When you think about it, a theme song for a show is a very important component to a show. It sets the stage. It gets audiences in a mood and it’s representative of the entire vibe an audience is supposed to feel before any of the show even starts. So it’s important that said theme song “hooks” fans right from the start. If you ask any fan of 1980s television which theme songs are the best, there will be many answers. But the themes which are most mentioned invariably are tied to hit shows, and for good reason. Theme songs at their best are as distinctive as the personalities of each show. Here are 20 that we consider to be not only the best but also most memorable:
The theme song from Cheers was named the greatest TV Theme of all time by the TV Guide editors in 2013, and Rolling Stone Magazine’s Readers Poll in 2011. It was published as piano vocal sheet music, and pianists young and old couldn’t wait to learn it. It’s lyrics let us know what kind of place Cheers was…a great place.
The song “Where Everybody Knows Your Name” was composed by Gary Portnoy, Judy Hart Angelo, and Julian Williams. It took four tries to write the theme song, with changes in music and lyrics along the way. It also took several months of considering who would sing the theme song, but the producers decided to ask Gary Portnoy. The chorus is the result of combining six of Portnoy’s recorded vocals to create the sound of a group. It was recorded in Los Angeles, California at Paramount Pictures on August 13, 1982.
2. Miami Vice
The Miami Vice synth-pop electro theme music composed and performed by Czech musician Jan Hammer, in all its variants, is instantly recognizable, and set a Miami cool mood from the start. It was first broadcast with the show in 1984, and when it was released as a single one year later, it reached the Billboard Hot 100 number one spot. The song won Best Pop Instrumental Performance and Best Instrumental Composition Grammy Awards in 1986. Hammer’s smooth synth vibes infused the background score of the series in the early years of the show. His music, and the use of original recordings by contemporary artists, was integral to the show. Miami Vice pioneered the use of popular music tailored specifically to the show’s scenes, and this became the norm for many television dramas which followed.
3. The A-Team
When NBC Today’s host Michel Martin featured weatherman Al Roker as the guest for In Your Ear, Roker told Martin that he needed to “get jazzed up” to get up in the morning. What did Roker rely on? The theme from The A-Team, which he believed to be one of the greatest theme songs ever written for TV. Roker could repeat the opening narrative by memory, and described the theme’s march as quasi-military. The most important thing about this interview is that Roker had plenty of company. His feeling about The A-Team theme was repeated by fans too numerous to count. Mike Post and Pete Carpenter wrote the song, and it’s brassy melody and upbeat rhythm have never failed to bring on a feeling of heady glory, as one fan so well stated.
What made the Dallas theme song so great was its completely contemporary version of cowboy music. Just as the classical music of Aaron Copland created a new American sound which we came to identify as uniquely American and derived from our pastoral past, the Dallas theme song evoked the feeling of wide open space, success, and wealth….all themes about the family dynasty which populated the series and their modern life-style on the ranch. The prime-time soap opera Dallas debuted in 1978 as a CBS miniseries. It then went on for thirteen seasons, until 1991. The popularity of the serial drama brought it into popular culture in a myriad of ways. References to characters by name, or situations, and arrangements of the theme music have been used for many events. Jerrold Immel composed the theme music for the show and music for 55 episodes from its first airing in 1978 through 1996. He was a CBS music copyist before he began to score television music. His break through began with Gunsmoke, but he also contributed music to programs including Hawaii Five-O, How the West Was Won, Knots Landing, Walker, Texas Ranger, and Logan’s Run.
5. The Dukes of Hazzard
What could be better than hearing Waylon Jennings singing “Good Ol’ Boys” at the start of every episode of The Dukes of Hazzard? Riding along with the huge surge of country western music popularity, the show’s theme was a toe-tapping, story of a song, and it fit the show’s characters exactly. We loved it from the first picking and strumming down beat right on through to the last raspy, no-one-could-belt-them-like-Jennings lyrics. Complete fun…country style.
