Anatomy of a Theme
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As a composer, if I had to grade tv music licensing on a scale of best to worst-best, based on prestige and dolla bilz earned, it would go something like this.

1. TV Theme
2. Score To Picture
3. Licensed Track

I’ve dumbed it down a bit – there’s some exceptions (one-off, rockstar license) and some stages in between (i.e custom trailers), and comparing apples to apples (all cable or all network placements) but for the most part that’s the money tree right there.

Landing the main titles is considered the jewel in the crown not only because it’s calculated at a higher rate than instrumental/vocal background synch, but because it’s quite possible the theme could turn into a hit song and generate income outside of the show. Music written for the opening titles is as much a part of the branding as any of the other elements, so let’s have a look at the five best TV themes of the last 10 years and how they managed to put their stamp on the show.


Though not written specifically for the opening, the Music Supe that scouted out this elegant, downtempo gem (sticking with that jewel metaphor for now) should go straight into the tv tunes hall of fame. RJD2’s frenetic beat driven ‘A Beautiful Mine’ was seemingly the only choice for the opening of Madmen. Read about the disappointing deal he signed here. Is it possible to not think about Don Draper when you hear those lush strings swells? No. Not possible.

Friday Night Lights

Here’s a bold statement – Friday Night Lights wouldn’t have been nearly as popular if it wasn’t for Snuffy Walden’s bittersweet, post rock inspired score. Years ago, I remember seeing Explosions In The Sky perform on Austin City Limits and thought there was something so misplaced but alluring about hearing reverb drenched guitar textures rather than blues licks in front of Texas audience. Snuffy took that idea and ran with it creating one of the most memorable aural landscapes for television.

Breaking Bad

Is 17 seconds even long enough to be considered a theme? When I first heard it, I had such a hate-on for this lazy ass, style-over-substance main title. It’s the kind of theme that every writer says ‘I could have done that’, but if you listen closely, there’s more to it than meets the ear. Equal parts music and sound design, it creates that slightly tweaked out, sun-baked vibe that helps set the tone for the misadventures of Walter White. Can we imagine anything else?


“And they’re all made out of ticky-tacky and they all look just the same”. Resurrected for the show’s theme, Little Boxes by Malian Reynolds mirrors the opening sequence that resembles a suburban cloning nightmare. Similarly to The Wire’s opening, each season had it’s own version of Little Boxes, keeping the theme minty fresh, and allowing the wholesome melody and lyrics to play against the dodgy antics of the Botwins.

30 Rock

An ode to Henry Mancini by way of Harvey Birdman, the splashy wackiness of this opening sets the pacing for Liz Lemon’s quick wit. The theme has Tracy Morgan’s swagger mixed with Jenna Maroney’s theatrics and a splash of up-tightness a la Jack Donaghy. A perfect, punchy score to compliment this brilliant ensemble cast.

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