Five by Friday: Top Five Instrumental TV Themes

We’re all music junkies here at Avenging Force, so much so that when we started discussing our “Top TV Themes,” it became very clear that first, we would need to barter (more on that below, from Lauren), and second, that we would have to split them up by instrumental themes and themes that have vocals. We went back and forth on it and determined that even the most chanty, unintelligible use of vocals count toward next week’s list and not this week’s, so if you think we’ve omitted something, stick around. It may be on next week’s list!

Five by Friday

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A while back, we made the decision to stop allowing overlap in our Five by Friday lists, since it just seemed more interesting from a reader perspective to read three different lists than three lists that were more or less the same, with just a few variations. Plus, not allowing overlap on our lists means we get to highlight fifteen unique favorites, rather than just hitting the same few superfaves over and over again.

All this is well and good, and I personally think it makes these lists a lot more fun to read, but sometimes it can also make the behind-the-scenes selection process really difficult. Such was the case this week, since there is a ton of overlap in our actual favorite instrumental TV themes. There was a lot of bartering involved in these choices, and as such, a couple of my actual unrestricted top five picks are going to appear on Sarah’s and Teija’s lists, and not on mine. And even with fifteen unique selections, there are a ton of great ones we had to leave off entirely.

So here’s looking at you, Alias, Doctor Who, Mission: Impossible, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, The Office, Brooklyn 99, Knight Rider, and a whole slew of others. You didn’t make the cut, but that doesn’t mean I don’t love you.

5. The Walking Dead (Bear McCreary)

I broke up with The Walking Dead a couple years ago, but Bear McCreary’s theme for the show is still one of my favorites. It perfectly captures the series’ tone, layering a frantic and constantly moving melody over the slightly dissonant, high-pitched whine of sustained strings. It is tense and driving, musically underscoring the danger of the world and the stressful plight of the characters, while still being enjoyable to listen to, which is exactly the balance the show itself attempts to strike.

4. Friday Night Lights (W.G. Snuffy Walden)

Is it possible for a piece of music to sound like nostalgia? In the plucked guitar strings of the Friday Night Lights theme, W.G. Snuffy Walden (who appears multiple times on our lists) manages to musically capture feelings of first love, first heartbreak, high school friendship, small-town ambition, and family loyalty. It sounds like my fondest memories of high school feel, even though my school was nothing like Dillon High and my town was nothing like Dillon. It hits me on a heart level, sounding both inspirational and wistful, hopeful and content, all of which beautifully capture the spirit of the show.

3. The A-Team (Mike Post)

The A-Team was one of my favorite shows as a kid, and still holds a very fond place in my heart (case in point: I love the ridiculous 2010 movie and won’t hear a word against it). I’ve seen every single episode, many of them multiple times, and believe this show was formative in my love for both action and heist storylines. The theme song has long been one of my absolute favorites (I even arranged it for marching band as one of my music finals in college), and sends a thrill of joy and adventure through me every time I hear it. The rigid snare drum opening sets up the team’s military background, before the strings and brass burst through in a joyous fanfare, sounding the triumph of the team escaping from the injustice of their imprisonment. It then weaves through a few stylistic variations, jumping into a driving rock-‘n-roll section and then passing the baton to sweeping strings, indicating the adaptability of the team’s various missions, before ultimately coming back to the familiar main theme, assuring audiences that no matter what twists and turns our heroes may face in the episode, by the end, they’ll always be okay.

2. Westworld (Ramin Djawadi)

Like most of the themes I’ve chosen, the Westworld theme (by prolific musical chameleon Ramin Djawadi) tells a story. It starts out with sustained low piano notes, giving it a slightly sinister feel right off the bat. The theme gradually layers on more piano (which is even more significant when one considers the saloon-style piano covers of modern songs that are used throughout the show to highlight the dissonant setting), as well as strings, offering a slow back-and-forth between the two isolated instruments before they ultimately unite to play in unison, mirroring what happens in the park when Dolores and William first join forces. But almost as soon as those two voices come together, the low rumblings in the base pick up in speed and intensity, signaling a greater, underlying disturbance. As the piano melody on top becomes more complex, adding harmony and countermelodies, the strings split, some remaining united with the piano, while the rest become more urgent and frantic, signifying the discord in the park as the hosts become more sentient.

It’s worth noting, and perhaps telling, that although the theme gradually builds in intensity and complexity throughout, by the end, all that stands is a solo piano.

