The greatest TV themes ranked, based on musical merit
20 February 2020, 16:59 | Updated: 20 February 2020, 17:10
What makes a TV theme tune so catchy? We've ranked the best and delved into the geeky truth of why they’re mini musical masterpieces.
It's a fine art for a TV show’s theme tune to be catchy but not irritating. It takes a combination of a great melody, quirky instrumentation and a unique sound to be memorable.
So, here's our ranking of the best TV theme tunes from a music theory point of view.
The Vicar of Dibley
We’re starting off the countdown with a classic, because who doesn’t love The Vicar of Dibley?
Howard Goodall sets the words from Psalm 23 of the bible, otherwise known as ‘The Lord is my Shepherd’, to a gentle vocal melody. The melody is first given to a solo violin accompanied by the organ. It then passes to a solo soprano, with the violin now punctuating vocal phrases with a counter melody here and there.
The great goose-bump moment is when the full choir joins in and the melody develops, before it comes right back down to the modest soprano, organ and violin.
The Apprentice takes its theme tune from one of Prokofiev’s finest works, the ballet Romeo and Juliet. The music comes from Act One of the ballet, from a movement called ‘Dance of the Knights’ (otherwise known as ‘The Montagues and Capulets’).
The music kicks off with a bombastic minor third interval in the french horns which is met by the tenuto upper strings in a call-and-answer pattern. This was supposed to represent the two rival families, the Montagues and the Capulets. The dissonance of the fighting families lends itself to the fighting we see on The Apprentice, too.
As more instruments, melodies and timbres are added into the mix, the suspense builds to an climax, before abruptly ending in a perfect cadence and leaving us wanting more.
The sheer drama in this music is a perfect backdrop for Lord Sugar's less-than-subtle approach to coaching the contestants on The Apprentice.
The Great British Bake Off
Tom Howe composed this theme tune which encapsulates the joy of The Great British Bake Off.
The beginning of the piece feels as if you’ve set off a timer, ready to bake against the clock, but then the upper strings come in and make you feel all jolly, forgetting about that crème anglaise that is on the brink of splitting.
It’s simple, but perfect for a TV show about a bunting-clad tent filled with cakes.
Two things work brilliantly well in the Doctor Who theme tune: first, the melody, and second, the unique sound.
To take the melody first: the melody has become so well known that it’s recognisable within the first three notes. That’s a sign of an iconic piece of music –hats off to composer Ron Grainer who composed the original melody.
The music also has a compelling mid-section that unexpectedly goes to the major key before it goes back into the mysterious cloud of the main theme tune.
Secondly – and here’s what makes this music an absolute winner – the soundworld is incredible.
Electronic effects combined with a symphony orchestra thrust you into another world, as if stepping into the Doctor's trusty tardis. Fun fact – this was in fact one of the first electronic TV theme tunes.
We jump straight into a 1920s Vaudeville show with The Muppets Show theme tune. The raspy trumpet that plays the melody alongside the puppets sets the stage for an all-singing all-dancing show. The melody has an unusual and rather disjointed rhythm, but put it against the solid accompaniment and you have a great piece of music.
The repeating four-note bass riff we hear in the bassoon is just as catchy as the melody itself. The cyclical nature of the music allows the music to develop on top of it.
Is it too far to liken it to a modern-day Pachelbel's Canon? We think not.
Ok, so this is another classical music cop-out, but it really is the perfect theme tune for Jonathan Creek.
The music was originally composed by Camille Saint-Saëns for violin and orchestra. The piece, Danse Macabre, is set in a graveyard. The violin represents death as he summons the dead in a graveyard. So the music is completely fitting for Jonathan Creek, a series about a magician's assistant who solves apparently supernatural mysteries using his knowledge of trickery.
We hear various instruments in the orchestra paint a picture of the dancing skeletons; Saint-Saëns makes particular use of the xylophone to imitate the sounds of rattling bones.
What makes music sound cool? If any song has the winning formula, it's ‘Red Right Hand’ by Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds.
The Peaky Blinders theme tune exudes a suave nonchalance from Nick Cave’s deep vocals. The insidious feel of the vocals, which can resemble more of a mumble than a melody at points, perfectly encapsulates the gritty world of early 1900s Birmingham and the dark underworld that Peaky Blinders is set in.
The Pink Panther
Henry Mancini demonstrates his musical genius with the cool-as-a-cucumber theme to The Pink Panther.
It’s one of TV’s prime examples of a character leitmotif (a piece of music representing a character). The melody (played on the saxophone) is an angular and chromatic tune which depicts the nature of the Panther.
Throw this in with a laid-back jazzy beat, brassy instrumentation that evokes a sense of ‘cool cat’ like no other, and the chromatic ascending and descending phrases that keep you on your toes, and you have yourself a Mancini masterpiece.
From 2010 to 2015, Downton Abbey dominated our television screens. Not only did the Crawley family capture the hearts of the nation, but the evocative opening theme tune did too.
Composer John Lunn combines syncopated strings, an insistent piano melody, a mix of staccato and legato lines, and a melancholic, longing melody to create the Downton Abbey sound.
Everything we love about Poirot is encapsulated in this one piece written by Christopher Gunning – mischief, mystery and moustaches all come alive in the smooth melody played, unusually, on the saxophone.
The saxophone solo evokes both the stylish era of the show, and a sneaky suspicion that mischief isn’t far away. Pair this with a heavy-handed honky-tonk piano accompaniment and a descending bass line in the lower strings that keeps you on your toes, and you have yourself an iconic theme tune.
Scratch beneath the surface of this seemingly innocent melody, and just like Poirot, the innocent exterior appears to be a ruse. It’s the musical equivalent of the Belgian detective's wry smile, what's not to love?
Game of Thrones
Ramin Djawadi has made a name for himself with the epic theme to Game of Thrones. When he was approached by producers to compose the score, he was famously told to avoid flutes and violins which are, in their words, ‘overused’ in fantasy soundtracks.
So Djawadi led the theme with a solo cello instead. This now-famous theme is instantly recognisable for its timbre as well as the melody.
The score has everything you’d want in a monumental theme tune – a catchy melody, a driving force from the percussion, and a sound that instantly associates itself with the world of the show.
It’s fair to say that Danny Elfman is a musical genius – not only can he write a catchy tune, but to score it for an entire symphony orchestra, choir, car horn and school bell in a key that’s constantly changing is almost unheard of.
The music opens with a choir singing a tritone interval, otherwise known as the devil's interval. The music springboards off this misleadingly calm opening and catapults into a chaotic world of musical madness.
The music is made up of iconic melodies interspersed with frantic chromaticism, exotic percussion, absurd sound effects, a pretty epic saxophone riff, string pizzicato and a dash of swing music thrown into the mix for good measure.
If we want to be really geeky, the key changes into a number of different modes – C lydian, B lydian, E lydian, back to C lydian and D flat lydian. Take a look at this amazing visual analysis to see exactly what happens.
Danny Elfman ignores all the traditional rules of modulation, harmony, diatonicism... and we love it.