The 35 greatest TV theme songs

(Image credit: Warner Bros. Television)

If television shows are a gift, then a good theme song is like the color-coordinated bow on top. Be it jingles made for the show or pre-existing pop songs the producers obtained the rights for, a good TV theme song does so much more than mark the start of a new episode. The best of them expand the world of the show just a teensy bit wider, making the stories being told and the characters in them feel that much more alive, and maybe even relatable. More often than not, TV themes help make a show more iconic in pop culture than any single episode could.

Frankly, if you’re one of the privileged few who have control over a TV show, choosing the right theme song ought to be one of the most important decisions you ever make. While the long history of television is brimming with amazing theme songs, only few deserve recognition as “iconic.” From cartoons to prestige dramas, these are the 35 greatest TV theme songs of all time.

35. X-Men: The Animated Series

X-Men: The Animated Series

(Image credit: Marvel)

Composed by Ron Wasserman while under contract for producer Haim Saban, the X-Men theme is a power metal classic that defined Marvel’s mutant superheroes forever. It’s so characteristic of the X-Men, it has followed them all the way into the Marvel Cinematic Universe. In a 2016 interview with Inverse, Wasserman recalled iterating on the song until both Marvel and Saban were happy. “That was just a boatload of work because there was a lot of involvement,” Wasserman said. “A lot of, ‘Let’s tweak this, make this bigger, redo this.’ We ended up with 80 or 90 tracks for that thing. They just kept trying to get more and more energy out of it. It was on and off for weeks.”

34. Miami Vice 

Miami Vice

(Image credit: Universal Television)

One of the few instrumentals to chart on the Billboard Hot 100, Jan Hammer’s plainly titled “Miami Vice Theme” (obviously made for the hit crime drama its named after) is seminal for cementing the synth-heavy sounds of the '80s and for drafting the blueprints for what would become synthwave and retrowave music. Although Hammer crafted the series’ score, the theme existed before his involvement, being an in-progress sketch by Hammer which he demoed for series creator Michael Mann. Recalled Hammer in a 2014 interview with Rolling Stone: “I met Michael when they were still casting. We were talking about what music would work to make something that was like nothing on television at the time. I had some sketches that I played him — and that turned out to be the theme for the show. I had already recorded most of it.”

33. The Walking Dead

The Walking Dead

(Image credit: AMC Studios)

When The Walking Dead premiered on Halloween night 2010, it did so with an original theme that spooked us all to the bone. Composed by Battlestar Galactica’s Bear McCreary, his haunting music conjures a creeping, dreadful atmosphere through repeated strings that fool the listener into believing an end is nigh. That the tension only keeps building illuminates the show’s main thesis of living a never-ending nightmare. In a 2012 interview with MTV, McCreary said: “It repeats over and over, and in fact in the pilot episode, you start hearing it before the main title begins, and this is something that continues episode to episode. You hear the main title music before the main title begins, so you know it's coming. That, to me, was the little hook – that little thing that, whenever you hear it, it takes you to the series.”

32. Sex and the City

Sex and the City

(Image credit: HBO)

It’s not easy for any one song to epitomize metropolitan sophistication. So it’s a testament to Sex and the City composer Douglas Cuomo, who did just that with his instrumental theme for the hit HBO comedy starring Sarah Jessica Parker. With its overall vibe sounding like a Latin cocktail party inside a space age hotel lounge, Cuomo’s piece is both comical and sexy, which is an apt description of Sex and the City itself. In a 2017 interview with Entertainment Weekly, Cuomo revealed he was given just 10 days to write and record his theme. It was also composed for an animated-style sequence, but that idea was scrapped without Cuomo knowing about it.

31. Beverly Hills 90210

Beverly Hills 90210

(Image credit: Paramount)

How can California rock sound so emotional? Such is the theme song to Beverly Hills 90210, its mix of aggressive guitar shredding, saxophones, and keyboards capturing the teen spirit of its affluent zip code. It was also a rushed job. As the story goes: When the pilot episode was screened to Fox executives, their biggest gripe was the show’s choice in theme music (by an unidentified rock band). This led to a panicked late night phone call from the producers to series composer John E. Davis, who was tasked with delivering a new theme by morning. In a 2019 interview with Variety, Davis said: “It needed to be contemporary, but also have some semblance of heart to it, so I tried to use both those elements. There are two feels – the rock and roll edge first, then at the end it turns a little sweeter, which was my homage to the family values of the show.” 

