Page last updated at 15:19 GMT, Monday, 8 February 2010

What makes a great TV theme tune?

Only Fools and Horses, The Avengers and Tomorrow's World

By Rajini Vaidyanathan
BBC News Magazine

Johnny Dankworth, who has died aged 82, was lauded for his jazz but was also a noted composer of TV theme tunes, including The Avengers and Tomorrow's World. So why do some of them stick in the head?

It might be the crashing drums at the start of EastEnders, the unfathomable "hooky street" lyrics at the start of Only Fools and Horses, or the frilly piano solo at the start of Murder She Wrote.

Whatever it is, many of us have a TV theme tune we cherish, in many cases more than the show itself.

if Joe Bloggs down the street can whistle it after a couple of times then you're onto a winner
Ruth Barratt

Getting it right is crucial for the army of composers who score music to fit the type of programme.

Ruth Barratt has written music for a number of dramas, including Wallander and Wuthering Heights.

"A good theme tune has got to be something that is really memorable... if Joe Bloggs down the street can whistle it after a couple of times then you're onto a winner."

For Ms Barratt, the key is devising something which captures the spirit of the show, something Johnny Dankworth did with the original theme to The Avengers.

Humming along

As well as Dankworth there have been other theme tune masters from the last 50 years. Henry Mancini, who died in 1994, was behind the famous Pink Panther theme tune, and won scores of Grammys.

British composer Ronnie Hazlehurst who died in 2007 wrote the music for many popular shows. His credits included Last of the Summer Wine, The Two Ronnies and Some Mothers Do 'Ave 'Em.

The Two Ronnies
The compositions are instantly recognisable, unlike the composers

If you find yourself humming along to the Wimbledon theme, or have the Grandstand music as your ringtone, then it's Keith Mansfield you have to thank. Describing himself as the "sports king of England", he has been penning theme music since the 1960s.

To take one example, the Grandstand theme was successful because it worked on a number of levels, Mr Mansfield says.

"One was that it had a direct approach which was the pop approach. Simple chords like pop music... then it goes into a middle section which is more like the old big band like Las Vegas and show music. It was both direct and poppy with a simple melody," he adds.

In the sixties, television themes were often written without seeing the show first. Instead a group of composers would each record a theme, and one would be selected by the show's producers.

Today the trend is towards pieces being specifically commissioned. In both cases a brief is handed to a composer suggesting the theme, the mood and possible instruments to help create this.

'Catty melody'

Like many theme tune aficionados, Mr Mansfield says they don't make them like they used to.

"Tomorrow's World was very, very good. It was very striking in terms of its syncopation, which had a very jazzy feel to it, like a cute and catty melody."

Aside from Johnny Dankworth's work, Mr Mansfield singles out Coronation Street's theme as one of the more memorable for its ability to "evoke the spirit of Manchester".

Theme tunes have the power to summon a wave of televisual nostalgia, and the importance they are accorded is best indicated by the presence of a special category at the Ivor Novello songwriting awards.

But for those of us not too familiar with musical terminology, it remains hard to explain why some bring a powerful response and some don't.

Here are a selection of your comments.

While watching the opening ceremony of a conference in Nigeria I was taken by surprise when the national anthem struck up. It seems that nation, and the makers of Blackadder, have chosen the same tune.
Patrick Hodson, Matfield, Kent, UK

Poddington peas was a classic!
Dom, Manchester

Syd Dale. Theme Music for Screen Test. The marching drum beat. The vibrant, echoey keyboards. Two fantastic tunes in one piece. And so evocative of seventies kids' telly t'boot.
Hugo, London

Eye Level - the theme to Van der Valk. Bet it's in your head all day now.
Catherine, London

The best theme tune ever has to be "The Sweeney".
Alan, Egham, England

A mate of mine just passed on the first season of The Sweeney-now there's a theme song! Didn't take two listens for my American born wife to join me in a raucous hum along every time it comes on much to the delight of our 2 and 3 year olds. Also the slow version that comes on at the end of each episode. Second would have to be Dr. Who I think.
Toby Pocock, Llano NM USA

No mention of van der Valk? Surely one of the best TV themes ever, in spite of being slightly incongruous. Everybody seems to know it if you hum it, even if they don't remember it - or are too young to have seen it. Superb.
Andrew, Cambridge

Monty Python, The Persuaders, The Magic Roundabout and strangely enough Roobarb and Custard spring to mind, the last one though because it was so irritating!
Lee, Stockport

Watching while living in grey and overcast England, nothing looked more glamorous in the 70's than the opening title sequence from Hawaii Five-0, and the magnificent theme tune - a perfect match to the imagery - was a classic.
Philip Lattimore, Thailand

Hawaii Five-o, best TV theme tune EVER!! I wasn't even born when the series was being made, but I still love it. I absolutely love the Star Trek music too, those opening notes are iconic.
Jenny, London

Ill always remember the theme music that started off Terry Nations Survivors back in the mid 70s.

