My favourite SF&F signature tunes

This started because I couldn’t remember what the theme music of Babylon 5 sounded like. I could remember (not word for word) the opening narration but I couldn’t recall the tune. I didn’t watch a lot of Babylon 5 (TV schedules, life etc) but I watched enough that I was surprised I couldn’t recall it. Skipping forward in time, I realise that the Marvel films really haven’t managed to stick a iconic tune into pop-culture. There is the Avenger’s theme but I had to hunt it down on YouTube to remind myself how to hum it.

So which tunes really stick? I don’t mean which shows or films had the best incidental music or scores, just the signature tune that identifies the film/show immediately. These are my top ten.

10. Battlestar Galactica (1978)

The show itself was a weird mix of Mormon mythology and proto-Reagan perspectives on politics. Yet it has its charms and one of those was the opening theme music. Composed by Stu Phillips it layers two different tunes, one more like a military anthem and the other more wistful.

9. The X-Files

It isn’t a tune you are going to hum as you walk down the street but Mark Snow’s theme was utterly distinctive. The tune is unsettling and odd in a way that is hard to describe – not unlike the show. According to Wikipedia:

The theme, “The X-Files“, used more instrumental sections than most dramas.[84] The theme song’s famous whistle effect was inspired by the track “How Soon Is Now?” from the US edition of The Smiths‘ 1985 album Meat Is Murder.

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_X-Files#Music

8. Indiana Jones Theme

Inevitably, John Williams will make more than one appearance in this list. The “Raiders March” is the definitive tune used (and co-opted by the rest of the series of films) to symbolise the titular character.

7. The Twilight Zone

There are lost of alternative histories in which the famous music of a film or show could have ended up being quite different than the tune we associate with it. Fittingly, The Twilight Zone lived through these alternate realities. The famously unnerving notes didn’t appear until season 2 after the original theme by Bernard Hermann was replaced using music sourced from a European composer Marius Constant in an attempt to avoid union rates.

“On one of those trips, Gluskin hired the Romanian-born composer Marius Constant, who was struggling to get by in Paris at the time. “I received a phone call from a producer, and he said, ‘We’re doing this TV show and I’ll give you $200 to write a theme by tomorrow. If your work is accepted, you’ll make another $500, ’ ” Constant recalled in a 1997 interview. Feeling like the offer made him “as good as Stravinsky,” Constant wrote a collection of cues, waited three months before getting paid, and promptly forgot about the whole thing. Sometime during the summer of 1960, faced with a pile of unusable music, Gluskin had the idea of Frankensteining together a theme from the stock music cues. He took two discordant pieces Constant had written, originally entitled “Milieu No. 2” and “Étrange No. 3,” spliced them together, and made television history on the cheap.”

https://slate.com/culture/2019/04/twilight-zone-theme-jordan-peele-grateful-dead-korn-marius-constant-bernard-herrmann-manhattan-transfer.html

6. Wallace and Gromit

In May 2010 the space shuttle Atlantis was on a routine mission to the International Space Station and so what better tune could NASA send as a wake up call than the Wallace & Gromit theme: https://spaceflight.nasa.gov/gallery/audio/shuttle/sts-132/html/ndxpage1.html

First used in the A Grand Day Out the tune is a jaunty march intended to evoke the tradition of brass bands in the North of England. Composed by Julian Nott who met Wallace & Gromit’s creator Nick Park at the National Film and Television School.

I once managed to complete a very difficult hike (difficult for me – not for everybody else) by humming the tune to myself.

5. Adventure Time

I decided to ration the number of kid’s shows in this list but that just made picking a smaller number much harder. Even picking on Adventure Time as a show creates a dilemma because I love both the opening credit’s theme and the more closing theme. However, of the two I’ll pick the opening theme which itself comes in two parts: an intro that is mainly stranger noises and then the short song which explains as briefly as possible the premise of a show with a vast, vast backstory (mainly hinted at in visuals).

4. Spider-Man (1960’s cartoon)

Plenty of superheroes have signature tunes from older TV shows. Notably Batman’s theme from the 1960s live action show is a tune that has had a longevity far beyond that of the show and which is still associated with the character even in his more grim versions. However, of them all I’ll pick on the Spider-Man theme song https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Spider-Man_(theme_song)

The song is forever connected to Spider-Man even though the cartoon itself was pretty weak with a heavy reliance on re-used footage (including from other cartoons). The song itself, composed by Bob Harris and with lyrics by Paul Francis Webster, has not been used directly as the Spider-Man theme since but has been re-worked into new themes and played as a kind of musical cameo during more recent Spider-Man movies. The song has a life of its own.