30. Cowboy Bebop

Cowboy Bebop

(Image credit: Sunrise)

3, 2, 1… Let’s jam! A massive hit on both sides of the Pacific, Cowboy Bebop was one of several ‘90s anime from Japan to properly introduce western audiences to the medium. This ultra cool sci-fi noir had an appropriately bodacious theme song, a high-energy jazz track performed by jazz rock outfit The Seatbelts (so named because they actually wear seatbelts as a safety measure during hardcore jam sessions). While the song is synced perfectly to the show’s trippy title sequence, it also stands alone as a great piece of music. This one’s for all the space cowboys out there.

29. Twin Peaks

Twin Peaks

(Image credit: CBS Studios)

Slow, haunting, and majestic, the theme song to David Lynch’s TV masterpiece Twin Peaks, composed by Angelo Badalementi, evokes the natural beauty – and manmade horrors – of the pacific northwest. There’s a tragic quality to Badalementi’s music that lends itself to the show’s main mystery: Who killed Laura Palmer? In a 2019 interview with The Believer, Badalementi said: “David felt that the music of Twin Peaks would have to cover a lot of ground, a wide range of moods: sadness, passion, ecstasy, love, tenderness, and violence. He wanted the music to be dark and abstract. He asked me for music that would tear the hearts out of people. I had David’s words and his descriptive moods in my mind.”

28. Peter Gunn

Peter Gunn

(Image credit: Multicom Entertainment Group)

For the influential NBC detective series Peter Gunn, which aired on TV between 1958 to 1961, composer Henry Mancini created this impossibly cool track that still drips so much style after all these years. Just listening to it makes you want to put on a trenchcoat and a fedora and go snooping for clues. In Mancini’s 1989 autobiography, he said of his work: “The Peter Gunn theme actually derives more from rock and roll than from jazz. I used guitar and piano in unison, playing what is known in music as an ostinato, which means obstinate. It was sustained throughout the piece, giving it a sinister effect, with some frightened saxophone sounds and some shouting brass. The piece has one chord throughout and a super-simple top line.”

27. The Greatest American Hero

The Greatest American Hero

(Image credit: Stephen J. Cannell Productions)

Long before the Marvel and DC cinematic universes, TV’s best crime-fighter was a substitute teacher named Ralph whose alien costume gave him amazing powers. The theme song to The Greatest American Hero, a collaboration between musicians Mike Post, Stephen Geyer, and singer Joey Scarbury, was written just for the cult action-comedy series. When Post first heard about the show from its producer, he thought it was “nuts,” or so he described it in a 2005 interview with the Television Academy. But he and Geyer, a lyricist, were still inspired to write a fun song that found parallels between falling in love and feeling like a superhero.

26. The Jeffersons

The Jeffersons

(Image credit: Sony Pictures Entertainment)

They’re moving on up. With George and Louise “Wheezy” Jefferson moving from Queens to upper Manhattan - and spinning off from the hit All in the Family - The Jeffersons got its own theme song: an upbeat, gospel-inspired tune about upward mobility co-written by Ja’Net DuBois and Jeff Leary. (DuBois provides vocals.) The song was made by DuBois when series creator Norman Lear simply asked her to write one, describing The Jeffersons to her only as a show about a dry cleaning business. DuBois coincidentally wrote the theme based on her own aspirations working towards the American dream. When Lear finally heard her song, he was stunned to find out how much DuBois accurately summarized the show’s premise.

25. Nip/Tuck


(Image credit: Warner Bros. Television)

The sensual and dangerous world of Miami plastic surgery, as seen in the hit FX drama Nip/Tuck, has an appropriately eerie theme song in “A Perfect Lie” by The Engine Room. A downtempo electronic dance piece that sounds like being in the waiting room of a spaceship, the song conveys the inhumane nature of cosmetic surgery, with the song’s narrator begging to be made “beautiful.” The song pairs exceptionally well with its equally creepy title sequence, where real-life physical models are transformed into ghostly white fashion mannequins, obfuscating what’s real and what’s plastic. 

