A really good theme tune can lift any TV show, and one with a prominent piano accompaniment is (in our opinion) extra special. While there are plenty of high-tech electronic and fully orchestrated compositions, here are our selection of the best piano-centric programme theme tunes.
Not every piece features the piano only, but our beloved instrument is certainly a major part of these themes, particularly when you assess the full versions of the music.
Plenty of these are UK-based because that’s the TV we grew up and remain most familiar with, but naturally there are shows from North America and Australia as well. Beyond that, we’ll need suggestions from our international audience.
So here we go:
From the master composer Howard Goodall—whose other TV compositions include Mr Bean, Blackadder, QI and The Vicar of Dibley alongside countless more “serious” music—comes this seemingly simple piano-led ditty to accompany the popular BBC sitcom 2point4 Children.
Perhaps simplistic on first hearing, many people claim it to be one of their favourite TV theme tunes. There are some lovely, if fleeting, harmonies in this lightly-played piano piece, accompanied very sparingly with guitar, bass and percussion.
There doesn’t appear to be a longer version of this music, or if there is, it’s not been published online. So at under a minute this is all you get, but it’s definitely one worth listening to multiple times.
A Bit of A Do
At first listen this may seem like the tune gives precedence to muted brass, but the piano provides a solid accompaniment and has a few short moments of its own as the music and vocals transition between sections.
The music was composed by Ray Russell who has composed a string of other theme music.
A beautiful upbeat piano and slap bass for this Alien Life Form, composed by Alf Heiberg Clausen (no really) who also penned The Simpsons, Moonlighting and The Naked Gun.
This is a bright and poppy piece which could well have inspired some of the incidental music on Wii Sports! That’s not meant to sound disrespectful — a popular primetime show needs a tune such as this.
All Creatures Great and Small
This stunning piece of piano music, almost classical in nature, was actually a KPM library music piece from 1968 entitled “Piano Parchnent” by Johnny Pearson. It was used by a BBC TV drama about life asa vet in the Yorkshire Dales, and it’s now hard to imagine it being used anywhere else, though technically as a library composition it could have been.
The piano takes centre stage as it licks and chops its way through the fairly complex arrangement, accompanied by strings and percussion. Starting fairly quietly and building to a rousing end, the whole piece was rarely heard due to the time constraints of intro and ending credits. Here we have the full two-minute plus arrangement. Enjoy!
For those living in 1980s Britain, Sunday evenings meant only one thing: Bullseye! The darts-based quiz game so tacky it was good, hosted by the inimitable Jim Bowen, a cartoon bull (Bully) and a theme tune composed to evoke the honky-tonkesque pianos found in backstreet British pubs, where grassroots darts was invariably played week in week out.
Composed by John Patrick, known as an accomplished jazz keyboard musician but clearly able to turn his hand to more ‘mainstream’ genres.
Although the piano is not prominent all the way through, thanks to some brassy sounds, whizzes and whoop sound effects, it is definitely audible for large parts of the song. During the show itself, a pared down version featuring a more muted solo piano was played during some of the dart-throwing rounds.
Most pubs have changed immeasurably since the ’80s, but somewhere, probably in northern England, I am convinced there is still one pub on the corner of two streets of terraced houses where you can hear someone bashing out the Bullseye theme on the rickety old piano the moment you open the door.
After those two beautiful introductory piano bars, two full octaves apart, the piano becomes an accompaniment to the vocals of the Cheers song, but with plenty of pretty fill-in moments between lines. Other instruments soon join in, but the piano is still there providing rhythm and colour.
The theme was written by American musician and singer-songwriter Gary Portnoy, and is probably one of his best known works.
A popular piece of music with a strong classical feel, and not dissimilar in melody to some of the music in the film The Piano, John Lunn’s evocative composition is perfect for the long-running ITV drama Downton Abbey.
The piano has plenty of solo and prominent sections, as well as holding its own against the swell of strings elsewhere in this four-minute piece.
Ever Decreasing Circles
While a number of theme tunes have a classical feel, there can be none to match the theme to Ever Decreasing Circles, which simply uses an interpretation of Shostakovich‘s Prelude Op 34 No 15 for its intro and outro music.
A pure piano piece, and only a little over one minute in length, one could imagine it was written specifically for the show, although of course as Dmitri died nine years before the show began, that could never have been.
Nonetheless, this 3/4 piece is both beautiful and slightly unnerving, as the melody weaves around and suggests several melodies, before ending with quiet, sustained chords. The TV version was played by Ronnie Lane, who may have been better known for guitars, rock and roll, but was a also clearly an accomplished pianist.
The piano is certainly not a prominent instrument for the entirety of this theme tune, which includes sax, drums and a variety of other competing instruments, it only takes one listen to hear its power chords shine through.
The theme was composed by James Newton Howard, whose popular work has spanned half a century.
Frequently noted as one of the UK’s most depressing soap operas, this show has a surprisingly upbeat, cheerful piano-based theme tune. Enter any music lesson at a school in the 1980s or ’90s and you were sure to hear someone playing this theme (badly). It sounds simple enough, with a number of rising and falling scales and arpeggios, but perhaps it’s not that simple.
Perhaps for similar reasons as Bullseye, the featured piano sounds slightly detuned/choruslike, reflecting the Queen Vic pub—a centrepiece of the show. This is particularly apparent in the middle section of the extended piece, a part which is rarely if ever used on the show itself.