3. Star Trek (original series)

Alexander Courage composed this wonderful and unearthly theme music that mixes organs and a human voice to create an effect reminiscent of the kind of 1950s spooky theremin style sound but also more upbeat and orchestral. I don’t think any Star Trek series or movie since has had a theme tune this good. It is instantly recognisable, unusual and distinctive and sets the tone of the show as being futuristic, unusual and exciting.

Apparently Gene Roddenberry wrote lyrics to the music without Courage’s knowledge and thus enabled Roddenberry to be co-credited for the music.

2. Star Wars

You could fill this list with John Williams and if this was a list for most iconic score then Star Wars would win hands down. The fame of the opening theme is rivalled by the rest of the music from the films including the Imperial March. The leitmotif approach to the music of the films has generated a whole host of memorable and distinctive melodies but for my purposes I’m singling out the opening fanfare-like signature (aka Luke’s Theme). It is a big bold promise at the start of the film that you are going to get something extraordinarily exciting.

1. Doctor Who Theme

Delia Derbyshire’s work at the BBC’s experimental Radiophonic Workshop took an initial composition by Ron Grainer and turned it into something utterly different. The theme is both a pioneering example of electronic music and cleverly timeless.

Derbyshire’s theme has been re-recorded and updated on multiple occasions but the fundamental aspects of it remain the same. It announces that something very weird is on it’s way with a rhythm of a train playing along side a kind of ghostly cry.

Until the 50th anniversary episode, Derbyshire was not directly credited as the BBC preferred to credit the Radiophonic Workshop as whole.

Honourable Mentions

  • Harry Potter’s theme tune (aka Hedwig’s Theme) is another John Williams classic but I decided to ration the amount of John Williams.
  • Also Spach Zarathustra by Richard Strauss is forever associated with Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey and rocket flight in general. I’m not sure it counts as a theme tune though.
  • The music to Lord of the Rings is wonderful but I don’t think it quite has that signature quality to it to make my list.
  • I strongly considered the spooky sequence of notes from Close Encounters of the Third Kind. Is it a theme tune or an actual plot point or can it be both?
  • So many kid’s cartoons could have got on the list that I don’t know where to start. Feel free to swap out Adventure Time as you see fit. Is Spongebob genre or just really weird and is that even a distinction?
  • Suggestions please!
  • ETA: On Twitter the team at Hugo Book Club suggested Red Dwarf, Hitchhiker’s Guide and Star Trek the Motion Picture. All good suggestions but on reflection I think I should have put Hitchhiker’s in a top spot aka “Journey of the Sorcerer” by Bernie Leadon of the Eagles. It is another one of those pieces that just sound like themselves rather than anything else. Best use of a banjo in science fiction ever.

81 thoughts on “My favourite SF&F signature tunes

  1. As you probably realised when you were looking it up, the issue with Babylon 5 is that it never had a single opening musical score. It had one per season; three of them are pretty recognizeably variations on the same theme but seasons 3 and 5 are more distinct. (Similar with the opening words.) The one I can generally most easily call to mind is (sadly) the triumphal-toned score for season 5.

    Steven Universe (TV series, not movie) has a theme that’s so easy to get in your head it generally takes only the first word to get the fanbase singing.

    I also can well bring to mind the BBC Robin of Sherwood theme, by iconic Irish Celtic band Clannad in their interesting period (The bit where they were doing a fusion of trad, jazz, pop and other things abd before they started getting more mellow and new-agey)

    Buffy’s theme, on the contrary, impressed me by being so much just generic thrashy sound that i could never actually call the details to mind, often right after watching.

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  2. The jaunty Red Dwarf theme song is a proper earworm, and it’s hilariously mismatched to the show which is, of course, why it’s so utterly perfect.
    I do think that “Also Sprach Zarathustra” and “Journey of the Sorcerer” are two works that will be always linked with those particular things by anyone who encountered them that way, even if they knew of them earlier, meaning that it will be their genre association that comes to mind first, in much the same way as the “William Tell Overture” was for the Lone Ranger for anyone over a certain age (which is probably about 70 I would guess!)

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  3. I’d have to list Tank! at the start of Cowboy Bebop. Always let me know that people doing this were much cooler than I am. Though it does remind me of Get Smart for some reason. Or aren’t we including anime?

    Looking forward to themes you didn’t like.

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      1. Like the theme from The NBC Mystery Movie? (Columbo, McMillan and Wife, and McCloud on a rotating schedule.)

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  4. I like Twilight Zone. I’d also put Red Dwarf in there, as Scurra says. My #1 would probably be a twofer: Johnny Williams’s two themes for “Lost in Space,” which I have a recording of that treats them like two parts of one piece, and maybe they are. Williams was a jazz drummer at the time, and this might have been his first big job of that sort.

