and recording by having Portnoy turn the theme into a full song, which was released as a single, complete with the line, "And your husband wants to be a girl..."

~Pete Trbovich
October 20, 2009

More Song Writing

Comments: 90

  • Arg from IaI feel like the song played during the opening and end credits (in slightly different arrangements) for the 1970s show "The Incredible Hulk" (Starring Bill Bixby) called "Lonely Man" or something to that effect should be on here as well. It's heartrending and beautiful.
  • Soo from Ny NyDefinitely welcome back Kot'ter. and also the themes from M*A*S*H
  • Geno from Clio Mi.Theme from Miami Vice, number 1 billboard 1986
  • Anon from IlThe Brady Bunch wasn't listed
  • Larry Staley from Foster City, Ca UsaI can't believe you left out two of the most endearing TV theme songs of all time, name "Welcome Back" theme song from Welcome Back, Mr. Kotter and WKRP in Cincinnati.
  • Kleonika from New ZealandI cannot believe that the theme to Hill Street Blues is not on this list. Not only one of the most beautifully memorable ( or should that be memorably beautiful?) TV themes of all time - but one of the most successful as a recording. It went to #1 in my country.
  • Sherry from Olive BranchAny list without Hawaii five-0 is a BIG miss. One if the most recognizable songs even for people born well after the show was an icon of American television.
  • Terdley Smerdley from BostonHawaii Five-O not on list?
  • Isaac from AustraliaDoctor Who, anyone?
  • Tosyn Anthony from Nigerialove one tree hill....i don't want to be my favourite
  • VicThis is the best tv theme song ever!!!
  • Quay Full House or Family Matters theme songs
  • Angel from Detroit WIll Smith's Fresh Prince of Bel-Air
  • Mark from Pitman, NjWelcome Back, from Welcome Back Kotter
  • Full Tv Show from UsaThanks for the list top 10 tv shows...But i like "Good Ol' Boys"
  • Patti from PortlandThe theme from "Route 66" is the best T.V. show theme song of all time; I can't believe it's not on this list.
  • Earnie from Atlanta, GaI like the theme to 3rd rock. great Dick Dale style guitar that
  • AndrewSanford and Son
  • Skye from LaTwo and a Half Men???
  • Crimso from Michiganwhen i looked over the list and didn't see "love is all around" i knew it was a gag.
  • IbraI think friends song deserves to be in top 5 and am surprised that Will Smith's fresh prince of bel-air song is not on the list. It is the best ever.
  • Dev from Washington, Dc, DcWhat about A3's "Woke Up This Morning" from the Sopranos? It sells that opening scene of Tony driving thru NJ as the credits roll just perfectly.
  • Lauren from Smyrna, GaI like the theme for That 70s Show, Cheap Trick's rerecording of "In the Street" by Big Star. It's a phenomenal song, theme or not.
  • Dave Watson from Worthing, UkNo 'Eye level' Simon Park Orchestra (Van Der Valk), 'Who are you' Who (CSI),'Here with me' Dido (Roswell High), 'X-Files' Chris Snow.
  • Jeanie from Westchester County,nyThe theme from "Barnaby Jones" was great!
  • Bruce And Jamie from Michiganbrady bunch? gilligan's island?
  • - Chris From Leola, PaWhere is the theme to "The Golden Girls?"
  • Jeremiah from Huntsville, AlI Heard Paul Willams Version Of The Theme From The Mary Tyler Moore Show (Love Is All Around Then I Heard Sonny Curtis Version Of The Theme From The Mary Tyler Moore Show (Love Is All Around I Did A Cover Of Sonny Curtis Of Love Is All Around
  • Dawn Fitz from Romeoville, Il"Laverne & Shirley" and "All in the Family"! Oh... don't forget about "Dallas".
  • AnonymousWhat about Hawaii Five-O
  • Jeremiah from Huntville, AlI Did A Cover Of The Theme From M.A.S.H (Suicide Is Painless) It's Number 14 On My Album Open Me That's After I Heard Almad Jammal's Version Of Suicide Is Painless
  • Jeremiah from Huntville, AlI Heard Two Version Of The Theme From The Monkees Show On Reeling In The Years
  • Emma from Burnley, United KingdomWhat about the theme from prisoner cell block h that is a classic
  • Jeremiah Mercks from Huntville AlThey Have The First Season Of The Mary Tyler Moore Theme Love Is All Around The Arrangement And Lyrics Were Different In This Version Than In The Entire Series It's Not The Popular Version.
  • Gayle from Peekskill, Ny"Welcome Back, Kotter" - John Sebastian
  • Jadon from FloridaThe JONAS/JONAS L.A. theme song...always ignored because people are Disney-judgmental idiots...
  • Dante from Cinncinnatiwhat about dawson's creek and one tree hill
  • Steve from Sac ,ca.What about GAH-- "The Greatest American Hero" theme? -- "Rocketman" I love that one!... Belive it or not :}
  • Bo from TxBatman, Secret Agent Man, Gilligan's Island, Monkees Theme. (sorry it's all 60's but they're still way bigger theme songs than some of these!)
  • Anonymous from NarniaThey forgot about The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air!
  • Kelsey from Lincoln, NeSons of Anarchy has a really good theme. Anybody ever hear that one???
  • Patrick from GermanyI would add the whole Twin Peaks Soundtrack
  • Samuel from DelawareThis is a story all about how
    My life got flipped-turned upside down
    And i liked to take a minute
    And sit right there
    And tell you how I became the prince of a town called Bel air.

