Part of what makes the music of the 90s awesome is its opening to all genres. The decade was filled with great music of all kinds: punk, country, rap, pop, rock, classics from decades earlier and more, all turned up at the musical table. It was a feast for the ears, and everyone could enjoy something they liked. What was even more remarkable was that musicians embraced the genres, blending and mixing components to come up with sounds completely new. Some of the freshest musical sounds turned up as musical scores for the brand new crop of 90s television shows; considered by many to be some of the best ever seen on television. Here are 20 amazing theme songs written by the best composers in the industry for the shows that made the 90s incredible:
Ranked among the best television shows of all time by TV Guide, Rolling Stone and Entertainment weekly, it ran from 1989 to 1998 on NBC. The comedy about Jerry Seinfeld’s fictionalized self, included many episodes about daily life minutiae. One of the show’s signatures is the theme music composed by Jonathan Wolff. Wolff primarily used a Korg M1 synthesizer to create the distinctive solo bass riffs for the opening theme and connective music throughout the show. Each opening riff was completely improvised. Jonathan Wolf created a different improvisation for each episode’s monologue. He even beat-boxed with his mouth and fingers. To get a unifying tempo, Jonathan watched Seinfeld’s HBO special and clocked his joke delivery with a metronome. Turns out that the baseline was set at about 110 per quarter note. Everybody involved with the show loved his music, except the network. The funk style improvs were great and recognized instantly.
2. Law and Order
The first episode of Law & Order aired in September 1990. It ran for 20 seasons, and was the longest-running American primetime crime drama on television when it was cancelled. Set in New York City, each episode was also filmed there. The series focused on crime investigation, apprehension of a suspect, and prosecution of the defendant.
Composer Mike Post created the theme song in a minimal style using guitar, electric piano and clarinet. Post also created a tone he named “The Clang”, which alerted viewers to scene changes. While “The Clang” was constructed using an amalgamation of almost 12 sounds, Post intended it to convey the immediacy of a judge’s gavel. He incorporated the sounds of a slamming jail door, a real gavel hammering, and the sounds made when 500 Japanese monks walked along a hardwood floor.
“I’ll Be There for You” is the theme song for the sitcom Friends. It was recorded by The Rembrandts; American pop rock duo comprised of Danny Wilde and Phil Solem. The song co-written with a group of composers and producers of the show, including David Crane, Marta Kauffman and her husband Michael Skloff, and Allee Willis. The song is a blend of jangle pop, power pop, alternative rock and pop rock genres. It was released as a single in 1995, and it topped the Hot 100 Airplay chart on Billboard eight weeks. It was particularly successful on charts in the U.K. and Canada, and around the world at varying degrees of success. The popularity of the sitcom added to the theme’s success, and it has also appeared in humorous covers by groups such as The Goo Goo Dolls and “Weird Al” Yankovic.
4. The X-Files
This science fiction drama about FBI agents Fox Mulder and Dana Scully, who discover strange and extraordinary things as they investigate unsolved cases of paranormal phenomena in the X-files. The pop culture hit was famous for touching on spirituality and conspiracy theories, and received positive acclaim for the Fox network. Mark Snow composed the music. The theme song is remarkable for its inclusion of instrumental sections and its use of a Proteus 2 rack-mount synthesizer which was accessed for its sound effect titled “Whistling Joe”. The echo effect riff was created by accident when Snow activated an echo effect on his keyboard by putting his forearm and hand on it in frustration.
Michael Crichton, medical doctor and novelist, created this super, award-winning drama about life in the emergency room and the issues facing the medical professionals who work there. Among numerous other awards, the series counts 23 Primetime Emmy Awards to its credits. In American history, it was the longest-running medical drama in primetime. The “Theme from ER” song was composed by James Newton Howard, who has scored more than 100 films, received a Grammy Award, and Emmy Award, and eight nominations for Academy Awards. He was nominated for the 1995 Emmy Award for Outstanding Individual Achievement in Main Title Theme Music for ER. The main score for the series was composed by Martin Davich.
6. The Simpsons
Danny Elfman, amazingly talented composer for films, created theme for the animated series. Matt Groening, who created the series, invited Elfman to compose a them in retro-style. Elfman has remarked that it is the most popular he has created in his career. It took a very short time to compose. Elfman timed it at 3 days, 2 hours, 48 minutes and 19 seconds. The theme is composed in the Lydian dominant scale. It is scale which is a seven note collection including C,D,E,F#,G,A, Bb, and is often described as an overtone or acoustic scale. The collection of notes is often found in modal improvisation and is a major component of jazz harmony. Aside from its theoretical complexities, the Simpsons theme won the 2002 Favorite TV Theme National Music Award, and won TV Music Award from BMI for three years, including 119, 1998, and 2003. There have also been variations on the theme throughout the series run. Most notably, the 2007 Green Day cover version was used for The Simpsons Movie, and also was made available as a Green Day single.
7. Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles
“Turtles in a half shell!” Who could forget those lyrics? The theme song and series music were huge. The series itself was immensely popular, running for 12 years, and then in re-runs, VHS, Laserdisc, DVD….you name it. Chuck Lorre lobbied for the chance to compose the theme song. He jokingly said that the turtles were going to compose it themselves, but shrugged off the task. Two days before the theme was needed, Lorre got a call telling him he had 48 hours to write the theme. He was given key points in the animation, and he was given the character traits for each turtle. The musicians got ahold of all the comic books they could find about the turtles, and looked through them all for clues about how to musically portray the turtles. The demo was written and recorded for a fee of $2,000. The recording studio, currently being used by Journey, was made available to Lorre and his fellow musicians, but only from midnight to 8AM. At the time in Los Angeles, it was the cheapest recording time you could buy. He said his musicians were overwhelmed when they saw the vast amount of touring equipment belonging to Journey in the studio. He was just there to record a theme song for turtles, but somehow it all worked out.
“My Opinionation”, the positive, up-beat theme song composed by Mike Post and Steve Geyer had everybody singing as each episode started. Performed by Dr. John, it featured scenes of Blossom, mostly dancing in various styles as the seasons progressed. Dr. John’s raspy voice and delivery were perfection for this theme. Dr. John, born Malcolm John Rebennack was born in New Orleans, Louisiana. He’s known for his synthesis of rock and roll, blues, boogie woogie, jazz and pop genres. He’s known for his wild stage shows and eccentric costumes, voodoo inspirations and superb musicianship. Performing “My Opinionation”, the collaborative effort of Post and Geyer, was a step into the world of TV theme songs which combined the talents of three stellar musicians. What a great title! Jazzy and bluesy at its best.
9. Dawson’s Creek
There was a fascination with stories based on the lives of teens at the time when Dawson Creek became popular. It truly earned its new reputation as a classic drama, due to the sensitive and often controversial references to teen sexuality issues. The focus on adolescent characters dealing with very adult relationship situations brought the show into the spotlight, and not always in a good way. But, the show became successful because it retained open and honest depictions of teen situations without exploiting youth. The show’s theme song “I Don’t Want to Wait was the creative product of Paula Cole, who wrote, performed and also produced it. It ran as a single for 56 weeks on the Billboard Hot 100 chart, and is one of only 32 songs to have remained in the top 10 for more than 50 weeks.
Composers Dan Foliart, Howard Pearl, and W.G. Snuffy Walden were credited with this bluesy instrumental theme song. Foliart and Pearl composed for the entire series, while Walden began in later seasons. The arrangements varied as the series moved from season to season. But the jazz theme retained its original substance. The harmonica riffs featured throughout are the stuff that harmonica learners hope to play someday. Many forums dedicated to harmonica buffs ask the same thing, “How is the harmonica riff from the Rosanne theme song played?”
11. Fresh Prince of Bel-Air
Quincy Jones wrote the theme song and was the executive producer for this popular comedy. The song title “Yo Home to Bel-Air” was originally performed by The Fresh Prince and DJ Jazzy Jeff. Will Smith, performing as “The Fresh Prince”, his stage name, composed the lyrics. Jeffrey Townes, performing as “DJ Jazzy Jeff”, his stage name, produced the song. Jive Records released the song as a single in 1992. Though the sitcom hasn’t been in production for more than two decades, many fans are still able to recite the lyrics at the drop of a hat. Rolling Stone ranked the song in the sixth place of a list of ten popular television theme songs. It’s been covered and spoofed for years, and by many performing artists and on many shows. It has a universal appeal which has lasted throughout the decades. It’s funky bass and tambourine beat with synthesizer string riffs supporting the rap lyrics just beg for audience participation.
12. Quantum Leap
Mike Post composed the theme music for this science fiction mix of social commentary, humor, romance and drama. The show became a cult favorite, which remained so, long after the series five seasons ended. Scores for each of the episodes were co-written by Post and composer Velton Ray Bunch. In 1993, and soundtrack of the series’ music was released as an album and then as a cassette tape and CD. Velton Ray Bunch is an Emmy-winning composer for his score to Star Trek: Enterprise.
