The Best and Worst Instrumental TV Themes

You’ve heard them hundreds of times, and can identify them with a single note. They can elicit chills of anticipation, or send you leaping for your remote. What am I talking about? TV theme songs, of course! And more specifically the instrumental ones, some of which breeze by in mere seconds before dumping you right in the action. Like so many things in life, some of them are so awesome I want to marry them, and some of them suck balls. Here's my choice for the five best and worst on TV now*.

(* Or mercifully canceled last season, thank Vishnu!)

The Best

Parks and Recreation

This ditty is Leslie Knope in musical form–upbeat and optimistic, likable and utterly infectious, and also hopelessly dorky. It never fails to put me in a good mood, much like the show that follows it. And it inspired the Jabba the Hutt-themed parody song that is one of my favorite things ever.

Game of Thrones

As if Game of Thrones wasn't awesome enough as it is, they had to go and compose this fantasy theme to end all fantasy themes. That aching cello! Those conquering drums! Those swelling violins! It’s like theme music buttah, is what it is.

Curb Your Enthusiasm

What better way to highlight the existential follies of clown king Larry David than with this Fellini-esque circus music, heavy on the tuba? Apparently David discovered the song in a bank commercial years before Curb began. It’s called “Frolic” and was written by Italian composer Luciano Michelini. So good!

Mad Men

They could have gone obvious with this and picked something period-appropriate, but instead series creator Matthew Weiner chose an abbreviated version of hip-hop producer RJD2′s instrumental track, “A Beautiful Mine.” It perfectly encapsulates the longing and emptiness swishing around inside Mad Men’s characters like the last drops of scotch in a highball glass. (Wow, poetic.)

Dexter

More than anything, a theme song needs to capture the tone of the show it’s introducing. And that’s what Dexter's main theme does, brilliantly. It could easily have gone too dark or too lighthearted–but Rolfe Kent’s score strikes the perfect chord of sinister and sexy. It’s hard to really describe what’s going on here–it’s a harpsichord piece with German, Creole and Latin flavors to it–but it’s amazing, and really fun to do your morning bathroom routine to. Very Kurt Weill! I also like how deliberately it takes its time, much like Dexter before a kill.

The Worst

American Idol

You’d think a show that has basically trampled the pop culture landscape for the better part of a decade in search of the greatest music the world has to offer would have a theme song that sounds like a TV commercial for a teen-marketed tooth whitener. It’s basically nothing but “sting” music, as they say in the business–there to amp you up for a payoff that never comes.

Gossip Girl

Is this even considered a theme song? It’s 12 seconds of a girl’s voice (okay, fine, Kristen Bell’s voice) saying bitchy things over a generic backing track. A theme song shouldn’t make you feel embarrassed to admit you watch a show. XOXO, me.

Outsourced

Oh, Outsourced, you racist mess. Of COURSE you have some Bollywood disaster of a theme song to lead us into every curry-related mishap on your Indian minstrel show. I cringe inside listening to this, much like when I watch the show–so I guess there’s points to be given for consistency.

The Daily Show

Oh boy, I’m going to get some blowback on this one. But I’m sorry, The Daily Show’s theme–which was there since Day One, back when Craig Kilborn wasn’t doing anything particularly interesting with the show–is a repetitive, dated snore of a bland, mid-tempo rock riff. You only THINK you like it because you’ve been conditioned, Pavlov-style, to associate it with hilarious, topical comedy. But trust me, it sucks. Replace, please!

Two and a Half Men

I realize this one has vocals, thereby violating my “instrumentals only” rule, but sorry, I had to include it. Doesn’t it just make you want to punch something? Like Charlie Sheen? What’s that? He’s no longer available? All right then, Ashton Kutcher will do. He’ll do just fine.

I’m sure I’ve left plenty of your own favorites (and least favorites!) off both of these lists. Feel free to suggest some of your own in the comments.

Comments (113)
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best: true blood and game of thrones
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Best - Buffy The Vampire Slayer
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worst i've seen for a while was camelot's opening theme - show was amazing but that theme was an effort to sit through!!
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I love Dexter's opening theme.
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best: Sherlock, Dead Like Me, MacGyver
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I rarely comment here, but this article is so interesting that I have to! Absolutely couldn't agree more with GoT being in there. I also agree with the many posters above me who feel that Fringe should be in there. But I think some of the intros that really feel like the show more than anything else are the short ones. Both lost and Breaking Bad really encapsulate their show with under 20 seconds. Amazing.



Finally, I would have to give an honourable mention to a summer show called The Gates which clocks in at 10 seconds, but completely summarizes the entire premise of the show with music. Unreal. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=e8gY1GId3Ww
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Why is one of the best missing from the list again.....

what am i talking about?

...why, human target ofcouse... first season theme especially.....

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Y_xFMyhBYx8



i do admit that theme video itself helps alot to the feeling, but so does the game of thrones one....
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is this just for shows that are still on the air? If not, then I would definitely put Six Feet Under in the "best" pile
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I agree
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Agreed about Parks and Rec, and GoT.



The Best: Veronica Mars, The Office, Chuck, Archer, Angel.