    My dear wife sang the vocal version of the OST Trek theme at the first Trek con in NYC, as part of “The Android Sisters.” I haven’t done a con since forever, but used to always try and get two to four people to the piano for a sing-along (always ending with the words “STAR, TREK” at the end, as a hat tip to the Blues Brothers). Music-wise, I like the theme they used for TNG.

    Elfman’s FORBIDDEN ZONE theme was great, and they re-used it for the Dilbert cartoon, but somehow I think it fails to qualify.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. I always combine Rocket Robin Hood with The Mighty Hercules because they were shown together for awhile on the local station. Maybe some sort of Canadian cartoon package deal. The Mighty Hercules has a swell theme by Johnny Nash.

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      1. You were spared watching utter dreck. The stories were pretty horrible, and the animation was the worst of the early 70s dark ages animation. the only good thing was that song.

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  5. Old: Batman 66 (spawned a generation of dinner dinner Batman jokes….)
    New: I’m rather fond of The Expanse theme for some reason.

    Liked by 2 people

  6. I’m also very fond of the original Battlestar Galactica theme tune (and the show for that matter, for all its flaws). And most of the others you listed are of course classics.

    As for things you haven’t mentioned, I’m extremely fond of the Raumpatrouille Orion (Space Patrol Orion) theme by Peter Thomas, king of catchy theme tunes: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vJI4J92Btis He also wrote the theme tune for the borderline SF thriller Der Hexer (The Ringer), which sounds like a dance party in hell: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=soJBQyPiTpY

    Other favourites are the theme tunes for Firefly (shouldn’t work, but does) and Twin Peaks.

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    1. My favorite version of the Firefly theme (which, yeah, shouldn’t work, but does) is the instrumental version that’s used at the end of the closing credits in Serenity.

      Liked by 1 person

    1. That’s a lovely version of Edelweiss, though it always irks me a bit, because that song would not have existed in the world of The Man in the High Castle. Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein were both Jewish, so there is no way they would have had a musical career in a Nazi controlled America (and the Nazis pretty much destroyed the operetta tradition in Germany and Austria, because so many composers, lyricists and stars were Jewish). Besides, Baron von Trapp did not get along with the Nazis, which is why he and his family went to America in the first place. Even if the von Trapps had managed to get away in time, there is no way Maria von Trapp’s memoir would have been published in a Nazi controlled America, which means that there would never be a Sound of Music nor the postwar German movie The Trapp Family for that matter.

      The only way The Sound of Music could exist in the world of The Man in the High Castle is if Rodgers, Hammerstein and the von Trapps had all survived and made it to the free part of the US, Maria von Trapp still wrote her memoir (which would have been very different in this world, if only because the von Trapps would have had to flee twice) and Rodgers and Hammerstein turned it into a musical. But even then, there is no way a musical by two Jewish composers/lyricists based on the memoirs of an enemy of the state would ever have been allowed to be performed in the Nazi controlled part of the US.

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      1. “Edelweiss” in The Man in the High Castle” creeps the hell out of me. There’s something sinister about the singer’s delivery, especially at the end when she sings, “Bless my homeland forever” and the homeland is the former United States under Nazi rule. She also seems to have a German accent, or maybe I’m just imagining that — her “s”s sound more like “sh”.

        Liked by 2 people

  7. The original Outer Limits, especially Season One, with that great Dominic Frontiere score (although you only got the theme music during the closing credits, as the opening was all voice-over).

    Even when when ST:TOS first aired (I was nine when it premiered, and watched it avidly), I disliked Courage’s theme music; I just thought it was kind of cheesy. I liked a lot of the incidental music, though.

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      1. Other Gerry Anderson themes I remember as being good (possibly a dose of nostalgia there). In order of liking (and reverse order of cheesiness)

        Joe 90 – worth an honourable mention I think.
        Thunderbirds (bonus point for the end theme)
        Stingray
        Captain Scarlet

        If it’s not on the list I don’t remember it (I missed some of the earlier shows, so their absence isn’t damning)

        Liked by 1 person

      2. Okay, then. This isn’t a theme from anything, but it’s Gloria Wood singing the hell out of “Hey Bellboy!”, and it’s what popped into my mind during the Secret Service theme. Not safe for work. Not dirty, or even really suggestive, but everybody in earshot is going to be at your desk giving you peculiar looks.

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  8. Come to think of it, the intro to Macross Plus really made me loose my breath the first time I heard it. I have sat countless times just listening to it again and again.

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      1. Also in the anime space : Cowboy Bebop. Mr angharad used to watch it, not me, but I really like the opening track.

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      2. Cowboy Bebop will always be Green Bird for me, even though they only played it in the first episode.