The tune was composed by Simon May, who also wrote Howard’s Way among other themes.
The theme tune for this long-running British farming soap opera has changed several times, but the original is to my mind the most beautiful, if slightly mournful, rendition — back when it was still Emmerdale Farm and not just “Emmerdale”.
This Tony Hatch composition features a beautiful partnership between piano and oboe, and while most viewers would have heard only the prominent woodwind of the first section, the full version features the piano playing melody with arpeggios.
There are some beautiful harmonies in this piece of music. Perhaps sadly, this composition form the 1970s is not considered trendy or fast-paced enough for today’s incarnation of the soap opera—even one still apparently set in a farming community.
Originally presented by Barry Norman, Film (followed by the two digit current year) was a long running film review programme on the BBC, running from 1971 to 2018. It used the rather sophisticated-sounding I Wish I Knew How It Would Feel To Be Free jazz number by Billy Taylor and has always been a firm favourite instrumental piece.
Hill Street Blues
Another piece of music with a beautiful piano introduction, whose hook continues on throughout the piece and provides a springboard for other instrumentation.
Composed by Mike Post for the hit US show.
It Ain’t Half Hot Mum
Very much in the style of an old-fashioned sing-song around the piano, this slightly raucous number provides the introduction to this late-’70s British sitcom. It’s rough around the edges but suites the programme perfectly.
The music was written by Jimmy Perry (one of the comedy writers) and Derek Taverner who also wrote the theme song for Dad’s Army.
Plenty of brass but some nice piano chords and licks in this British drama which spanned fifteen years in the ’70s, ’80s and ’90s. Sung by one of the stars, Dennis Waterman, and penned by Gerard W. Kenny, it has become an iconic song in its own right.
Murder, She Wrote
This long-running US crime drama series starring Angela Lansbury had a strong, if whimsical, theme tune with plenty of piano thrown in. The keys open the piece before strings come in and build up the music.
It was composed by John Addison.
While theme tunes for long-running TV programmes do tend to change over time, it’s the original Tony Hatch composition which features the most piano, with the instrument giving rhythm to the whole piece.
For most of the song, the piano is providing a straight rhythmic accompaniment to the rest of the instrumentation. It’s an instantly recognisable song in every country Neighbours has been shown in.
Only Fools and Horses
One of the UK’s favourite and long-running sitcoms, writer John Sullivan also created the theme tune and lyrics to Only Fools and Horses, but at one point it may never have been used.
The first series instead used an instrumental piece by Ronnie Hazlehurst, and it was only when the programme was commissioned for a second series that Sullivan got his way and this instantly recognisable theme tune took its rightful place.
The intro music sees the piano come in straight away and provide a rhythmical background to the rest of the instruments and vocal. The closing music is completely different but also includes a different style of piano rhythm, plus some lovely riffs at the end.
Play for Today
The programme showcasing new writing and acting talent in the ’70s and early ’80s had a suitably upbeat piano-centred intro. Pretty short and sweet, but worth a listen.
Long-running panel show QI has used this piano-strong theme tune, written again by Howard Goodall. It’s simple and catchy.
Yorkshire TV’s hit sitcom Rising Damp had an instantly recognisable piano-based theme tune. In a similar vein to Bullseye and EastEnders, this features a fairly cheap sounding piano, perhaps that of a slightly ageing upright instrument you might find in a slightly dilapidated house such as that featured in the show.
It was composed by Dennis Wilson who also wrote the music for Fawlty Towers, Till Death Us Do Part, Steptoe and Son, and The Marriage Lines, among many others.
Marching There And Back is the title of the Syd Dale composition used for the UK children’s quiz show which aired primarily in the 1970s. Although a large portion of the extended music does not feature a prominent piano piece, it does provide a very jaunty and somewhat surreal introduction alongside the piercing flute.
Sex and the City
A Latin-inspired salsa piano piece composed by Douglas J Cuomo, this is another easily recognisable tune for a hit US show.
The Office (UK)
Mike d’Abo wrote the song Handbags and Gladrags in 1967 for Chris Farlowe. It became a hit and was subsequently recorded by a number of artists including Rod Stewart and Stereophonics, whose version was used on the British fly-on-the-wall sitcom The Office.
It’s worth listening to all three prominent versions of the song, as they all contain wonderful piano accompaniment. Farlowe’s version is much moodier, the Stereophonics’ version used in the show is a little more laid back.
The Office (US)
The Office US may be based on its British cousin but it’s a different beast in both content and theme tune.
Jay Ferguson wrote this instrumental theme which has a nifty piano intro. It was performed by The Scrantones, According to Ferguson, “It’s a main title that goes against type; it has this vulnerability, this yearning to it that soon explodes into this overdone optimism which then gets crushed — which is pretty much what the show is about.”
The Upper Hand
Although the saxophone melody may be the most standout part of the theme tune to this British sitcom, there’s a lovely melodic piano accompaniment with some gorgeous harmonies and intricate note runs.
It was written by Debbie Wiseman, who has composed a staggering array of popular and classical music pieces. The piano accompaniment is light and airy, with plenty of arpeggios and lovely chords. Well worth listening to.
So what do you think? Are there any we’ve missed? Let us know!