“Glee,” the hit musical on FOX, does not have an opening theme song. “Grey’s Anatomy” had one and dropped it. Even famed composer Danny Elfman has seen his theme for “Desperate Housewives” chopped down so far as to be nearly unidentifiable. There may never have been a time as dire for the TV theme song in the medium’s history. How did we get here?
amNewYork takes a look back at some big moments in TV theme-song history in the first in our series on TV themes. Come back Thursday for part 2.
Most of the early themes were instrumentals written by anonymous musicians who never took full credit because of pay disputes between the studios and musician unions.
1949: The William Tell Overture is used to introduce “The Lone Ranger,” just as on the radio, and immediately becomes the first truly recognizable TV theme song.
1951: “Dragnet” first airs on television, and its theme starts with one of the most recognizable four-note openings in music history.
1952: Composer Leon Klatzkin conceives the “Superman March” for “Adventures of Superman,” but the opening voiceover (“It’s a bird! It’s a plane! It’s Superman!”) is more remembered.
1958: “Peter Gunn” gives us the “The Peter Gunn Theme,” which goes to the top of the Billboard charts for composer Henry Mancini. It’s also one of the first times that a TV show utilizes jazz rather than symphonic music.
Buoyed by the success of “The Peter Gunn Theme,” jazz becomes the go-to genre for theme music. In addition, sung lyrics start popping up more and more rather than instrumentals or spoken introductions.
1961: “Mister Ed” starts a trend that catches fire among half-hour comedies: theme songs that introduce characters and the show’s central conceit. Backstory would also get worked into the themes for shows such as “Gilligan’s Island.”
1968: The theme from “Hawaii Five-O” becomes a big hit for the Vultures, who cover Morton Stevens’ original and get a gold record.
Lyrics to theme songs get heavy on the backstory, while pop stars start to see the attraction of recording a song played for a weekly audience.
1974: Jose Feliciano writes the theme for “Chico and the Man” a year before John Sebastian pens the theme for “Welcome Back, Kotter.”
1975: “Those were the daaaaaays...” “All in the Family” premieres with its stars performing the theme song on camera.
1978: Canadian-born actor Alan Thicke might be best known as the father on “Growing Pains,” but he also wrote the theme songs for “Diff’rent Strokes” and “The Facts of Life.” Despite this, the United States never invaded Canada.
Sitcom theme songs get unbelievably hokey, while action-show themes get, well, very ’80s.
1981: Despite rumors to the contrary, the theme song to “The Greatest American Hero” is not sponsored by Velveeta.
1984: Jan Hammer rocks out the theme to “Miami Vice,” complete with ’80s Casio effects. Is there a more perfect name for an ’80s composer than “Jan Hammer”?
Theme songs become big business as pop musicians jump into the genre feet first. By the end of the decade, music supervisors stop worrying about writing themes at all, instead licensing pre-existing tracks.
1990: Having a musician on a TV show is a built-in advantage, as the producers of “The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air” learn. The Will Smith theme song is still a hit at parties in the City of Brotherly Love today.
1994: The Rembrandts have their biggest hit handed to them, as Michael Skloff and Allee Willis write “I’ll Be There for You” and ask the duo to record it for a sitcom called “Friends.”
The beginning of the end? Lengthy credit sequences start to disappear, replaced by solitary title cards and, sometimes, an incidental chord or two.
2000: “Malcolm in the Middle” debuts, with They Might Be Giants recording the boisterous theme, “Boss of Me.” It won a Grammy in 2002 — to this day the only TV theme to win Best Song Written for a Motion Picture, Television or Other Visual Media.
Today: The most recognizable theme on TV might be a parody, with Peter and Lois Griffin doing their best “All in the Family” impersonation at the start of the “Family Guy.”