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TV's 20 Best Instrumental Theme Songs

Opening songs to shows like 'The Cosby Show,' 'Twin Peaks,' and 'House of Cards' are classics—even without the words

1 / 20

'I Love Lucy' (1951-1957)

It's only 20 seconds long, but I Love Lucy's brassy opening stands as one of the most-recognizable TV themes to date. 

2 / 20

'The Pink Panther' (1964-1978)

Today, we hear this iconic theme song when a TV character is being sneaky, just like the fuchsia feline in the beloved childrens' cartoon. Classic movie and TV composer Henry Mancini (who also composed for films like Breakfast at Tiffany's and Victor Victoria) originally wrote it for the '60s Pink Panther film series.

3 / 20

'M*A*S*H' (1972-1983)

The 1983 finale of M*A*S*H was viewed by 125 million people, making it the most-watched TV program in history. And the military medical dramedy had a catchy theme—an instrumental of "Suicide Is Painless," the song featured in 1970 MASH film, from which the series was adapted.

4 / 20

'Taxi' (1978-1983)

Typically, TV themes are exciting and pump you up for the forthcoming episode. Taxi took a different route utilizing a section of jazz musician Bob James' "Angela," centered around a gorgeous flute line.

Fun fact: Neo-soul singer Tweet (of "Oops! (Oh My)" fame) sampled the theme song on 2005 single "Cab Ride."

5 / 20

'The Cosby Show' (1984-1992)

What's a better way to kick off a half-hour of TV watching than the Cosby family busting moves to funkified dance music?

6 / 20

'Roseanne' (1988-1997)

Roseanne was set in the fictional town of Lanford, Illinois, but this harmonica and saxophone-led theme is classic Chicago blues.

7 / 20

'Seinfeld' (1989-1998)

Let’s be real: Even if you had never watched an episode of Seinfeld in your life (which we sure hope isn't the case) you know you would recognize that bass riff anywhere.

8 / 20

'Twin Peaks' (1990-1991)

The biggest cult television hit of the '90s (and arguably of all time) had a theme song that was equally iconic. Composed by Angelo Badalamenti, longtime David Lynch collaborator and cult favorite in his own right, this song is as magical today as it ever was.

9 / 20

'Law & Order' (1990-Present)

The Law & Order theme mixes bouncy synths and ominous, booming timpanis, giving it an edginess over all other themes.

10 / 20

'Rugrats' (1991-2004)

The whimsical Rugrats theme loops a mess of quirky electronic sounds that somehow all come together for one of the catchiest, most recognizable children's TV openings.

11 / 20

'The X-Files' (1993-2002)

Just like the TV show's subject, The X-Files' opening theme, crafted by composer Mark Snow (who also composed themes for Smallville, Ghost Whisperer and The Guardian) is creepy and ominous.

12 / 20

'NFL on Fox' (1994-Present)

NBC and ESPN both crafted their own theme songs to kick off football broadcasts, but there's something so epic about the NFL on Fox's trumpeting opening. It feels like we're about to watch football players battle to the death rather than throw a pigskin around. 

13 / 20

'Buffy the Vampire Slayer' (1997-2003)

That spooky organ, followed by a screeching pickslide into 50 perfectly punk rock seconds by Nerf Herder—a theme song this badass could only belong to a show as badass as Buffy. This classic intro got aspiring Slayers everywhere pumped up to stake any undead that came their way. 

(The only thing better? The Breeders' version, recorded in 2002)

14 / 20

'Sex and the City' (1998-2004)

One of HBO's most iconic openers served viewers a salsa-tinged xylophone number before watching Carrie, Miranda, Samantha and Charlotte's latest sex-capade.

15 / 20

'Everwood' (2002-2006)

The WB series mixed thundering drums, an orchestra of strings and tinkling piano line for an understated, gorgeous opener.

16 / 20

'The Office' (2005-2013)

We love how The Office theme was able to combine piano, guitar and, of all instruments, an accordion for one simple, sweet opening sequence.

17 / 20

'Friday Night Lights' (2006-2011)

No theme induces goosebumps quite like the one to FNL. We still get misty-eyed every time we hear those reverb guitars and picture Coach Taylor and Matt Saracen and Tim Riggins and... Okay, okay, okay, we'll stop.

18 / 20

'Mad Men' (2007-2015)

Mad Men was introduced to the world a relatively recent time ago, but its swanky yet foreboding theme music became stuck in pop culture's head almost immediately, and has hardly strayed since. 

Fun fact: The theme is actually a section from "A Beautiful Mine" by producer Rjd2.

19 / 20

'Game of Thrones' (2011-Present)

The HBO fantasy show's theme is classical music as its best, led by a jarring cello line. But even if classical isn't your forte, you're in luck: Scottish trio Chvrches recorded their own synth-pop cover of the opening sequence.

20 / 20

'House of Cards' (2013-Present)

The gorgeous opening sequence to the Netflix series is centered around military drums and regal trumpets, making the viewer feel like they're heading into war when, in fact, the show's focus is on the seedy affairs of D.C. politicians, journalists and other sordid types.

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