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What Makes A Good Opening Theme Song?

By Ben Spaeth

Photo: CBS ---- Source

With the rise of streaming platforms, the opening theme is starting to become a thing of the past. Viewers are now opting to hit the skip intro button rather than sit through the same song and montage everytime they turn on an episode of their favorite show. So how do you prevent people from hitting the skip intro button?

Originally, the purpose of a show’s opening theme song was to explain its premise to prospective viewers who may or may not be familiar with the show. Great examples of this are Gilligan’s Island and The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air.

While it may seem like a great idea to reintroduce the show’s premise at the beginning of each episode, longtime viewers and fans, which often make up the majority of a show’s viewership, already know the premise. Thus these long winded introductions are effectively wasted on them. In addition, these themes also take up valuable screen time. Gilligan’s Island and The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air’s theme songs are 1 minute 38 seconds and 1 minute 48 seconds. That may not sound like a lot, but considering the average length of an episode of The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air is 22 minutes, that means the opening theme takes up approximately 6.7% of each episode.

On top of this, a long opening gives the viewer more time to hit the dreaded skip intro button. One of the easiest things a show can do to prevent someone from skipping the intro is make the intro short enough that it’s over before the viewer can even find the remote. A show that implements this strategy effectively is Barry. Barry’s theme song usually lasts about 5 seconds and is jumpcut into each episode. This creates a sort of guessing game as to when the title card will appear and is often used for laughs on the show.

Inversely there are shows like Game of Thrones which have long theme songs. Game of Thronestheme song lasts around 1 minute and 47 seconds. However, when I binged Game of Thrones a few years ago, I never found myself wanting to skip the opening theme song. That brings us to the next purpose of the opening theme song, to get the audience into the mood of the show. A good opening theme song should mirror the tone of the show. This is exactly what the Game of Thrones opening theme does. It’s medieval style music accompanied by an intricately animated map of Westeros throws the viewer into the world of the show.

However, theme songs don’t always have to be tonally related. An example of this is the theme song from It’s Always Sunny In Philadelphia. Instead of using a song that more closely aligns with the show's dark themes, the creators have chosen to contrast the awfulness of the characters and title cards with light and beautifully composed orchestral music. This gives what otherwise would’ve been a normal theme song a comedic effect.

A good theme song should have the viewer wanting to watch it with each episode they binge. Whether it is because the song is catchy or because it sets the mood for the viewing experience. Great theme songs make use of both of these strategies. This is why Cheers and Friends have such iconic theme songs. Not only are the songs catchy and fun to listen to on their own, they are perfect representations of each show respectively. With lyrics like “taking a break from all your worries” and “sometimes you wanna go where everybody knows your name” Cheers’ theme encapsulates what makes the show's bar so special to each of the characters while also creating a sense of escapism in the viewer. Friends’ theme song does this as well. The first lyrics paint a dreary picture of life, allowing the viewer to relate their own struggle with the music. “So no one told you life was gonna be this way, your jobs a joke, you’re broke, and your love life’s D.O.A.” This is then followed by a sharp turn in the lyrics’ tone as the lead singer repeats the phrase “I’ll be there for you.” While the characters on the show go through their own struggles, the one commonality is that they are always there for each other. Much like our own friends.

Theme songs still hold an important purpose when it comes to creating a TV show, as the song is the one thing that will stay the same throughout the duration of the show. (with some exceptions, Weeds, Bosom Buddies, etc.) Selecting or composing a song to begin a show will forever link the show with the song. A catchy theme serves to increase audience engagement with the show and make people think of the show when they hear someone humming it.


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