1. Angel (Holly Knight/Darling Violetta)

The top prize on my list goes to a theme I’ve adored for years, which is maybe not quite as musically complex as some of the others on the list, but still follows a narrative in line with the show it introduces. The Angel theme opens with a mournful, solo cello, symbolizing the miserable vampire who can never be truly happy, lest he lose his soul, doomed (or so he thinks) to forever walk the earth alone. But then it is quickly joined by other instruments — drums, guitar, bass — that don’t ever try to take the theme away from the cello, but rather enhance it, giving it a beat, drive, purpose. The whole works better than any of the individual parts, and for a while, the guitar even joins in on the melody, playing in unison with the cello. But ultimately, the cello ends alone, sustaining a single note as the other parts drift off, signifying, I think, not what actually happens in the show, but what Angel fears.


As Lauren mentioned, there was quite the discussion and behind the scenes bartering going on for who got which them for their list. As a result, while my very favorite theme (hey Angel) didn’t make my cut, it did top her list along with FNL and Westworld (is there anything Ramin Djawadi can’t do? Probably not.) While Teija managed to pull ins some other top themes that could just as easily have slotted into my top five.

Yet, even with all the back and forth and trading picks like it’s the NFL draft, there were still some themes that I couldn’t make fit. I’m sorry Buffy, Mission Impossible, Brooklyn 99, and Daredevil but know that you are still on the list of my heart.

5. Parks and Recreation (Gaby Moreno)

I love Parks and Recreation so very much and I honestly feel like I know these characters as well as my own friends. Okay, well maybe that’s pushing things a bit too far, but it’s close. And the peppy, upbeat, jazzy theme can put a smile on my face in an instant. The percussion beats make it feel very governmental and formal, but they jazzy notes laid overtop give you a bit more insight into Leslie Knope and her crew of misfits. The theme is optimistic, hopeful, and full of energy, just like Leslie.

If you’re ever feeling down, I dare you to put this theme on and not feel an instant mood boost.

4. Robin Hood (Andy Price)

It’s no secret around here that I love anything and everything Robin Hood related. So it’s probably not a surprise that the theme for the BBC’s Robin Hood series made the cut. Andy Price has composed quite a few themes for British television and movies, but is perhaps best known for his Law & Order: UK theme (which, I’ll be completely honest, is way better than any of the US versions). The theme he choose for Robin Hood evokes a sense of nostalgia in me, with the arrangement of brass and drums give it that instant swashbuckling feel. You know that you’re in for an hour of adventure, intrigue, mystery, and perhaps a bit of love as well.

3. E.R. (James Newton Howard)

James Newton Howard is a prolific composer having done everything from movie dramas like Pretty Woman, to animated features like Atlantis: The Lost Empire and Treasure Planet, to big budget action flicks like The Bourne Legacy, The Hunger Games, and even King Kong. However, this theme is the first time I remembering hearing his work. I watched E.R for practically it’s entire run and there’s just something so hauntingly beautiful about this theme. It starts out slow and a little bit quite, but it builds into something epic, bringing you right into the action. The techno beat that Howard chose fits right in with the sirens and noises from various medical devices, while the keyboard manages to accurately convey the frantic pace of the show.

They made the, in my mind, terrible decision to stop using this theme from 2006-2009 and the replacement never quite lived up to the original. They thankfully brought back the original theme along with many of the original characters) for the final episode.

2. The Tudors (Trevor Morris)

While I rage-quit The Tudors after they killed off Anne Boleyn (I’m a historian, I knew it was coming, yet it STILL made me angry that they did it so soon), I have never quite forgotten the epic theme song. I best know Trevor Morris (who will also be making an appearance on next week’s list) for his work on Vikings, Pillars of the Earth, and Dragon Age: Inquisition, but his work here is stunning. It manages to evoke the richness of the court at the time, as well as pulling in plenty of french influence. Everything about this theme screams royal and I love each second of it.

1. The West Wing (W.G. Snuffy Walden)

I watched every season of The West Wing live and for the longest time this theme was my ringtone. The sweeping music, composed by the delightfully named W.G. Snuffy Walden, expertly uses the drumroll at the very beginning before building into an epic orchestral arrangement that is nothing short of presidential. The grandeur of this theme practically lifts you up, filling you with hope and inspiration. It’s hard not to listen to this theme without feeling a swell of pride. And it’s impossible to listen to it without seeing Martin Sheen in all of his Jed Bartlet glory, walking purposefully down the hallway of the White House, making things happen.


I used to want to be a composer. In high school, I spent my senior year (having finished most of my required items ahead of schedule) doing almost entirely music-related classes, and composition was my favorite of them. My final project for that class was a rescoring of the scene in Raiders of the Lost Ark where they open the ark and everyone’s faces melt, and I had a phenomenal time doing it. It was one of the most enjoyable grades I’ve ever earned in my life. But I didn’t go that route; I chose to earn two far more lucrative history degrees [insert Jeff Goldblum-style self-deprecating laughter here].

