What Does It Take To Write A Hit TV Theme Song? The opening theme music from a TV show can become an earworm — just think of Mission: Impossible or Peter Gunn. For composers, coming up with something catchy is like trying to write a Top 40 hit.
NPR logo

What Does It Take To Write A Hit TV Theme Song?

  • Download
  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/550969394/551340013" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript
What Does It Take To Write A Hit TV Theme Song?

What Does It Take To Write A Hit TV Theme Song?

  • Download
  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/550969394/551340013" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

The primetime Emmy Awards show is Sunday night. But some of this year's winners were announced days ago, among them the winner for best theme music. The right theme can command attention, set a mood, even land on the pop charts. As Tim Greiving reports, TV music is an art form all its own.

TIM GREIVING, BYLINE: A popular TV show can inject its music into the pop culture bloodstream.

(SOUNDBITE OF MARIUS CONSTANT'S "THE TWILIGHT ZONE THEME")

GREIVING: As instantly recognizable as the "Twilight Zone" theme is, it was actually something composer Marius Constant had already written and was just sitting on a shelf.

(SOUNDBITE OF MARIUS CONSTANT'S "THE TWILIGHT ZONE THEME")

GREIVING: But this tune was specifically composed as the theme for another show.

(SOUNDBITE OF HENRY MANCINI'S "PETER GUNN THEME")

GREIVING: And it won two Grammys and broke into the top 10 in 1959.

(SOUNDBITE OF HENRY MANCINI'S "PETER GUNN THEME")

MIKE POST: Henry Mancini, "Peter Gunn."

GREIVING: Mike Post rattles off a few of his favorites.

POST: And probably the original "Wild Wild West" theme. I loved that theme.

(SOUNDBITE OF RICHARD MARKOWITZ'S "THE WILD WILD WEST THEME")

GREIVING: Post is a veteran TV composer himself who got his start as a session musician in Los Angeles. He played guitar on Sonny and Cher's "I Got You Babe" and won a Grammy for arranging the Mason Williams hit "Classical Gas."

POST: I was raised in the record business, you know? And to me, having a hit song was the goal. That was everything. And then when I just sort of fell into this business of being a composer for TV, all I was trying to do was write a 45-second, one-minute hit record.

GREIVING: His hits include "Magnum, P.I.," "The A-Team" and a tune that reached No. 10 on the hot 100 in 1975, "The Rockford Files."

(SOUNDBITE OF MIKE POST'S "THE ROCKFORD FILES THEME")

POST: I wanted to sign the signature for the show. But I also wanted them to walk out humming the thing.

GREIVING: Post says sometimes finding a theme can be laborious. "L.A. Law" took him five tries. But sometimes it's effortless, like the theme for Steven Bochco's "Hill Street Blues."

POST: He described, you know, the door going up on the garage and a patrol car going through really depressing cityscape. And Bochco said, what's that sound like? And I said, well, it could be kind of poignant and, like, the clock's going to tick. And I went the five minutes to my little office and I was in E-flat immediately. And I don't know how it happened. It just - 30 minutes later I called Bochco, I said, OK, I got it. So he came over and he listened. And he went, OK, that's my show. See you.

(SOUNDBITE OF MIKE POST'S "HILL STREET BLUES THEME")

GREIVING: One of the most ubiquitous TV themes was written in 1966 by Argentine composer Lalo Schifrin. But his first draft didn't fit the bill.

LALO SCHIFRIN: The one I came up was (imitating song).

(SOUNDBITE OF LALO SCHIFRIN'S "MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE - THE PLOT")

SCHIFRIN: Bruce Geller, the producer, interesting the way he said it. I want you to write a theme that when people are in the kitchen having a soft drink and the television set is in their living room, they can hear from the kitchen and say, oh, "Mission: Impossible" is now. So that's what I did.

(SOUNDBITE OF LALO SCHIFRIN'S "MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE - MAIN TITLE")

GREIVING: But around the turn of the millennium, TV executives started chopping main title sequences down to 15 seconds or less, making themes about as musical as the sound of your computer booting up. Mike Post knows why.

POST: It isn't that they don't want main titles. It's that they want more commercials. They've got to make more money. They're on the Titanic, you know, and they're discussing the color of the curtains and what the band's playing.

(SOUNDBITE OF LALO SCHIFRIN'S "MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE - MAIN TITLE")

GREIVING: Enter streaming services like Amazon and Netflix, and the main title theme has come back with a vengeance. Think of the bittersweet piano opening of "Transparent" or the noirish (ph) theme for "House Of Cards."

(SOUNDBITE OF JEFF BEAL'S "HOUSE OF CARDS THEME")

GREIVING: One theme in particular seems to have wormed its way into the ears of a new generation.

(SOUNDBITE OF KYLE DIXON AND MICHAEL STEIN'S "STRANGER THINGS THEME")

GREIVING: The "Stranger Things" theme seems to have resonated with Emmy voters as well. It won the award on Sunday for best original main title theme music. It was written by Austin-based composers Kyle Dixon and Michael Stein.

MICHAEL STEIN: I like the idea that they're microcompositions, in a way. Like, they're supposed to be conclusive from beginning to end.

GREIVING: Like "The Twilight Zone," the "Stranger Things" theme wasn't written specifically for the show. Stein says it was in a batch of demos he and his partner sent to the creators of "Stranger Things." But it stuck the way a main theme is supposed to.

STEIN: It's kind of like the cover of a book. You see it, basically, and you want to read it. You hear it, you want to see the show.

GREIVING: Netflix may have helped bring back the television theme, but the company also recently added a feature that lets you skip it. "Stranger Things" co-composer Kyle Dixon says he doesn't really mind.

KYLE DIXON: Companies like Netflix, they have analytics that tell them, OK, everyone's skipping the theme song. We might as well just make it a button. I know I get mad. I want to skip the theme song.

GREIVING: Not me. For NPR News, I'm Tim Greiving in Los Angeles.

(SOUNDBITE OF KYLE DIXON AND MICHAEL STEIN'S "STRANGER THINGS THEME")

Copyright © 2017 NPR. All rights reserved. Visit our website terms of use and permissions pages at www.npr.org for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.