  • Anonymous"Secret" by the peirces-Pretty Little Liars
  • Sue from New JerseyMy vote for an old theme: Perry Mason. I remember hearing it from the living room when I was supposed to be in bed sleeping -- A very ominous piece that fits the subject material well.
    My vote for a more recent theme: Angel. (The spinoff from Buffy the Vampire Slayer.) A really beautiful piece of cello-rock.
  • Manimal from Cafresh prince of belair...enough said haha
  • Radiobarry from Ventura, CaWhat about the opening theme from one of the most important shows ever, All In the Family? "Those Were the Days" belongs in the top five, in my opinion.
  • Anonymous from Chicagowhat about the theme song from Chuck...that's played in the beginging
  • Nick from South Park , PaHow about harry nilsson's "Best Friend" from "Courtship of Eddies' Father"
  • C MagI second the That 70's Show theme! Come on, everybody loves that song!
  • Shirin from MissouriThe theme from "Gilligan's Island" should've been in the top 10.
  • Mike from CincinnatiSome good ones in the list, however, I've heard more people sing the theme from Gilligan's Island than any other. They always whistle that Andy Griffith Show tune (in the list). But what about that nice piano tune from Hill Street Blues? Memorable.
  • Jon from CaYou forgot love and marriage from Married...with children
  • Samwellthese are terrible, terrible songs. especially the one from friends. the best ones are instrumentals, like, as people mentioned, "barney miller" and "magnum p.i.". "night court" was good, too. and "knight rider".
  • Benmarinothese are nice but(as someone else said) how you could leave out wkrp or greatest american hero(better then any of these!) I don't understand
  • Crazy_diamondhow about "The 70's Show" theme song??? And it might have had a limited audience, but the theme song from "Firefly" really epitomized the characters of the show. isn't that what a theme song is meant to be????
  • AnonymousHow about the three Lennon-McCartney themes ... from "Wonder Years" (With A Little Help From My Friends), "Grace Under Fire" (Lady Madonna) and "Life Goes On" (Obladi Oblada)? And my wife thinks "The Brady Bunch" theme should be in the top 10.
  • AnonymousIt's not a song, but the theme music from Star Trek: Deep Space Nine is really beautiful.
  • John B."Baby, if you've ever wondered, wondered whatever became of me. I'm livin' on the air in Cincinnati, Cincinnati WKRP"...the best.
  • JoshPersonally, I always enjoyed the theme song to CHiPs. I don't remember the show when it was new but I used to watch it daily in syndication every year during my summer break on Superstation TBS.

    Another personal favorite was the theme song to Quantum Leap but I don't know if it would garner a top 10 on this list.
  • Anonymousthe top 10? I never heard of 3 of them. No one mentioned GILLIGAN'S ISLAND ?? I do agree with adding Hawaii 5-0 and Mission Impossible. Wait a minute...what about HOGAN'S HEROES. I used to crank the TV for that one.
  • SkipGood grief - this list is SLACK!

