Earle Hagen and Alexander Courage, who died days apart this month, were maestros of a musical genre that faded some years before they did. They composed TV theme music, those signature snippets that sent Pavlovian signals to viewers.
It’s fair to say they don’t make TV theme composers like them anymore. In fact, it’s fair to say they don’t make many TV theme composers of any kind anymore. The TV theme song, though not gone, is ailing. Indeed, if TV theme songs had a theme song these days, it would be a single descending penny whistle note.
Hagen, 88 at the time of his death, wrote some of the most memorable and beloved tunes of no more than a minute in length. He is perhaps best known for his themes to “The Dick Van Dyke Show” and “The Andy Griffith Show” (that’s him on the soundtrack, whistling). He also wrote themes from the 1960s and early ‘70s, including those for “I Spy,” “That Girl,” “Mod Squad” and “Gomer Pyle, U.S.M.C.”
Courage, also 88, was less prolific, but his name will endure as the author of the “Star Trek” theme, which has perhaps the most famous four-note opening since Beethoven’s Fifth.
TV themes, great and not-so, used to abound. At their best (think “Gilligan’s Island,” “The Brady Bunch,” “The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air”), they did more than just worm into your ear and settle there for a lifetime. They introduced characters, established plots, set a program’s mood and tone.
Often, no lyrics were needed. Quincy Jones’ musical theme for “Sanford and Son” magically conjured a junkyard and the shambling Fred Sanford. Paul Anka’s “Tonight Show” theme was inseparable from late night and Johnny Carson. The “Miami Vice” theme, set over a pastel-perfect credit sequence, efficiently evoked the ‘80s decadence to follow. Same with Danny Elfman’s nearly 20-year-old theme song for “The Simpsons.”
TV shows don’t do that anymore, or at least they don’t do it the way Hagen and Courage and theme-writing legends like Mike Post (“Rockford Files,” “Hill Street Blues,” “Law & Order”) did it in a quainter, slower era of television. Few network TV shows now open with extended title-and-theme sequences. Instead, they open “cold,” with the action and dialogue immediately in progress after the conclusion of the preceding program. The opening credits tend to be perfunctory; apart from a few brief chords, “Lost” and “Grey’s Anatomy” barely bother with music at all.
The reason is largely a result of the competitive dynamics of TV: so many channels, so little time to hook viewers. “Executives at the broadcast networks are operating in a climate of fear,” says Jon Burlingame, author of “TV’s Biggest Hits,” a history of theme music. “They’re paranoid that if they haven’t grabbed you in the first two minutes, you’ll go away.”
Shorter opening sequences also mean more money. Why waste a full minute on an introductory sequence -- as shows regularly did up through the 1980s -- when half or more of that time can be devoted to another commercial? Themes may also be superfluous in the fast-forwarding TiVo age.
The demise of the theme may have been signaled by Garry Shandling’s spoof of theme music in his 1986 Fox sitcom, “It’s Garry Shandling’s Show.” The lyrics: “This is the theme to Garry’s show . . . . This is the music that you hear as you watch the credits . . . . “
The last great TV theme, Burlingame says, was “I’ll Be There for You,” a song written for “Friends” by Michael Skloff and Allee Willis and performed by the Rembrandts. The theme for the ‘90s show proved so popular that a full-length version of it made Billboard’s charts as a single, one of a number of TV themes (“Mission: Impossible,” “Hawaii Five-O,” the Partridge Family’s “C’mon, Get Happy”) to become hits.
The more recent strategy has been to license a pop song as theme music. “Dawson’s Creek” may have started this trend by employing Paula Cole’s “I Don’t Want to Wait” as its theme (well, “The Lone Ranger” used Rossini’s “William Tell Overture” a few years before that). “The O.C.” played the same game, as did all of the “CSIs,” which are keeping the Who in residuals.
“It’s almost the reverse of what it used to be,” says Jay Campbell, whose website, TelevisionTunes.com, contains more than 6,000 sound files of TV theme music. “Now, instead of the song reminding you of the show, the show reminds you” of the single.
Burlingame thinks this is a tactic driven by the need for instantaneous acceptance. A familiar song, he points out, may help an unfamiliar new TV show win viewers quickly.
There are a few exceptions, of course. Children’s programs, such as the Disney Channel’s “Hannah Montana,” tend to employ original theme music. And HBO’s series tend to have generous opening sequences set to music (think “The Sopranos,” “Six Feet Under,” “The Wire,” “Sex and the City” and “Entourage”).
But elsewhere on the tube, an era is almost past.
“It used to be,” says Burlingame, “that you’d be in the kitchen getting a sandwich or a soda, and you’d hear that theme. It would remind you that your favorite show is coming on. There was a time when these composers really knew how to capture the essence of a show in music. It seemed so right and appropriate. That’s the gift of the composer. I hope we’re not losing that.”