6. The Cosby Show
The theme song for this top 80s TV hit is called “Kiss Me” and it was composed jointly by Stu Gardner with Bill Cosby. It’s unusual because it used different variations for different seasons. Just a few TV shows followed this practice. Bobby McFerrin, the singing king of scat and polyphonic overtones, performed the theme for the fourth season. Watching the Cosby family dance together at the beginning of each show was a highlight of the series. Every season brought a different jazz styling, with plenty of musical improvisation and cool, cool musicianship. Lots of brass, saxophone, keyboard, vocals, and percussion with plenty of cross-rhythms in the mix. Nothing better. The Cosby Show was the number one rated television show for five consecutive seasons, and TV Guide called it the 80s biggest hit.
7. The Love Boat
Charles Fox wrote the music and Paul Williams wrote the lyrics for this song. It started out as a single by singer Jack Jones which was released by MGM Records in 1979. The Love Boat, which was broadcast on TV from 1977 to 1986 took it on as its theme song. The version sung by Jones was heard for almost all the seasons. Only the last season featured a cover of the song performed by Dionne Warwick. The theme music embodied the light-hearted hope for adventure and romance which the series presented. The stories revolved around the ship’s crew and different passengers on new voyages each episode. The series itself was highly popular and syndicated and released in DVD format in 30 countries around the world. In May 2017, the original cast reunited on the Today show and were honored for their successful television contributions with an upcoming reception of a Hollywood Walk of Fame joint star, which will be sponsored by Princess Cruises.
Running for seven seasons, this show about Angus MacGyver, the secret agent who could invent anything with his Swiss army knife, objects on hand, and duct tape, captivated us. We loved watching MacGyver use his skills to solve complex problems under stress. He was a scientist, a U.S. Army Special Forces bomb team tech and an expert physical scientist. MacGyver was portrayed by Richard Dean Anderson. The theme music for MacGyver was composed by Randy Edelman, twelve-time recipient of Broadcast Music, Inc. Awards. Edelman also scored multiple episodes of the popular series. Fans loved the theme music for its positive energy and enthusiastic MacGyver-can-do- anything tempo and mood. The rhythmic drive supported by guitar, bass and soaring synthesized keyboard and strings is top-notch, grab your ears and bring you along for the ride exciting.
9. Magnum, P.I.
When combined with the cars, the aircraft, the notable guest stars, the fabulous cast and recurring characters, and the sumptuous Oahu, Hawaii setting, the fabulous theme song for Magnum, P.I. is almost like the icing on a very delicious cake. The show was consistently in the top twenty Nielson ratings for U.S. TV shows during its series run from 1980 to 1988. The show combined the genres of crime drama, action, adventure, mystery and thriller into one. Fans enjoyed the adventures, and cheeky sense of humor of private investigator Thomas Sullivan Magnum IV, portrayed by the handsome and fit Tom Selleck. Magnum lives in a guest house on a 200 acre beachfront estate owned by Robin Masters, who is a novelist. Along with the estate caretaker, Jonathan Quayle Higgins III, the two patrol the estate on behalf of Masters. Orson Welles provided the voice of Masters almost entirely throughout the series, and that voice was another aspect of excellence in this show. The original theme song was composed by Ian Freebairn-Smith, whose work was used for the pilot and early on in Season 1. By Episode 12, Mike Post and Pete Carpenter replaced the mid-tempo jazz of the original theme with music in a fast tempo adding the guitar of Larry Carlton, American guitarist and studio musician for Joni Mitchell and Steely Dan. Post and Carpenter’s second theme was released by Elektra Records as a single and it hit the Billboard Hot 100 chart in 1982.