13. Beverly Hills 90210
This highly successful series about friends living in the star-filled community in California was the teen drama soap opera of the 90s. Aaron Spelling, Darren Star and E. Duke Vincent created the show filled with a cast of stars who became teenage idols due to the show’s popularity. John E. Davis composed the theme music, and Jay Gruska also composed music for the series. John E. Davis, a remarkable composer and member of the MFSB house band for the Philadelphia International Records label, composed many different pieces of music for the episodes of this series over its many seasons. This is the one most people think of.
14. Married … With Children
For Fox network, this show was the first live-action sitcom to be broadcast during primetime. It is also the longest lasting for the network, running from 1987 to 1997. It is known for its off-color humor and storylines about the lives of Al Bundy and his crazy family. The theme song “Love and Marriage” is performed by Frank Sinatra, and taken from the television production of Our Town from 1955 by Thorton Wilder. Jimmy Van Heusen and Sammy Cahn co-wrote the song. Though there are several versions by Frank Sinatra, and other versions sung by various popular recording stars, the Married …with Children variation includes the instrumental bridge which Capitol Records recorded for the album This is Sinatra! In 1965. The instrumental bridge was played while the closing credits of the show were shown.
15. Family Matters
The show’s original theme “What a Wonderful World” by Louis Armstrong was used for five episodes of the first season. A second theme was co- composed by Jesse Frederick, Scott Roeme and Bennett Salvay. It was called “As Days Go By” and it was used for most of the remaining seasons until 1995. The ragtime piano theme was jazzy, with an upbeat melody leading into full orchestration. Frederick sang the lyrics backed by a male chorus. By 1993, Frederick and Salvay created a hip-hop variation with a saxophone lead and altered melody. This aligned with the show’s new success after Jaleel White as Steve Urkel became the breakout character, propelling the show to new popularity.
16. The Wonder Years
The Wonder Years used Joe Cocker’s cover of “With a Little Help From My Friends”. It was an exaggerated arrangement of the original version, using different chord progressions, a slower tempo, and a change to a three-feeling meter. Cocker had performed the song in 1969 at Woodstock. But when it was used as the opening theme for the series, it became almost universally famous.
17. Full House
“Everywhere You Look” was co-written by Jesse Frederick and Bennet Salvay, along with Jeff Franklin, who created the series. Throughout the run of the series, instrumental versions of the theme were used, although the entire song was often cut when broadcast to include just the chorus section.
18. Saved by the Bell
Scott Gayle composed the theme music for this popular show. Some controversy arose over the lyrics and name of the tune. Executive producer Peter Engel had been opposed to the show’s name, Brandon Tartikoff loved it. The show was a re-boot of an earlier series called Good Morning, Miss Bliss, and Engel had originally been asked to develop it. But, that show did not work out, leaving Engel to work with the new format of Saved by the Bell, which had been named by Tom Tenowich, the senior producer. Engel ordered the team of composers explicitly that the show’s title shouldn’t be anywhere in the theme’s lyrics. The team complied, but the songs they produced weren’t great. But when Scott Gayle performed his song, after the first four composers, he gone against Engel’s orders and included the title. It was by far the best version, and was ultimately kept. In a later comment, Engel admitted that he was glad that Gayle had ignored his orders.
19. Step by Step
Starring Suzanne Somers and Patrick Duffy and their three children each who become a blended family, the sitcom Step by Step ran for seven seasons. The theme song “Second Time Around” was closely tied to the show’s title sequence, and as such, it had several seasonal variants. It was even removed entirely during the sixth season, when a cold opening took its place. It was written by Jesse Frederick and Bennet Salvay, who also wrote the themes for Family Matters, Perfect Strangers and Full House. The theme was performed by Teresa and Frederick James. The zoom down the roller coaster and scenes of the amusement park are elements of the show’s title sequence and cherished by fans of the show. The music and happy moments paired well with the show’s family themes.
20. Doogie Howser, M.D.
Mike Post composed the theme song for this situation comedy/drama about a teenage doctor who learns how to grow through his teenage years while practicing medicine. Neil Patrick Harris portrayed Doogie, the genius with photographic memory, who graduated from Princeton when he was only 10 and went on complete medical school. By the time Doogie was 14 he was a doctor licensed to practice medicine. Mike Post said that the theme music was all about capturing the childlike nature of Doogie. Post wanted to capture Doogie’s heart, the fish out of water who had the big brain in a kid’s body. He never knew about Doogie typing on the computer at the end of the show. He felt that the directors could show the doctor, while he was free to show the childlike heart of this young, brilliant teenager. Post said about his writing in general that he has been most satisfied with many things, such as never missing a deadline, being able to make a really good living with music, never been sued, never been accused, never used his music to beat anybody out of a nickel. He retained the morals his parents gave him, even within the context of what he called a dirty job.