24. Mission: Impossible

Mission: Impossible

(Image credit: Paramount Television)

While the blockbuster film franchise starring Tom Cruise has ensured its iconic status, its origins actually lie in the 1960s spy-fi television series that inspired it. Written and recorded by Lalo Schifrin (also known for orchestrating the scores to films like Bullit and Enter the Dragon), his inspiration for Mission: Impossible comes from Morse code; the initials for “M” and “I” are two dashes and two dots, which is how Schifrin found the rhythm to his composition. It’s no wonder why, when Mission: Impossible leapt to the big screen, it kept the theme song mostly intact. 

23. Three’s Company

Three's Company

(Image credit: DLT Entertainment)

It may be a shock to learn that Joe Raposo, the composer behind the funky, groovy theme song of Three’s Company, is also behind the music of children’s shows like Sesame Street and The Electric Company. But the hysterical premise of Three’s Company, about a single guy (John Ritter) who poses as a gay man so he could live in an apartment shared by two women - which is the source for the show’s abundant jokes involving sexual innuendos - allows Raposo to reveal a different side to his musicality. It’s simply a stupid catchy theme song (“Come and knock on my doooooor…”) that just sounds like being young, hot, and single in the 1970s. 

22. Buffy the Vampire Slayer

Buffy the Vampire Slayer

(Image credit: 20th Television)

Nerd rock band Nerf Herder guaranteed their immortality in fandom with their Dracula-meets-Ramones headbanger that is the theme to Buffy the Vampire Slayer. At just one minute long, this hard rock instrumental piece, which is kicked off by a church organ and a wolf howling at a full moon, is a straight shot of adrenaline to the system that can make all would-be vampire hunters grab their wooden stakes and take back the night. At Comic-Con 2015, the band played the song live on repeat for eight minutes straight, playing it faster each time.

21. Star Trek

Star Trek: The Original Series

(Image credit: Paramount Television)

What music can inspire anyone to go where no man has gone before? From the aptly-named composer, Alexander Courage, is the theme song to Star Trek, a dreamlike piece that verges on big band bombast. Most notable for its organ and melodic vocals by soprano singer Loulie Jean Norman, the theme to Star Trek evokes the show’s principle themes of discovery, adventure, and the betterment of mankind somewhere in the stars. Amusingly, series creator Gene Roddenberry wrote lyrics to the song, though he never intended them to be used. It was seemingly only so that he could be an accredited lyricist and thus claim royalties.

20. The Brady Bunch

The Brady Bunch

(Image credit: Paramount Television)

It’s hokey to the point of irritating, but there’s no denying that The Brady Bunch’s sunshine pop theme song keeps a rightful place in television history. Co-written by Frank De Vol and Sherwood Schwartz and originally sung by the Peppermint Trolley Company, The Brady Bunch’s unbelievably corny but catchy theme helpfully summarizes its then-unusual household. (“Here’s a story, of a lovely lady, who was bringing up three very lovely girls…”). While the heads-in-boxes visual motif of the title sequence is maybe more iconic than the song itself, The Brady Bunch theme is just so emblematic with its specific, and groovy, time and place. 

19. The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air

Fresh Prince of Bel-Air

(Image credit: NBC Productions)

When you have Will Smith as the lead of a TV sitcom, of course you get him to sing (or in this case, rap) the theme song, which is officially titled “Yo Home to Bel-Air.” Will Smith got involved with his own show’s music from producer Quincy Jones, with Smith penning the lyrics after reading the pilot episode script. While the song is hilarious and goofy, it is a forerunner in modern hip-hop, being one of the first popular rap songs to tell a rags-to-riches narrative detailing an unlikely escape from poverty. (The song even predates Biggie Smalls’ “Juicy” by four years.)  