A thumping eight-beat drum count opens the CHiPs theme song. It was written by John Carl Parker. It is considered by many to be one of the greatest hits of television theme music. Composer Alan Silvestri arranged the main and end title theme and music for almost all the episodes from the second season. The music is a merging of late 70s and early 80s disco elements, with wah-wah guitar, twin trumpets and funk beats. The music parallels the excitement and energy of the drama about two motorcycle cops working in the California Highway Patrol. The opening credits paired the music with images of motorcycle parts and riding scenes, and fans came to associate the energized musical sounds with the sounds of motorcycle engines. As soon as the music began each week, audiences were ready to set off on a new adventure. The series ran for six seasons from 1978 to 1983, and starred Larry Wilcox and Erik Estrada as Officers Jon and Ponch. The show was filled with plenty of freeway pileups, light drama and friendly bantering among the cops. A interesting trademark of the show was that Jon and Ponch rarely used their guns.
11. Greatest American Hero
“Believe It or Not” is the hit theme song for this series. So popular, it hit the Top 40 of Billboard Hot 100 in June 1981, where it eventually peaked at number 2 just two months later. American Joey Scarbury sung the song. Mike Post composed the music and Stephen Geyer composed the lyrics. The song became popular enough that it started showing up in other TV shows. In a Seinfeld episode, George changes the lyrics and sings it to create his greeting for his answering machine. In Family Guy, the song’s name is referenced in an episode title. In The Goldbergs, an episode features the song. Glen Campbell sang a 1982 cover of the song. It was also featured in TV commercials and films. It’s a feel-good, upbeat and catchy tune to match the story of the school teacher who has an encounter with aliens who give him a superhero costume and tell him his destiny is to wear it and save the world. An instruction manual came with the suit, but he loses it, and the entire series revolves around his trials and errors as he figures out how to use the suit. What a great commentary on technology use and culture! The theme song lets us sing along with this ordinary man who’s pretty much like the rest of us … just figuring things out as best we can.
12. Knight Rider
The repetitive robot synths of the Knight Rider theme song made believers of us all. We believed that technology could create a car with a brain. The steady rhythmic drive of the opening theme imitated the thinking, living brain of the car, and it created excitement about what would happen in each episode. The Knight Rider theme was the creation of Stu Phillips and Glen A. Larson. The theme was inspired, in part, by a segment of the music from the ballet Sylvia, which was composed by Léo Delibes. Glen A. Larson was impressed with the “Marche Et Cortège De Bacchus” from Act III, No. 14, and when interviewed for a DVD about the series, he explained this connection. Stu Phillips was responsible for the series music for 13 of the episodes, and composer Don Peake composed for 75 episodes. Morton Stevens also wrote some of the series music.
13. St. Elsewhere
This dark comedy about teaching doctors at an aging Boston medical center is famous for its scenes of dark humor and gritty drama. It won critical acclaim in the form of 13 Emmy Awards. TV Guide ranked it in the Number 20 spot on its 2002 50 Greatest TV Shows of All Time, and the best drama series of the 1980s. The theme music was composed by Dave Grusin, an Academy and Grammy award-winning pianist specializing in contemporary jazz, jazz and jazz fusion. The theme is infused with a catchy musical motive in major mode, and includes a distinctive “heartbeat” tempo realized with a repetitive bass beat, and sparkling music box chimes. It’s a positive, busy sound paired with the business of hospital activities, and leads viewers into each episode with energy.
14. Facts of Life
This American sitcom takes place in an all-female, fictional boarding school located in Peekskill, New York. The show starring Charlotte Rae, Lisa Whelchel, Kim Fields, Mindy Cohn, Nancy McKeon and a host of other notables, ran for nine seasons. It did not start out with high ratings, but steadily rose to the top ranking season by season, eventually becoming one of the most popular NBC shows. The theme song was composed by Al Burton, Gloria Loring and Alan Thicke. The lyrics were sung by various cast members, Loring, and were eventually dropped completely. But for many fans of the show, the lyrics defined 1980s behaviors. The show was essential viewing during their growing up years, and defined many aspects of fashion, culture and teen life for them. Fans remember the theme song fondly and memorized it to sing along when the episodes aired.
