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Elliot Alpern: TV theme songs bring the personality

By Elliot Alpern, Senior Arts Editor
Published December 4, 2012

I once knew a girl — a friend-of-a-friend — who had one of the most annoying habits I could ever conceive. Sophomore year, we would occasionally watch “How I Met Your Mother,” and she would hum the theme song for the rest of the day.

Now, humming I can handle. Maybe a once-young Mr. Alpern did hum a merry tune himself on occasion. But this girl was committing a far worse crime, a deeply unforgivable sin: The tune she was humming was wrong.

The first time, I thought it was a mistake. She deviated slightly; I pretended not to hear it. But she picked up steam with her “creative license,” adding in notes and mini-solos within her interpretations. I became increasingly more incensed.

The theme to “How I Met Your Mother” is nothing short of perfect for the tone of the show. A catchy series of “ba’s” is sung as photos of a sepia-toned Neil Patrick Harris gesture’s in the audience’s general direction. The simple tune is more than an introduction; it’s the homey, comforting embrace of a show that is TV’s soul food. It’s mom’s “Welcome Home” mac & cheese.

So you might understand that hearing this epitome of comfort corrupted was difficult to tolerate. The show’s theme song was ruined for me; I was no longer roped into tranquility by the enticing, soothing melody.

This probably sounds like the rant of some TV-obsessed fanatic à la “The Cable Guy,” but I assure you I hold only a handful of shows so close to heart. And accordingly, even less of those have theme songs that bait me so consistently into watching another episode.

Overall, that’s what a successful TV theme song is supposed to do — to lure you into clicking that “next episode” link on Netflix when the credits have just begun to roll. And it’s why most great shows have inviting, brain-achingly catchy intros.

Forget HIMYM for a minute, and consider the other popular sitcoms over the past couple decades. “Friends” had one of the most memorable theme songs ever, almost single-handedly responsible for any knowledge of the band The Remebrandts (even the name sounds about as stuffy and dated as you can get). “The Big Bang Theory” managed to snag an original song by the Barenaked Ladies, and “Two and a Half Men” ’s song is memorable, if nothing else.

Throughout history, TV show theme songs have themselves become representative of the respective shows. One cannot simply think of “Happy Days” and resist the ditty from creeping into their thoughts — “Sunday, Monday, happy days!”

In fact, the melodies of classics like “Sanford and Son” and “The Jeffersons” are so ingrained within pop culture, they’ve already become comedy fodder for both other popular shows and major films, like “Scrubs” and “Tropic Thunder.”

In the end, a theme song needs to be a musical encapsulation of the show; an entire series inside of a nutshell inside of a 20-second sound bite. It’s difficult and immensely important, which is probably why those shows that spare no expense are able to boast such successful themes.

Interestingly enough, most of my more contemporary favorites aren’t in the least bit catchy. With the advent of successful-but-deeply-serious shows, some theme songs can’t be composites of bubblegum pop and mainstream hooks.

Consider “Friday Night Lights.” A good theme would need to evoke some of the disquieting adult topics present in the otherwise hopeful world of sports — a task that’s undertaken with amazing adeptness in the haunting, atmospheric piece of music created by Explosions in the Sky.

Another fantastic theme song is effective in all the ways you’d never expect: that of “American Horror Story.” You’d never hum the song — I don’t even think it’s possible to do so — but the tones and sounds make the introduction often scarier than the program itself.

It should be obvious that I often cherish the music before my favorite shows. And I don’t doubt that you do too — bring to mind the themes to your own favorite TV hits. Whether it’s “The Simpsons,” “True Blood” or even the opening twang of “Breaking Bad,” the intros conjure up the best and worst moments, the rises and falls and the reasons you fell in love with the show in the first place.

So please, next time you watch that perfect TV show, listen to the music, enjoy it, hum it throughout the day. Just try and stay faithful to the tune itself (for HIMYM’s sake).


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