18. The Wonder Years

The Wonder Years

(Image credit: 20th Television)

Joe Cocker’s slowed-down cover of The Beatles’ “With a Little Help from My Friends” was already 20 years old when The Wonder Years made its television premiere in 1988. But the show’s heartfelt nostalgia for late ‘60s Americana makes it a case of perfect pairing of show and theme. Its title sequence is memorable too; watching the Arnold family enjoy a summer barbecue through a vintage Super 8 camera can make anyone want to dig up their own home videos. We don’t know we’re living the best days of our lives until they’re over. That’s what The Wonder Years is all about, with a little help from Joe Cocker.

17. Knight Rider

Knight Rider

(Image credit: Universal Televisions)

Composed by Stu Phillips and Glen A. Larson, the theme song to Knight Rider evokes a striking, if also frightening vision of the future that only the 1980s could imagine. Knight Rider is centered around the super intelligent sports car KITT and the dashing crime-fighter (played by David Hasselhoff) behind its wheel. Its theme song mixes the classical compositions of “Marche Et Cortège De Bacchus” Act III – No. 14 from Sylvia by Léo Delibes with modern drums, bass, and synthesizers. (The synths were mandated by the network to emphasize the show’s science fiction elements.) Next time you’re driving late at night on an open highway, play this at full volume. You’ll feel like the coolest person on Earth.

16. True Blood

True Blood

(Image credit: HBO)

In 2008, while tweens obsessed over Edward and Jacob, adults had HBO’s True Blood to sink their teeth into. Its theme song “Bad Things,” by country rocker Jace Everett from his 2005 debut album, was not exclusively written and recorded for True Blood. Hence why its lyrics have nothing to do with vampires living in politically divided Louisiana. But the erotic danger that underpins “Bad Things” is so evocative of the series - a gory, gratuitous serial drama with ample neck biting. With deep American gothic stylings and thick southern rock riffs, “Bad Things” is, in fact, a very good song.

15. Dawson’s Creek

Dawson's Creek

(Image credit: Sony Pictures Television)

Two years before Dawson’s Creek aired on The WB, singer/songwriter Paula Cole wrote the very personal “I Don’t Want to Wait” in her New York apartment in tribute to her dying grandfather. In the song, Cole reflects on the mistakes her grandparents admitted to making in their lives, while musing if life is all about taking risks. Fast forward to January 1998, and a last-minute decision by Dawson’s Creek’s producers leads to their abandonment of “Hand in My Pocket” by Alanis Morissette and instead choose Cole’s music, already used in the show's promos, as the official theme song. While all six seasons of Dawson’s Creek features a soundtrack of popular alternative music, “I Don’t Want to Wait” is synonymous with Dawson’s Creek, its introspective lyrics fitting the show’s impactful coming-of-age melodrama.

14. Firefly


(Image credit: 20th Television)

In the spacefaring future envisioned by Firefly, the old ways of the Old West are back, only now on distant planetary systems. America and China are the remaining two superpowers whose cultures have reached into the stars. Speaking to this imaginary future, the theme song “The Ballad of Serenity,” written by series creator Joss Whedon and performed by Sonny Rhodes, features a mix of traditional Chinese and American folk music instrumentation to create something completely new. The result is one of the best TV themes of all time that lives up to the spirit of science fiction, in how our collective past can be instructive of our coming future.

13. Mighty Morphin Power Rangers

Mighty Morphin Power Rangers

(Image credit: Hasbro)

A remixed import of the Japanese show Kyōryū Sentai Zyuranger and a pop culture phenom of the 1990s, Mighty Morphin Power Rangers also has an energizing theme song that makes us want to jump into Megazords. During the show’s pre-production phase, producer Haim Saban tasked musician Ron Wasserman to write what would become its iconic theme; his only instruction was for Wasserman to use “Go” in the lyrics, based on their previous success with Inspector Gadget. With just one day to write and record a piece, Wasserman submitted what he thought would be little more than a starting point for someone else to take over. But when Saban and Fox execs heard what Wasserman recorded, they were floored. In a 2012 DVD interview, Wasserman cited influence from Van Halen, and that he wrote it “for adults,” hence the show’s complex power metal instrumentation.

