TV theme songs and soundtracks: do they make or break a show?

Em Richardson tells us her favourite TV themes and soundtracks, and whether this is the secret to a great all-round show

Em Richardson
16th March 2020
Credit; BBC, IMDb
I’m here to argue that a good soundtrack does indeed ‘make’ a show, with several examples proving my point? Imagine Game of Thrones without that iconic intro setting the tone, or Stranger Things without its delightful array of 1980s synth setting the scene. Read on to find several examples of shows that just wouldn’t be the same without their iconic soundtracks.
  1. Blackadder

If you didn’t start humming the theme tune as soon as you read that, we can’t be friends. Seriously though, I remain fully convinced that this show’s hilarious, and insanely catchy theme accounts for at least part of the reason it remains such an iconic example of British comedy.

This narrative perfectly echoes the story told by the song

  • Breaking Bad

The creators of this show definitely used music to set the scene, and often employed a delicious sense of irony in their song choices (look no further than the use of the song ‘Baby Blue’ during Walter White’s final scenes). Jesse Pinkman’s appearances were always accompanied by rap or R&B, which suited both the character’s aesthetic, and his loud, chaotic behaviour. However, I think my favourite use of music in the show was the inclusion of Squeeze’ ‘Up the Junction’. It plays in the background as Walt, Skylar and their family are enjoying a relaxed family background. Later, the occasion is ruined when Hank finally realises that Walt is really Heisenberg, the infamous drug-dealer he has spent years chasing. This narrative perfectly echoes the story told by the song- it starts by describing an idyllic scene of domestic bliss, but ends with the protagonist alone, having fallen out with his entire family. (And yes, in case you’re wondering, I have watched this show far too many times!)

  • Peaky Blinders

Anyone who’s seen this show will know it has an insanely catchy theme-tune. In fact, music is used extremely well throughout the series. I love the way lively, modern music is juxtaposed against the background of 1920’s Birmingham. Some might argue that this detracts from the period setting, but I think it really helps the excitement build. Many of the gang fights just wouldn’t have the same, tense atmosphere if they played out with the relaxed music that was genuinely heard during the 1920s as their backdrop.

  • Sherlock

This is another show with an excellent theme- the catchy piece really captures the essence of Sherlock and John’s chaotic existence, as they run around London solving crimes. Once the show actually starts, the viewer’s attention is captured with a series of catchy tunes, which are often used jarringly, during sad moments. In particular, I’m thinking of the use of ‘December 1963 (Oh What a Night), as a dejected Sherlock leaves his best friend’s wedding early.

  • Stranger Things

The creators of this show work their absolute hardest to maintain the authenticity of the 1980s America setting, from ‘Vote Reagan’ signs to loud shirts. This is supported by their choice of soundtrack. Whenever a dramatic event happens, it is accompanied by dramatic, instrumental synth music. This serves to both build tension, and remind the audience of the show’s time period. When actual songs are used, the creators are sure to choose from a selection of 1980s classics. They are often deliberately cliché, choosing ‘Every Breath You Take’ by The Police to accompany romantic scenes at the school dance, in order to create a sense of nostalgia for the songs that provided the soundtrack to 1980s’ teens lives.

  • Game of Thrones

Thrones was an epic series, with an equally epic theme tune. The dramatic piece set the perfect tone for the series, as did the other instrumentals used throughout the show. From soaring battle pieces to the twinkling background music used during emotional moments, the soundtrack was always on point. For me, a piece of music will never strike as much terror as the opening bars of The Rains of Castamere did during The Red Wedding…

So, if I still haven’t convinced you that a soundtrack makes or breaks a show, try and imagine some of the moments mentioned above without music… Point proved!

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