The theme music of any TV show is an exciting way for a show to set its tone. It can be as short as a cue, like the Lost theme, or it can be sprawling and epic like in Game of Thrones. Regardless of the length of the music, the composition is just as important.
I’m a fan of songs used in TV titles, especially those which have been adapted for use instead of written specially for the show. Here’s a look at several theme songs and their origins.
RJD2 – “A Beautiful Mine”
Mad Men, a show set in the 1960s advertising industry, would seem to be a strange fit for this sleek beats of this instrumental. However, creator and showrunner Matthew Weiner heard this song while driving and set about using this song for the opening credits, getting AMC to buy the rights for the song instead of licensing it for one-time use. To him, “It had everything to it. Big old movie quality to it, and updated beat to it, it had drama. I just loved it.”
The song was cut down and edited to fit in the Mad Men opening credits, and now it stands as an iconic theme for an iconic show. Even though RJD2 did not have a say in the final edit used in the show’s opening credits, he said, “I’m totally happy with how things played out, and I’m honored to be associated with this great piece of art in the field of drama.”
The Handsome Family – “Far From Any Road”
The hypnotic appeal of True Detective starts with its opening credits, which are painstakingly designed to be both thematic and beautiful. For the first season’s opening credits, “Far From Any Road” was a perfect fit. Patrick Clair, Creative Director of the opening credits, said that the song was “a great basis to figure out the structure of the piece.”
The song was haunting and yet beautiful, and it contained imagery that aligned with the content of the first season. Rennie Sparks, one half of the band, said, “It’s really about things taking place in the middle of nowhere. It’s about tricks and death and something sinister and I think they [both the song and the show] live in the same emotional landscape but exist in different physical landscapes.”
Leonard Cohen – “Nevermind”
The second season of True Detective meant redesigned opening credits for the anthology show. This time, the chosen song was “Nevermind”, released on Leonard Cohen’s 2014 album Popular Problems.
To the show’s music supervisor T Bone Burnett, the song was “the song of the century so far, coming from one of the wisest men in our culture.” He went on to say, “I look at it as an extraordinary gift to the audience. It feels very much like Los Angeles right now: beautiful, dark, brooding, dangerous, covert.”
The song’s ominous tone fit perfectly with the visuals. Patrick Clair, who also worked on this season’s opening credits, said this about the visuals, “The story of these characters’ lives are more detailed and messier and chaotic. They’re really lives that are falling apart, and that’s what we tried to capture with the visuals here.”
Trentemøller – “Still On Fire”
Just like its AMC counterpart Mad Men, the opening credits for Halt and Catch Fire are paired with a bold choice for theme music. When approached with a proposal to use “Still On Fire”, Trentemøller cut down the 5-minute track into the 30-second version in the opening credits.
“Still On Fire” works perfectly with the visuals, as its pulsing electronic beats complement the frantic reds and whites perfectly. Lead animator for the opening credits Raoul Marks was especially impressed with the choice of “Still On Fire”, saying the song “worked beautifully with the visuals. It straddles the line between contemporary electronica and more retro-analog sounds beautifully. It’s great when production goes the extra mile to get great talent like that.”
The Rembrandts – “I’ll Be There for You”
Perhaps the most famous TV theme in the last two decades, “I’ll Be There for You” has kicked off every episode of Friends, its infectious tune symbolising the show perfectly.
The song came about when Friends executive producer Kevin S. Bright approached The Rembrandts with the suggestion that they write and perform a theme song. The song was recorded just one week before Friends debuted (with the addition of the famous clapping), and would become one of the most beloved theme songs of all time.
Danny Wilde, of The Rembrandts, was quietly pleased, saying, “It was pretty cool… That was back in the day when the theme song was almost 50 seconds. It was great.”
The Rembrandts later recorded and released a full-length version of the original song, inviting the Friends cast to star in its music video.
Gangstagrass featuring T.O.N.E.-z – “Long Hard Times to Come”
For Justified, a show based on Elmore Leonard’s short story “Fire in the Hole”, “Long Hard Times to Come” was a perfect symbol for the modern-day western. The song combines rap with the bluegrass sound, creating a tone that is both modern and reminiscent of country.
What’s more, Elmore Leonard himself approved of the song. He said, “I was happy to hear that the Main Title music from Justified was nominated… The music of Gangstagrass really captures the mood of the show.”
The song was nominated for an Emmy award for best original main title theme music in 2010.