12. Grey’s Anatomy

Grey's Anatomy

(Image credit: ABC)

There’s nothing in the lyrics of Psapp’s BMI-winning “Cosy in the Rocket” that is relevant to Grey’s Anatomy, the juggernaut medical drama that premiered in 2005 on ABC. However, that doesn’t stop its dainty electronic tunes from evoking images of scrubs, scalpels, and IV bags, at least for the show’s legion of fans. Written and recorded by Psapp independently of the show, the band recalled in a 2007 interview with The Guardian that they were going to keep it buried in their archives “because we weren’t that into it.” It wasn’t until their manager played it for the show’s music supervisor that it had a chance to exist outside their computer hard drives.

11. Full House

Full House

(Image credit: Warner Bros. Television)

What ever happened to predictability? Full House, about a widower whose best friends move into his San Francisco home to help raise his daughters, featured the soft rock song “Everywhere You Look” as its theme tune. (Series creator Jeff Franklin was involved in its production.) Written and recorded exclusively for the show, the song is bespoke to Full House’s wholesome spirit with angelic backing vocals and lyrics that express yearning for a simpler time. When the sequel series Fuller House hit Netflix, pop star Carly Rae Jepsen covered the song, re-energizing it for a whole new generation.

10. Friends


(Image credit: Warner Bros. Television)

We have R.E.M. to thank for “I’ll Be There For You,” performed by The Rembrandts. Originally, the series was going to use R.E.M.’s “Shiny Happy People” as its theme song until the band rejected its usage. The suits at Warner Bros. chose to commission new music, with series co-creator Marta Kauffman enlisting her husband Michael Skloff to write the lyrics to what would become “I’ll Be There For You.” The only band contracted at Warner Bros. Records at the time - and whose style was similar to R.E.M. - was The Rembrandts, who balked at the opportunity at first. After the song became a hit on the radio, The Rembrandts expanded it with new lyrics written by themselves. It’s now one of the most iconic TV theme songs of all time, its high-energy jangle rock textures so ‘90s yet still so timeless.

9. Cheers


(Image credit: Paramount Television)

We all want to go where everybody knows our name. "Where Everybody Knows Your Name," popularly known as the theme to Cheers, was co-written by Gary Portnoy and Judy Hart-Angelo, and it has a pretty complicated backstory. The long story short: The show was going to use a different song, “People Like Us,” from the musical Preppies, until legal rights prohibited its use. The producers then enlisted Portnoy and Hart-Angelo to write new music. The two drafted multiple versions, including an early version made references to Boston (with lines like “Singing the blues when the Red Sox lose"). Eventually the musicians arrived at the final version. Today, long after Cheers has been off the air, the song is considered one of the greatest themes of all time - ranked as such by Rolling Stone in 2011 - due to its wistful sound of cozy refuge, not to mention the overall quality of Cheers itself. 

8. Breaking Bad

Breaking Bad

(Image credit: Sony Pictures Television)

Breaking Bad doesn’t really have a theme song. More like theme notes, really. Emerging at a time when TV at large began adopting the language of cinema, Breaking Bad’s brief titles play just a short piece by composer Dave Porter. But its sinister mood and smoky texture - as if something is cooking, shall we say - helps induce foreboding feelings. Just the opening notes are enough to make listeners feel like they’re in Albuquerque, watching Walter White apply his craft in clandestine laboratories. In a 2013 video interview with Billboard, Porter described his work on the show as using less traditional instruments and more unusual sources including foreign string instruments and everyday objects.

7. Mad Men

Mad Men

(Image credit: AMC)

For a show set in the cutthroat world of New York City advertising in the 1960s, using the instrumental version of a rap song by electronic artist RJD2 is a bold choice. But it was the only choice after creator Matthew Weiner heard RJD2’s “A Beautiful Mine” on NPR when it was played as a segue between news stories. After tracking down the song’s information, Weiner obtained its rights to use after musician Beck backed out of writing and recording an original piece for the show. “A Beautiful Mine” is an unexpectedly suitable fit for a show like Mad Men, a show that uses our deceptively difficult past to evaluate our equally complicated present time.