15. Inspector Gadget
This cartoon theme has just four words in the American version. The science fiction animated series is all about the adventures of the clumsy detective Gadget whose body is outfitted with bionic devices. The theme song was composed by Shuki Levy and Haim Saban of Saban Records. Shuki Levy is an Israeli-American musician and producer best known for his soundtracks for 1980s children’s TV programs. Levy met Haim Saban while a resident of Paris, and the two musicians and businessmen became successful collaborators on a large amount of 1980s animated television shows. The theme song was inspired by “In the Hall of the Mountain King” composed by Edvard Grieg. The Inspector Gadget theme is known around the world and is an iconic depiction of animated robotic sounds in music.
16. Growing Pains
“As Long As We’ve Got Each Other” is the theme song for this sitcom which ran for seven seasons on ABC beginning in 1985. Composed by Steve Dorff, with lyrics by John Bettis, the theme was performed in nine different versions throughout the run of the show. Of interest are the a cappella version used in Season 6 and a Halloween version used for one episode in 1990. B.J. Thomas, the popular country, pop, contemporary Christian and rock artist, sang it as a solo for Season 1. He was joined for a duet version in Season 2,3,5, and a part of 7 by Jennifer Warnes. In Season 4, Thomas sang it as a duet with Dusty Springfield. Other musicians singing versions of the theme included Joe Chemay, Jon Joyce, Jim Hass, and George Merrill who sang it a cappella. The theme was nominated for the 1986 Primetime Emmy Awards in the Outstanding Achievement in Music and Lyrics category. The comedy itself won numerous awards for its cast and content.
17. Night Court
It’s the funky theme song fans remember most often about this comedy. It was paired with clips from the show and images of New York City at night. The New York County Courthouse was not the most famous image to viewers around the country, but the footage of the Brooklyn Bridge was a landmark that located the comedy squarely in the city. The jazzy theme was heavy on the bass line and glorious on the saxophone melody line. Ernie Watts, extraordinary saxophonist played that melody. He’s well known for the saxophone riff from Glenn Frey’s “The One You Love” and Frank Zappa’s “Mystery Horn”. The Rolling Stones toured with Watts as saxophonist, and work with Charlie Haden’s Quartet West is included in his bio. The award-winning Night Court opened and closed each episode with Jack Elliott’s composition, and it’s a classic.
The comedy about the couple who own a rural Vermont inn in a small town with lots of eccentric folks has a stellar reputation. Bob Newhart and Mary Frann portrayed the author and his wife over the eight seasons it aired on CBS. The theme music was composed by Henry Mancini, winner of twenty Grammy Awards and posthumous Lifetime Achievement Award at the 1995 Grammys. He also won a Golden Globe and four Academy Awards. Often, musicians and composers refer to the “Mancini string sound” due to his distinctive orchestral arrangements. His theme for the Newhart show is not only quintessential Mancini, with a soaring string melody, but it includes brass, woodwinds, and a harp arpeggio; cheerfully welcoming viewers to Vermont.
19. Hill Street Blues
This classic television theme features repeating piano chords over synthesized strings and relaxed bass. Mike Post, successful and prolific TV theme composer, created it. Steven Bochco invited Post to write the theme for the new police drama about life and work in the inner-city police department. Bochco and Post decided that they wanted to have a theme which differed from the typical police show sound. At the time, it was popular to compose music more commonly associated with action movies. The current trend was hard-hitting, fast paced music which alerted the audience to the action and drama they would experience. But the Hill Street Blues theme was planned so that viewers would know that this was a show which would include emotions with the drama. Mike Post created the theme which would be viewed as one of the best ever.
20. The Golden Girls
Cynthia Fee’s cover of the 1978 Andrew Gold hit “Thank You for Being a Friend” was the opening tune for this show. It’s one of those iconic songs which makes everyone get up and sing along. Just start out with the first line, and fans will join in. The Golden Girls theme song is the show in a nutshell, delivering a message of laughter and love. It’s just one of many TV shows which took over an existing hit, and gave it a completely new and different life.