Did you know these popular TV show theme songs used to be played on the radio?
Take the theme song from the show Friends, for example. After The Rembrandts’ “I’ll Be There For You” debuted in 1994, this catchy theme tune (clap clap clap clap!) broke out of the television box to become a pop culture phenomenon — and a Billboard Hot 100 hit.
Similarly, the theme song from The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air by Will Smith didn’t resonate only with sitcom viewers. In the US, it may have been no more than an entertaining opener for the sitcom (though who of a certain age can’t jump in and sing along with all the words?), but its infectious beat didn’t go completely unnoticed in the music biz.
In the wake of the show’s growing popularity, the song was released as a single in the Netherlands (of all places!), and the playful rap found its way onto Dutch radio — winning its place in pop music history.
A third example, “Where Everybody Knows Your Name” by Gary Portnoy — you know, the theme song from Cheers — reached even more success than just being part of TV primetime. The nostalgic tune, telling the story of a place where you’re always welcome, was another that made it onto the Billboard Hot 100 chart.
Occasionally, TV theme songs go beyond just popular, and join the soundtrack of a generation. The “Miami Vice Theme” by Jan Hammer, a synthesizer-infused instrumental piece, is one such example. It reached number one on the Billboard Hot 100 in 1985, proving once again that lyrics aren’t always a requirement for a hit.
MASH theme song “Suicide Is Painless” offers another unique example. While the instrumental version played during the show’s opening, the lyricized version by the MASH cast has its fans. That version made its way to the top of the UK Singles Chart in 1980.
Though surprising, it’s not that hard to understand why these popular TV theme songs have found success beyond their original medium. They combine catchy melodies with powerful emotional triggers, reminding fans of characters, stories, and moments they loved.
The best TV theme songs have left their mark on both television and music history. They’ve transitioned from mere jingles to full-fledged hits, showing that great music can be found in the most unexpected of places. Below we’ve collected 16 hit-record earworms for your listening pleasure.
Best TV theme songs from the 1950s & 1960s
“Dragnet Theme” – The theme from Dragnet
Also known as “Danger Ahead,” the theme from Dragnet became recognizable, and a version by Ray Anthony reached the top of the charts in the 1950s, and peaked at number 3 in 1953.
Hit Single Version of “Dragnet”:
“Hawaii Five-O” – The theme from Hawaii Five-O
This instrumental piece, crafted by Morton Stevens, was the theme music for the long-running CBS television series Hawaii Five-O. The show aired from 1968 to 1980, and its theme is highly regarded, often being cited as one of the top TV themes ever composed.
The tune found additional success when The Ventures performed a cover version of the “Hawaii Five-O” tune. It spent 14 weeks on the Billboard Hot 100 pop chart, peaking at number 4 on May 9, 1969.
Hit Single Version of the “Hawaii Five-O Theme” by The Ventures:
Some of the best TV theme songs of the 1970s (that also became hit singles)
“Welcome Back” – The theme from Welcome Back, Kotter
The friendly and folksy theme song for Welcome Back, Kotter, was performed by The Lovin’ Spoonful’s frontman John Sebastian (who you may also know from their band’s smash hit “Do You Believe in Magic?”).
The Kotter single hit No. 1 on the Billboard Hot 100 in May of 1976 after only five weeks on the charts, largely thanks to the TV show’s booming success on arrival (which, in turn, was thanks in part to series star John Travolta).
Hit Single version of “Welcome Back”:
“Theme from S.W.A.T.” – Intro to the classic TV series
Reaching the Billboard Hot 100 in 1976, this classic funktastic intro was written by Barry De Vorzon. When struggling with how in the world to write a song about a S.W.A.T team, Vorzon opted to try a different approach — and wrote the bombastic classic we know so well today.
While the more well-known version of the song is performed by the disco band Rhythm Heritage, the song in the intro itself is Vorzon’s own orchestra! See if you can hear the differences.
Hit Single Version of “Theme from S.W.A.T”:
“Hill Street Blues Theme” for the opening credits of HSB
With the stylings of Larry Carlton on guitar, Mike Post hit it out of the park again with this smooth, jazzy theme song for Hill Street Blues.
Charting on the U.S. Billboard Hot 100 in 10th place, the Hill Street Blues Theme would end up being his 2nd Top 100 hit. Post would return to this classy sound styling for other shows he worked on as well, most notably in the various Law & Order series theme songs.
Hit Single Version of “Theme from the ‘Hill Street Blues'”:
“Happy Days” – The theme from the Happy Days TV show
If you’re a fan of this now doubly-retro show, you’ll know that the now iconic Happy Days theme song wasn’t the original theme song — instead, it was initially a version of “Rock Around the Clock” by Bill Haley & His Comets that was the intro.
The beloved version of the Happy Days theme was performed by the duo Pratt & McClain (Jerry McClain and Truett Pratt) in 1975 — which bopped its way to No. 5 on the Billboard Hot 100 in 1976.
Hit Single Version of “Happy Days”:
“The Ballad of Jed Clampett” – The theme from The Beverly Hillbillies
This quintessential old-country theme from The Beverly Hillbillies, performed by Lester Flatt and Earl Scruggs, heated up the charts in 1962 — topping the country charts for three weeks, and reaching as high No. 44 on the Billboard Hot 100.
Its jaunty and upbeat tune through the stylings of the banjo has let this country classic remain as one of the most well-known and successful bluegrass songs in most’s memory.
