The 25 greatest TV themes of all time
31 August 2021, 16:47
From ‘Downton Abbey’ to ‘Game of Thrones’, we reveal the very best musical themes ever written for the small screen.
The job of TV themes is to get us excited for the next instalment of our favourite programmes, let us know when they’re starting, and evoke their world wonderfully in their carefully-chosen notes.
Indeed, a great TV theme can make or break a show. Could you imagine Games of Thrones, without Ramin Djawadi’s powerful theme? What about The Apprentice without Russian composer Prokofiev’s rousing ‘Dance of the Knights’ from the ballet Romeo and Juliet?
After revealing The Classic FM TV Music Countdown in partnership with Radio Times, we’re celebrating the finest TV themes ever written, with a showcase of 25 of the very best.
Inspector Morse (1987): Barrington Pheloung
Australian-born composer Barry Pheloung’s theme for the wily Detective Chief Inspector Endeavour Morse actually features morse code to honour the character’s name – morse code spelling out M.O.R.S.E. (--/---/ .-. / ... / .), fittingly.
The code is heard in the opening, and adapted into a melody in the strings throughout. It’s a stately strings and guitar theme which sets the scene for the grizzly goings on in the tranquil Oxfordshire villages of the beat Morse presides over.
The Onedin Line (1971): Aram Khachaturian
The Onedin Line, a 1970-80 drama about a fictional shipping line, uses Soviet and Armenian composer Khachaturian’s ‘Adagio of Spartacus and Phrygia’ from the 1954 ballet Spartacus.
It’s a rich orchestral theme with a sublime melody.
Downton Abbey (2010): John Lunn
Downton Abbey’s theme features a compelling piano melody and response from the strings, and is entirely evocative of the historical drama. The music is ‘pretty much Coldplay’ the composer confessed to Classic FM.
“For Downton, I listened a lot to Elgar and Vaughan Williams,” Lunn explained, speaking to Classic FM in 2019. “But in the end, it wasn’t that useful, because the music is too overwrought, and it needs to be much simpler for storytelling. If you analyse the harmony of the Downton Abbey theme, it’s much more like a Coldplay song, except it’s performed in a classical sort of manner.”
Game of Thrones (2011): Ramin Djawadi
German composer Ramin Djawadi’s theme for Game of Thrones packs a punch. Its stirring main melody, championed by solo cello and strings, is punctuated by strong percussion and a more reflective woodwind theme that adds a bit of introspection and reflection.
Game of Thrones premiered in 2011 and brought swashbuckling fantasy drama to the screens of millions in eight eagerly anticipated seasons.
Wolf Hall (2015): Debbie Wiseman
Debbie Wiseman worked closely with Wolf Hall’s director, Peter Kosminsky, when composing music for the 2015 series. Her haunting score perfectly suits the mood of the programme, the tense undercurrents reflecting the plotting and intrigues of the Tudor court.
Some Tudor instruments were used, but Debbie has described having the freedom to bring as fresh an approach to the music as Mantel brought to the novel.
Band of Brothers (2001): Michael Kamen
Band of Brothers was a 2001 miniseries telling of the ‘Easy Company’ division of the US armed forces in World War Two, and is based on a non-fiction account written by historian Stephen E. Ambrose.
Kamen composed a noble and stately orchestral theme with military-style brass inflections for the Steven Spielberg- and Tom Hanks-created TV show.
Van der Valk (1972): Jan Stoeckart
As well as providing a rousing theme for the television show, dutch composer, musician and radio producer, Stoeckart’s Eye Level went to number one in the UK singles chart in 1973.
The 1970s series followed detective Simon Van der Valk, played by Barry Foster, as he solved dark major crime cases in Amsterdam. The show had a reboot in 2020.
Brideshead Revisited (1981): Geoffrey Burgon
Evelyn Waugh’s mesmerising 1945 novel was made into a TV serial starring Jeremy Irons and Anthony Andrews in 1981.
The music for Brideshead is as grand as the family’s pain-harbouring house, featuring steadfast bassoons and imposing high brass flourishes that Sebastian Flight himself may well have picked.
Pride and Prejudice (1995): Carl Davis
Carl Davis composed a jaunty, flighty theme for the 1995 TV adaptation of Jane Austin’s classic.
The English composer went for a delightfully whimsical, neo-classical piece of music to perfectly evoke Austin’s era and outlook.
Poldark (2015): Anne Dudley
English composer Anne Dudley’s stunning orchestral theme for Poldark evokes the wonderful Cornish landscape, with its beauty contrasted with hardness, the plot takes place in.
Poldark is based on the saga of 18th-century tin mine owner, Ross Poldark, and his family introduced in the novels of Winston Graham.
Blue Planet II (2017): Hans Zimmer
David Attenborough’s series exploring the world’s vast and fascinating oceans has been recognised by Emmys, BAFTAS, and numerous other awards.
The theme music is by legendary movie composer Hans Zimmer, who wrote a spine-tinglingly majestic and poignant score for the awe-inspiring exploration of Earth’s deepest habitats.
Harry’s Game (1982): Clannad
The theme for the TV miniseries, Harry’s Game, is a song that was specially commissioned from the Irish band, Clannad. They’re known for mixing folk and traditional Irish styles, with genres as diverse as smooth jazz and Gregorian chant.