It had a fantastic sense of Doom when went along with the programs theme. It was not a catchy tune or as the Germans say an Ear worm tune but it was very distinctive
Harvey Manning, Okinawa Japan

Absolutely love the theme from The Equaliser, especially the very start of the tune and the break into the main theme.
Graham, Barnsley, UK

Jerry Andersons 1970's TV series "UFO" has the funkiest theme tune ever devised!.
Paul Swaddle, Warfield

Best theme tune was The Professionals.
Ken Wilson , Wirral

Its gotta be Ski Sunday!
Owen, Northampton

Many people remember the theme tune to The Littlest Hobo, but I doubt many people know who sung or wrote it?
Dave, Milton Keynes, UK

I love Big Break theme tune. That was very catchy. I also liked Grand Prix. Everyone can name one Fleetwood Mac song from that. A classic!!!
Kat Szwed, Bourne

Although not written as a TV theme, the bass, guitar and drum instrumental from Fleetwood Mac's song "The Chain" has become the perfect opener for Formula 1 coverage.
Russell O'Brien, Nottingham

Everyone and I mean everyone loves Nantucket Sleighride by Mountain. It was the theme to 70s current affairs show Weekend World hosted by Peter Jay.
Joe, London

Mike Post has done some great theme songs for US shows - Hill Street Blues and Law and Order are my favourites.
Shaun, York

All time great tunes has to be Airwolf, Knightrider, the A-team and the fall guy!
Tim, Portishead

What about Tales of the Expected,I can still remember my mum humming this just after watching it !!
Paul, Bracknell, UK

The best TV theme tune ever has to be the Persuaders. It was a rubbish show, but what a great tune!
Liz, Winchester, UK

Three pieces stand out to me - 1)Howards Way - any of the versions without Marti Webb. 2)Blackadder - slight preference for the series 3 version. 3)The House of Eliott, which seems to really evoke the jazzy 1920's (at least in as far as they seem to us now).

The Gallery music from Take Hart is Cavatina by Stanley Myers which was also used in The Deer Hunter (apart from being played to death on Classic FM), so there are other reasons why people might recognise it, whatever their age. Holiday - wasn't that Heartsong by Gordon Giltrap? Never seen the programme but I'm sure I remember reading that it was - can anyone confirm or correct that?
Debbie, Southampton

One of my favourite themes ever is the theme to Howard's Way by Simon May, who - Stuart may be interested to know - also wrote the theme to Holiday (it was called The Holiday Suite and was recently used by a train video company called Video 125). The Howard's Way tune is beautiful, especially over the pictures of all the boats in Hamble.
Teresa, LEEDS

The best theme tune ever has to be "The Sweeney'".
Alan, Egham, England

And who could forget the theme to The Money Programme. Big band-tastic! Wouldn't have sounded out of place with the opening titles to a Brat Pack flick!
Thomas, Toulouse, France

For some reason, I have always had a soft spot for the theme from "On the buses". The show was hit and miss to say the least and always had a low budget look about it, but I just love that theme tune. Particularly the last few notes.
Neil Pearce, Twickenham, England

Who could forget the unforgettable start to "The Sweeney." John Thaw and Dennis Waterman great days! We're the Sweeney son and we ain't had our dinner!
Craig Anderson, Hereford

My vote goes to Ski Sunday which has been unnecessarily sharpened up in my view. It is a classic and always reminds me of cold winter Sunday afternoons in my youth.
Robert, London

Two themes I can name from your country offhand would be The Saint and The Persuaders.
David Aldinger, Alliance, Ohio, USA

I'd put my money on The Money Programme theme - high finance portrayed as a mix of gratuitous novelty and people blowing their own trumpets -apt and entertaining.
David Alexander, Edinburgh

What about some of the classic US TV Series such as - The Rockford files Star Trek Hawaii Five-O. Also loved Joe 90, Captain Scarlet and UFO as a Kid !
Ian L. (a Brit in LA), Malibu, California USA

Skippy and Neighbours! To name a couple of Australia's exports!
Tim Entwisle, Sydney, Australia

Unfathomable "Hooky Street"? It means knock off gear. And you don't have to be a Londoner to know that...
Malcolm Stoney, Skipton, UK

Star Trek has THE most memorable theme tune for me. the minute the opening notes hit you instantly know whats on and start humming and saying "space the final frontier...."
Keith , Bognor Regis

There are two pieces of TV music with a guaranteed a 100% "pass-on" rate, i.e. when you hum it within earshot of someone of a similar age, they are guaranteed to start humming it too inside five minutes These are:

1) The theme from Animal Magic;

2) The gallery music from Take Hart.

Try it- I have never yet known it to fail.
Sue, London

Another classic theme tune would have to be the Red Dwarf theme, both the modern guitar intro and the lyrical credits music.

And of course possibly the most famous theme ever, the Doctor Who theme tune. It seems to me that all Sci-Fi products have to have a damn good theme to become a success!
Ben Dawson, Hull, England

When I was at school in north Wales in the late 80s, I seem to remember there being a hymn sung at assembly set to the "Match of the Day" theme!
John Baker, Lisbon, Portugal

My favourite one has and always will be Blackadder (first series. The words and the tune are brilliant. Howard Goodall does amazing stuff.
Timothy Lutton, London, England

I really loved the theme to Wish You Were Here? and Holiday....great summery tunes!
Stuart , Portsmouth, England

Ron Grainer, the man credited with the Doctor Who theme tune (though it was probably more down to Delia Derbyshire, but that's another story) composed some cracking themes, including Steptoe & Son, Tales of the Unexpected, and my favourite The Prisoner.

Someone would clean up if they produced an album of ORIGINAL TV themes - vast majority are awful cover versions.
Paul, GB

Thunderbirds - when that is played by one of the military bands at the Trooping of the Colour, then that must mean it has truly arrived!! Blue Peter's would be another memorable theme, I hate to say it, but "Big Brother", also Panorama, Newsnight...all instantly recognisable.
Catherine, Southampton, UK

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