David and Art - "The Art of the Theme"

Jun 7, 2021

Hearing some old music from a television show is a reminder of how things have changed.

A few years ago, a good friend of mine spent four days in the hospital while doctors poked around on him trying to figure out a puzzling malady.  Consequently, he found himself with more free time than usual and spent a fair amount of it watching TV, especially at times during the day when he would usually be doing something else.

He called me late one morning to excitedly report that he was watching an episode of the old Raymond Burr TV show “Ironside.” What had struck him most was the music. He’d never considered it before, he said, but somebody really put a lot of 

thought and effort into the incidental music throughout the show. Plus, he’d forgotten that the show’s theme was once one of the most distinctive and recognizable on television.

The “Ironside” theme was written by the famous composer, musician and record producer Quincy Jones, who also scored other television programs and movies. Henry Mancini was another gifted and award-winning musician who, in addition to his work for motion pictures (probably his most famous being the music from the “Pink Panther” movies), composed the themes to television shows including “Newhart,” “Remington Steele,” NBC’s weekly “Mystery Movie” and, much earlier, “Peter Gunn,” for which he won an Emmy and two Grammys.

But how different the landscape is now. The TV theme song has all but vanished. Cultural curmudgeons will always be quick to say this is emblematic of some sort of broader decline. I’m not sure the theme music to most television shows ever rose to the level of art worthy of being preserved, but I do think its disappearance reflects an impatience that has settled into the culture. Ultimately, that isn’t good for art in general.

There’s a similarity between the well-developed TV show theme song and how classic movies like “Ben Hur” and “Lawrence of Arabia” had lengthy overtures at their beginning. Those came directly from operas in which overtures were understood to set the mood, foreshadow a wide range of settings and emotions and, most of all, create a buffer zone between commonplace life and what the art the audience was about to experience.

These days our understanding of an interaction with art of any sort, even in the form of a movie or TV show, as providing a respite from normal life has atrophied to the point where having a buffer zone seems a pointless waste of time and effort.

But, like the theme from the TV show M*A*S*H, even brief exposure to art still has the power to evoke particular emotions.  Our society loses something, too, when we neglect the possibility that music, like all art, can do worthwhile things if we let it have some of our time.