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. 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.
- 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.