The Worst: Smallville, Deadwood, Enterprise.
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You're forgetting the True Blood intro!
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I like Haven's theme song
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I don't even watch Dexter but i think it has a brilliant opening. I like 30 rock's theme song...
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I really like Southlands theme song as well as GoT and Fringe
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King of the Hill
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i dont really like none of this theme songs thats posted.i dont like themes songs that arent cathy and you dont see whos playing in the show or at least clips of the show...so for me ,i want something cathy but i also want to see clips of the show or the cast thats in it.some good themes songs are beverly hills 90210,charmed,buffy the vampire slayer,dark angel,dollhouse,and smallville (i cant think of no more theme songs, those are the ones thats on top of my head).those themes are cathy and u see the cast or you see clips of the show.thats what i like for theme songs,now of days u just see the name of the show which is really bad or you just hear some wired music with no pictures or nothing about the show.
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I think one of the best ones out there is Fringe's theme. Really gets me excited for the episode!
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Dexter's opening song is atrocious. Love the show. But man o man. Game of Thrones intro might belong in the Hall of Fame for TV intros.
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I just love the 30 Rock song. It makes me smile even before the show starts and that's how a theme song should be, get you in the right mood from the beginning
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Yes Dexter has the best theme I mean I usually cant watch it. the sound and the visuals just make me kinda nauseous. the eggs, meat and blood orange amazing opening.
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NCIS, House, Bones and let's not forget Angel all have great instrumental themes.
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Add Showtime's Masters of Horror theme.
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I cannot stand Dexter's opening song! And for best, I love 30 Rock!!!!
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i think the simpsons should be on here. Im not saying which list, cuz that could go either way but i think it should be included
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Buffy the Vampire Slayer! Friday Night Lights! Perfect Strangers! Fresh Prince of Bel Air!
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Your 5 choices are great but I'd add the X-Files, Fringe, Breaking Bad, Bones, Angel, Buffy, House, Prison Break, The Office and Seinfeld.
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How could you not include Breaking Bad's theme in the top 5? Bizarre.
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These are all average at best, so I wouldn't call any of them the worst and most definately the best... I realize that the age of rockin' TV Themes is nearing it's end but there are still lots of much better examples than the ones presented here.
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The theme from Angel was pretty good as an instrumental theme. Of course you could go with Doctor Who. The theme has been around since the 60s in one form or another.
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I don't see how anyone should be embarrassed by the Gossip Girl opening, there's nothing wrong with it, so...that was an EPIC FAIL

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and where is the Office theme as one of the best ones on tv??
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There must be a palce in this list for Fringe... and maybe for Haven!
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Used to love the Quantum Leap theme.
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This was a very fun post. The good theme songs are so good and he was totally right about being conditioned for the daily show intro (however, it's probably to the point where I'd be sad if it changed). I like the fringe theme song too but it might be a little too on the nose or X-Files like.
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fringe! that's it. that's all i have to say.
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all the cs's are good, Dr WHO is awesome, Pretty Little Liars, Warehouse 13, Eureka, Dallas, Knots Landing too many are good, ther Best is RESCUE ME
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I mostly agree, but i think Haven should have made it into top 5. For me only Game of Thrones and The Pacific beats it.
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What? THAT is how Gossip Girl opens a show? That is sad. tsk tsk. The music from Outsourced is the ONLY reason why I would sometimes put up with that show. The sometimes have American songs redone with a Bollywood music mix, like "Is She Really Going Out With Him" When I heard that, I was pleasantly surprised.
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Love House, Bones and Warehouse 13. Hate Hawaii Five-O and NCIS-L.A.
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The five best ones are actually exactly the ones I would have chosen, too! Actually the themes to Parks & Recreation and GoT are so good I have many times wished there would be extended versions of them. If I could add a bonus contender to the best ones it would be the theme to Covert Affairs, but unfortunately it is not an instrumental. Also, the themes to Bones and House are very good, too.
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What about the Doctor Who intro????? It's Amazing!!!
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Let's give them a way out and say that it's only the American TV shows being considered - or that Who music already has legendary status and it would be like comparing an Emmy to the Life Achievement Award :-)
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out of the above that are listed I only watch Gossip Girl and Game of Thrones, AI, I dont judge a show on thier theme songs,
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Covert Affairs: worst intro music/visuals ever.
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Fringe is great. Even the variations they use for the 80s era episodes and the alternate universe episodes are good. Unlike Law & Order-the original theme was good, but after a couple of variations for new shows, it was like, ok, I get it, Mike Post only knows 6 notes!
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Really should make mention of Breakout Kings imo, done by Ramin Djawadi, just like Game of Thrones, and also the Prison Break opening (which was also amazing).
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I dont think Two and a half men opening theme is that bad. But I completely agree with the rest of the list. Love Dexter's opening and Game of thrones. And yeah as commented before - Boardwalk empire also has great intro.
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the intro of "Boardwalk Empire" is fantastic...
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i can never listen to the daily show theme, it hurts my ear!!!!!! i love the show though
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How can you forget The Office?! I have their theme song as my ringtone!
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How the F did the Doctor not make it on here?????? It was the FIRST electronically derived theme.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=oUlYr1aXS_M
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The original Dr Who theme still sends shivers down my spine. Remember it was made in 1963 without the aid of a computer or a synthesizer! I was 8 years old and I never missed an episode ;) http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=75V4ClJZME4
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The arrangement isn't as good as the one during the Peter Davison era.
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Cowboy Bebop. If anyone here knows what that is..
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The entire CB song opus is unbelievably good; hip jazzy biting stuff... Also, it would win hands down in the "final climax" category with Blue. But yeah, who would consider Japanese cartoons when the world revolves around the US, right?
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