    Technically, you shouldn't include songs that weren't "made for TV" - though I love the Rembrandt's song. Peter Gunn and Mission Impossible should definitely be on the list. The Welcome Back Kotter theme should definitely be OFF of it. And what about The Man From U.N.C.L.E.?

    Very disappointing list. But it did get me to your cool website!
  • AnonymousWhere's Mark Snow's "Materia Primoris" from the X-Files?
  • Anonymouswhat about the wonder years theme song, how is that not even on the list?
  • Anonymousyou forget
    Theme from Magnum P. I.
    Theme from L.A. Law
    The Flinstones
  • IgorBad things (Jace Everett) from True Blood.
  • AnonymousGreat list, but:
    You forgot Dallas!
  • RajaWhat about "Thank you for being a friend" (Golden Girls) It was Written and originally a hit for Andrew Gold. Was sung by a Female singer for the show.
  • BernieAwwww...c'mon! How could anyone make a list like this and not include The Flintstones!
  • AnonymousOne of my favourites is the theme for the UK program "Heartbeat". Watching it isn't as enjoyable if I miss the theme!
  • AnonymousWhat about "In the Street" by cheap trick from That '70s Show
  • Zabadak MccaddacackUK themes are better, baby!
  • Steve from Western AustraliaShould have called it Top 10 American TV Show Theme Songs. Down here, we'd have to have Skippy the Bush Kangaroo. It was screened in more than 100 countries and thousands of people in every one of those countries can at least whistle it.
  • AnonymousPeter Gunn
    Theme from Magnum P. I.
    Theme from Simon & Simon
    Theme from L.A. Law
    Hawaii-Five O
    Theme from Have Gun Will Travel
    Theme from The Rebel (Johnny Yuma)
  • ElderjayTwo of the greatest instrumental TV theme songs from days long gone by are Peter Gunn and Perry Mason. Yeah, you had to have been born in the fifties (or sooner) to remember these.
  • AnonymousGotta agree with earlier commentors. The themes from Mission Impossible, Bonanza and Hawaii-Five-O most definately belong in this group!! (I guess they DIDN'T ask anyone born prior to 1970! Hmmmm...)

    And although campy as hell, I still liked seeing Fred Gwynne as Herman Munster busting through the door to what I thought was a cool instumental theme song.
  • RickA number of TV theme songs became Top 10 hits:

    "Where Everybody knows your name"

    "Happy Days"

    "The theme from Laverne and Shirley"

    "Welcome Back Kotter"

    "The theme from the Rockford Files"

    "The theme from SWAT"

    "Making it"

    "Getting Together" (Bobby Sherman)

    and Bosom Buddies used a cover of Billy Joel's "My Life"
  • AnonymousHawaii Five-O and Mission Impossible have to be there.

    Magnum P.I. was pretty cool, though not sure if the tune stands by itself that well.

    Mr. Ed? :-)

    Think we need a top 20.
  • KdpLaverne & Shirley, Beverly Hillbillies, Gilligan's Island...
  • AnonymousThe Tonight Show ?
    Mission Impoosible ?
    The Mickey Mouse Club ?
  • AnonymousBarney Miller anyone? Great bass opening
  • AnonymousRockford Files??
  • AnonymousI love the theme song for 'weeds' !
  • AnonymousThe theme to Hawaii Five 0!
  • AnonymousOh C'Mon! Didn't anyone born before 1970 vote this thing? what about the Avengers, Peter Gunn, Maverick or even the Sopranos?
  • ChrisRemember the theme from Welcome Back Kotter?
    That's where Vinny Barbarino aka John Travolta got his start.
  • AnonymousAh come on. You gotta include Love is All Around from Mary Tyler Moore somewhere in there!
  • MikesNumber one: Superman by Lazlo Bane, the theme song to the TV show "Scrubs".
  • Eddie from Bayonne NjWhere are the themes from The Greatest American Hero & WKRP in Cincinnati?
  • Anonymouswow what a walk down memory lane thanks a much enjoyed trip
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