6. The Simpsons

The Simpsons

(Image credit: 20th Television)

If one were to judge the theme song and the title sequence, there’s no doubt that The Simpsons sits at the top of that list. But the animated institution's theme alone is worthy of recognition. It was composed by famed film musician Danny Elfman, who was prompted after series creator Matt Groening showed him a rough version of the intro and Elfman himself suggested “something retro.” On the drive back home, Elfman wrote the song in his head, and promptly recorded a demo in his home studio. "It was such a weird show," Elfman told ClassicFM in a 2015 interview. "I thought it was going to run two or three times and disappear forever."

5. The Sopranos 

The Sopranos

(Image credit: HBO)

It's easy to assume that a show about an Italian-American mobster from New Jersey would use something recycled from The Godfather soundtrack, or maybe Frank Sinatra. But The Sopranos defied all expectations, especially in its music soundtrack. This included its theme song, a sultry, sensual remix of “Woke Up This Morning” by British acid house artist Alabama 3. Set to visuals of Tony Soprano making his way through rush hour traffic on the Lincoln Tunnel, the song adds an otherworldly flair to the life of a family man-slash-mafioso, his navigation of mundane scenery feeling like a warlord overseeing his domain. 

4. Succession


(Image credit: HBO)

Hip hop meets classical in the arresting theme song to HBO’s award-winning drama Succession. Set in the modern world of a 1% oligarch family who rule over a mass communications giant, composer and pianist Nicholas Britell (who opened up about his process in a 2019 interview with Vanity Fair) was inspired by the show’s “duality” of absurdity and gravitas. He was prompted after seeing footage of Jeremy Strong, in character as Kendall Roy, rapping to Beastie Boys in the first episode. “Is there a kind of dark, courtly classical music that might feel it’s related to them? That they would think of themselves? And what if we mixed that with hip hop beats?” explained Britell. “There’s an immediate dissonance, right at the top of the piece … which gives you this sense that maybe, something is potentially off.” Something certainly is off with the Roys, but that doesn’t stop them from having one of the best TV theme songs in history.

3. The X-Files

The X-Files

(Image credit: 20th Television)

Not since The Twilight Zone has there been a television theme song that sent shivers right down the spine. Composed by Mark Snow, his eerie motif to the hit sci-fi drama The X-Files strongly evoked the sensation of looking into the eyes of something alien. In a 2016 video interview with the Television Academy, Mark Snow admitted he struggled with satisfying the vision of series creator Chris Carter until he accidentally hit his elbow on his piano and found a strange “echo effect” from the struck keys. After more experimentation, he landed on what would be one of the scariest TV themes of all time. 

2. I Love Lucy

I Love Lucy

(Image credit: Paramount Television)

On one hand, I Love Lucy is an obvious choice to rank as one of the greatest TV themes of all time, because I Love Lucy is simply one of the greatest and most influential shows of all time, period. But few may know it has lyrics; they’re sung by series star Desi Arnaiz, in the Season 2 episode “Lucy’s Last Birthday.” But with or without lyrics, I Love Lucy’s theme is foundational to TV as an evolving art form as one of the first truly original TV themes. Composed by Eliot Daniel and characterized by instrumentation reminiscent of Golden Age era Hollywood, the piece simply cannot be overstated, showing generations of audiences just how much music can help create an original world.

1. Game of Thrones

Game of Thrones

(Image credit: HBO)

No TV show defines the 21st century like Game of Thrones. A political high fantasy based on George R.R. Martin’s best-selling novels, series composer Ramin Djawadi - also behind the music of blockbusters like Iron Man, Pacific Rim, and the HBO series Westworld - had already finished scoring several episodes of the show’s first season before he got to work on the series’ overall theme suite. Djawadi, along with the show’s creators D.B. Weiss and David Benioff, paid a visit to the visual effects house that made the show’s equally iconic title sequence. Upon watching a preview, Djawadi was prompted by keywords like “mystery,” excitement,” and “journey” to craft what is now one of the most seminal themes in TV history.

Eric Francisco

Eric Francisco is a freelance entertainment journalist and graduate of Rutgers University. If a movie or TV show has superheroes, spaceships, kung fu, or John Cena, he's your guy to make sense of it. A former senior writer at Inverse, his byline has also appeared at Vulture, The Daily Beast, Observer, and The Mary Sue. You can find him screaming at Devils hockey games or dodging enemy fire in Call of Duty: Warzone.