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  9. If I was going to add something to this list I’d pick one of the most iconic game themes of all time. The opening/Hyrule overworld theme from A Link to the Past. You hear it and you know that something epic is about to occur. It’s been re-arranged and re-recorded and covered ad infinitum but here it is as I first heard it in ALttP.

    If I was going to add a second thing to this list it’d have to be “Edge of Dawn (Seasons of Warfare)” from Fire Emblem: Three Houses. It’s been officially released in English, Japanese and Korean, so here’s the Korean version.

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  10. On the cartoons’ front I’d most likely go for the 90s X-Men theme and maybe something like DuckTales or Darkwing Duck.

    It’s not a main theme but I really like the Eleventh Doctor theme. One of my favorite pieces of Doctor Who music, very powerful “let’s go do some adventure” vibe. I would go do some adventure if somebody asked me with a soundtrack like that.

    I think nobody mentioned Twin Peaks yet. Also on that side of thing: is The Prisoner’s theme cool and memorable or does it just really works in that intro?

    Liked by 1 person

  11. “True blood”.
    before the night is through
    I wanna do bad things with you

    The intro – both the sound and the video – really sets the tone for the series.

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  12. Two names immediately sprang to my mind: Dudley Simpson and Barry Gray.

    Simpson composed the opening theme for Blake’s 7, which is my personal favourite, and the equally brassy and bombastic intro for the lesser-known Moonbase 3. He did a lot of the incidental music on Tom Baker-era Doctor Who as well (possibly also later Pertwee, if my memory serves).

    And Barry Gray was Gerry Anderson’s in-house composer – and a genuinely brilliant and versatile one, in the English light music tradition. He did the Space: 1999 season 1 titles, and the eerie electronica at the end of UFO – he did everything, from catchy pop tunes to portentous orchestral numbers, but he’s probably most famous for the grandiose marching theme for Thunderbirds.

    I’m surprised, btw, that Cora didn’t mention the funky-pop-tastic theme for Star Maidens (composed by Berry Lipmann). Or maybe Cora just has better taste than me. Or, if you want something really off the wall, try Justin Hayward and the intro to Star Cops….

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  13. Oh, and a minor correction to a comment upstream – Robin of Sherwood wasn’t a BBC show, it was produced by one of the ITV regional companies, HTV (Harlech Television). Credit where it’s due.

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  14. I get overly invested in theme songs of shows I like and buy or otherwise obtain digital copies of them to put in play lists all the time… which means that a lot of theme music that probably wouldn’t strike other people as memorable would get on my list.

    I had a small list I was going to add, but as I read through the comments every one on that list was mention be someone above EXCEPT: Darkwing Duck.

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      1. For sure! The show was always a trying-too-hard version of “The Addams Family” to me, but the theme is boss. Los Straitjackets have covered it a couple of times, and one of those times they lampshaded what I’d never noticed: The music is a slightly elaborated version of Mysterioso Pizzicato, which The Book of World-Famous Music (hours of fun, from Dover) traces back to a Sam Fox Folio of music for silent movies.

        The Addams Family theme is enjoyable, but if I had to choose just one, I fear I’d throw Vic Mizzy (who also wrote the one for “Green Acres,” among others) under the bus.

        A friend of mine played his version of the Munsters theme once, on piano, and it was incredible. I always wished he would write it down so I could learn it. I made the mistake of playing the sheet music version of the theme for him once, and he decided that his way was wrong. I felt like I’d murdered a beautiful piece of music.

        I collect sheet music that appeals to me, and I have a lot of TV show themes. “Twin Peaks” is very playable as long as I don’t hurry it. I think of it whenever I play “Stranger on the Shore,” because there’s something overarchingly similar about them.

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  15. “Starfleet” by Brian May and Friends. It’s a harder-rock version of the theme to a British kids show that I have never seen, but can a band made up of Brian May, Eddie Van Halen, Alan Gratzer. Phil Chen and Fred Mandel possibly go wrong?

    Also, the Skyrim theme, particularly as covered by Lindsey Sterling and Peter Hollens: https://youtu.be/BSLPH9d-jsI

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      1. Williams was versatile! First he did

        “STAR WARS, da da da STAR WARS!”

        Then he did

        “SUPE-ER MAN, da da da SUPE-ER MAN!”

        But then he mixed it all up with

        “ET, da da da da E…T!” (Four das, and he went down on the last note. Always with the surprise making!)

        Liked by 1 person

  16. Since we’re doing anime themes, the German theme tune for the Captain Future anime from the late 1970s is amazing. The Japanese version apparently had a different theme tune, since this one was written by Christian Bruhn who’s German.

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