Anyway, my life has always been musical, and it is my lot in life to be that person whose viewing experience can be made or broken entirely by the way a creator uses music. I am forever in love with the way Howard Shore used motifs and themes in Lord of the Rings; I am forever disappointed that it took Marvel until sometime around Doctor Strange to start really leaning into hero themes (I mean, Thor has one, but they used it so ineffectually that they could pretty easily replace it with Immigrant Song and no one would blink). I’m that person who loves the over-theatrical way American sports culture has framed sporting events in general because it gave us things like the John Williams Olympic Fanfare and Theme and Fox Sports’ NFL on FOX theme (which I would have included on the list below had we not agreed to keep it to episodic TV shows) (also that link is an hour of it on loop, you’re welcome).

All that being said: this list was hard to narrow down, and I’m glad to have Sarah and Lauren here to take some of the ones I wasn’t able to. I’m sure I’ll think of another in an hour and kick myself for excluding it.

5. X-Men: The Animated Series (Ron Wasserman)

There is not a musical theme more entwined with my childhood than this driving rock n’ roll electric guitar masterpiece. Ron Wasserman worked for Saban in the 1980s and is also responsible for the also-extremely-memorable theme song to the Mighty Morphin Power Rangers. This theme song rumbles in with a building drumbeat and then rolls right along into its iconic guitar riff, introducing all of our favorite X-Men as it builds to the evergreen showdown between Professor X and Magneto. I doubt anyone close to my age would disagree that this isn’t the greatest cartoon intro of all time.

4. Stranger Things (Kyle Dixon and Michael Stein/S U R V I V E)

This opening sequence to Stranger Things had me hooked from the second I first saw it. The minimalistic opening sequence is essentially a love letter to the old 80s novel titling used in mass market paperbacks, and considering the entire show pays homage to the 1980s and the horror genre (much in the tone of Stephen King), it’s no wonder. The funky synth score that plays over them is atmospheric and really sets the mood for the show. The driving arpeggios build a suspense that builds and tapers out again until all you’re left with is the heartbeat of the drum and a final, ominous chord.

3. The X-Files (Mark Snow)

Another atmospheric, spooky theme song! There’s something about the way this theme really sets the tone for the entire show. It’s pretty simple, just a few notes repeated followed by that iconic whistling melody, but it hooks you right in. The echo effect was a happy accident caused by the showrunner, Chris Carter, giving Mark Snow some criticism, and then Snow leaned on a keyboard in frustration and accidentally discovered the feature. It’s interesting to think that the theme may have been something completely different had that not happened. The composer went on to compose for shows including La Femme Nikita and Smallville.

2. Star Trek: The Next Generation (Jerry Goldsmith arranged by Dennis McCarthy)

The theme song to Star Trek: The Next Generation is actually a recycled theme; Dennis McCarthy rearranged the theme Jerry Goldsmith composed for Star Trek: The Motion Picture and it was used for this show. Goldsmith is an award-winning and exceptionally prolific composer, known for movies like Planet of the Apes, Alien, Gremlins, The Secret of NIMH, Air Force One, and the Brendan Fraser and Rachel Weisz edition (the best one) of The Mummy, just to name a few. I’m actually currently rewatching TNG for probably the five hundredth time in my life, and every time I start a new episode it brings me a new wave of joy to hear “Space… the final frontier…” and then that beautiful fanfare. All of the Treks have pretty awesome music, but this theme is hands down the best one.

1. Game of Thrones (Ramin Djawadi)

Y’all knew this would be here.

It’s no secret that I’m a Game of Thrones person. I’m a book-reader who also adores the show (even when it’s causing me book-reader grief and anguish with its canonical departures, I cannot let it go), and it should be no surprise that I also love its soundtrack. Reader, its main theme is only the beginning. Ramin Djawadi (featured elsewhere on this list and for good reason) is a master of his craft, and the hours and hours of music he has created for this show is evidence of his creativity and resourcefulness on a massive scale. Just as soon as you think, “Surely he’s done everything he can possibly do for this show,” he goes and whips out something like The Light of the Seven (that’s a live performance link, you want to click it) and you have to reevaluate everything you thought you knew. His use of themes and motifs is phenomenal. He is capable of rousing your spirits or ripping your heart out, and you’ll love it the whole time he’s doing it. And this theme song, with its introductory drumroll and the gorgeous cartographical opening credits is just a taste of how good he is.

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