Hit Single Version of “The Ballad of Jed Clampett”:
“Good Ol’ Boys” – The theme from The Dukes of Hazzard
Following the success of the 1975 film Moonrunners, Waylon Jennings was tasked to write and perform the theme for The Dukes of Hazzard, following the same troublemaking country boys from the film itself. “Good Ol’ Boys” was Jenning’s 12th No 1 hit on Billboard’s Hot Country Songs, and reached No. 21 on the Billboard Hot 100.
Two versions of the song exist — the classic TV theme using Larry McNeely’s stylings on the banjo, and the commercial version that has no banjo but includes another chorus.
Hit Single of “Good Ol’ Boys”:
“Making Our Dreams Come True” – The theme from Laverne & Shirley
Cyndi Grecco’s theme song for Laverne & Shirley reached No. 25 on the Billboard Hot 100 in 1976. (Sadly, the single didn’t include the opening lines in the credits: “1-2-3-4-5-6-7-8 — Schlemiel! Schlimazel! Hasenpfeffer Incorporated!”)
Hit Single of “Making Our Dreams Come True”:
“The Rockford Files” – The theme from The Rockford Files
Composed by Mike Post and Pete Carpenter, this instrumental theme for the Rockford Files became a hit and reached No. 10 on the Billboard Hot 100 chart in 1975. It also won a Grammy Award for Best Instrumental Arrangement.
The smooth and catchy tune is instantly recognizable and serves as another great example of a TV theme song that achieved commercial success.
Hit Single of “The Rockford Files”:
“Suicide Is Painless” – The theme from M*A*S*H
The instrumental version of “Suicide Is Painless,” aka the theme from M*A*S*H, seriously transcended its TV origins to become a chart hit. It’s hard to explain how a song with such a heavy title, absent of its lyrics, managed to charm listeners who were watching a comedy show about the Korean War.
The song’s gentle, flowing melody managed to capture the hearts of listeners, despite the serious undertones of its title. It soared in popularity, especially in the UK, where it surprised many by climbing the music charts.
The song “Suicide Is Painless” was originally used for the movie MASH, released in 1970. This was the version with lyrics, which was performed for the film’s soundtrack.
An instrumental jazz piano version of the song, recorded by Al De Lory for his 1970 album, reached number 7 on the U.S. Adult Contemporary chart during the summer of 1970.
But the song’s story was only just starting! It was heard by millions of people each week as the opening song for the MASH TV show starting in 1972. Then, 8 years later in 1980, the popularity of that instrumental television version of “Suicide Is Painless,” surged, and it hit the number 1 spot on both the UK Singles Chart and the Irish Singles Chart.
This tune from one of the most popular TV shows of all time proved that even without words, a melody can tell a powerful story and connect with people everywhere.
Hit Single Version of “Suicide is Painless”:
Best TV show theme songs from the 1980s
“Believe It or Not” – The theme from The Greatest American Hero
Composed by the iconic Mike Post (who you’ll see mentioned more than a few times here!) and sung by Joey Scarbury, the theme from The Greatest American Hero reached No. 2 on the Billboard Hot 100 in 1981. This song has been lovingly parodied for many years, perhaps being done best by Jerry Seinfeld in his eponymous hit TV show.
Hit Single version of “Believe it or Not”:
“Where Everybody Knows Your Name” – The theme from Cheers
Despite its tumultuous start (having several previous theme songs rejected), Gary Portnoy and Judy Hart-Angelo worked hand-in-hand with the Charles Brothers to create this 1983 Emmy-award-winning song as the theme song for Cheers.
Sung by Portnoy himself, the song reached the top 40s US adult contemporary chart in 1983. You can read the full story of the Cheers songwriting story firsthand here on Portnoy’s own website!
Hit Single version of “Where Everybody Knows Your Name”:
“Miami Vice Theme” – The theme from Miami Vice
This iconic and electrifying theme song for the crime-drama show Miami Vice isn’t just quintessentially 80s — its existence is what defined 80s music itself.
Reaching No.1 on Billboard Hot 100 in 1985, selling nearly four million copies, winning two Grammys and an Emmy, and lasting nearly 30 years as the last instrumental song to reach that same Hot 100, it’s safe to say that Jan Hammer will be forever regarded as one of the most influential musicians of the 80s.
Hit Single version of “Miami Vice Theme”:
Best TV theme songs from the 1990s
“The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air” – The theme from Fresh Prince of Bel-Air
An iconic song performed by Will Smith served as the energetic opener for the sitcom of the same name. Not just limited to the TV audience, this lively rap made an impact on the music scene when it was released as a single… okay, well, in the Netherlands. Still, that counts for solidifying its spot in pop music history.
Hit Single Version of “The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air”:
While theme songs achieving commercial success outside of their television context became less common in later years, these examples underline an era when TV music could transcend the small screen and become hits in the broader musical landscape.
“I’ll Be There for You” – The theme from Friends
The theme song from Friends, known for its jubilant claps and infectious energy, climbed to number 17 on the Billboard Hot 100 in 1995. The upbeat melody and cheery lyrics echoed the show’s lighthearted take on life and friendship, making it a joyful anthem of the 90s.
The single’s success on the music charts — even after it played week after week on the sitcom — showed just how much the song resonated with people, inviting everyone to join in the fun.