The Harry’s Game theme is a song adapted from a Connacht Irish proverb, featuring lush synth and rich vocal harmony. It was a surprise hit, reaching number five in the UK Singles Chart when it was released.
Doctor Who (1963): Ron Grainer
Ron Grainer penned the melody for Doctor Who’s signature tune, and indicated how it should be orchestrated to a team of music writers. Delia Derbyshire, Dick Mills and others used oscillators and mono tape, cut ‘inch-by-inch’ to build up separate notes into a whole ‘orchestral’, to create the idiosyncratic 60s science fiction sound.
The Lone Ranger (1949): Gioachino Rossini
The Lone Ranger theme is Italian composer Rossini’s William Tell Overture from the opera of the same name.
In the film’s credits, the famous orchestral piece performed very fast and very light by the orchestra, giving the Lone Ranger’s trusty steed, Hi-yo Silver, the lightning speed and dust cloud-forming dexterity he is known for. Hi-yo, Silver! Away!
Poirot (1989): Christopher Gunning
The Poirot theme, a perfect partner in crime for David Suchet’s portrayal of Agatha Christie’s brilliant Belgian detective, is sophisticated, jazz-inspired and compelling.
Featuring a sultry saxophone solo, the theme is doused in reminiscences of a stylish era when travel – and murder – on the Orient Express were apparently run of the mill, and a slight air of mischief was never far away...
Peaky Blinders (2013): Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds
Australian singer-songwriter Nick Cave’s song ‘Red Right Hand’ has been made re-famous by the arrival of the brilliant period drama, Peaky Blinders on our small screens.
Peakys is set in a gloomy, gritty post-World War One Birmingham and follows the ups and downs of the Shelby gangster family, led by Cillian Murphy’s charismatic Thomas Shelby. The syncopation and growly vocals make the handpicked theme as edgy and rough as the action it ushers onto the screen.
The Vicar of Dibley (1994): Howard Goodall
Using a sober, devotional choral piece for the opening credits of a pretty, let’s face it, outrageous sitcom about a new vicar in a small Oxfordshire town is ingenious.
Howard Goodall composed this setting of Psalm 23, entitled ‘The Lord is My Shepherd’, especially for the series, but also with the intention of creating something that stands alone for performance in its own right. He certainly did that here, and it remains very popular.
Miss Marple (1984): Ken Howard
Agatha Christie’s Miss Jane Marple is an amateur consulting detective, who lends her shrewd perception and years of experience to police teams investigating serious crimes, most often murder.
Ken Howard’s resolute theme accompanied illustrations of pastoral village life, sprinkled with suspicious characters and fatal murders, in the opening credits of the 1980s series.
Thunderbirds (1965): Barry Gray
Barry Gray’s Thunderbirds theme is totally iconic. It’s a punchy march for military brass band and percussion, and it sets up the stories of the futuristic Tracy family in their spacecraft missions as the International Rescue team responsible for saving human life perfectly. It’s also a popular standalone concert and marching piece.
Lewis (2007): Barrington Pheloung
Barrington Pheloung makes a re-entry in this iconic TV themes celebration for his theme music for Morse spin-off Lewis.
Detective Inspector Lewis (formerly Inspector Morse’s sergeant) leads the plot as the new man-in-charge, and his theme is stately and refined.
The Apprentice (2005): Sergei Prokofiev
One of the best pieces of orchestral music ever written accompanies the opening credits of the British version of reality TV show, The Apprentice. It’s no exaggeration – just listen to the absolutely stonking and stunning rendition by the London Symphony Orchestra below.
The bombastic, syncopated and downright scary music is totally fitting for the fearsome Alan Sugar-led ‘business’ environment contestants are demanded to thrive in for the televised competition.
The Adventures of Black Beauty (1972): Denis King
Denis King is an English composer and singer, and his theme for family TV Show Black Beauty – based on the heartwarming book by Anna Sewell – is thrilling.
It features a proud, inspiring melody that reflects the plucky personality of the Beauty himself, galloping percussion, and up and down moments of rich orchestral scoring.
The Mandalorian (2019): Ludwig Göransson
Swedish composer Göransson’s theme for Star Wars TV show, The Mandalorian, is striking for its use of digitally-manipulated bass recorder, and echoing, oscillating melodies.
The melody becomes overlapped, and builds in tension, hinting at the interspace challenges and adventures about to be had by the title character, who is a bounty hunter.
The Crown (2016): Hans Zimmer
Zimmer’s startling and stunningly beautiful theme for Netflix’s The Crown is appropriately regal and restrained.
It’s understatedly epic though: the majestic theme features a soft organ, clarinet and tremolo strings, and seems to work itself up to expressing the sheer weight of bearing the crown of the British monarchy.
The World at War (1973): Carl Davis
Carl Davis’s theme for The World at War documentary series is ravishing and very moving.
A timpani roll and weighty brass chord usher in a stirring theme played at full volume by strings, wind and brass. Ultimately proud, the poignant theme captures the bravery, heartbreak and huge undertaking of the Second World War.
Click here to view the top 50 TV themes in The Classic FM TV Music Countdown in partnership with Radio Times, as voted for by you.