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Channeling Nostalgia | The Music of Television

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First things first: A big thanks to Corey for trusting me to take over The Nostalgia Diaries while she vacations with her family in the tropical oasis that is Toledo, Ohio. I’ve never vacationed in Toledo, but I’ve spent a bit of time in other parts of Ohio and the Midwest and frankly, I’m a big fan of laid-back Midwestern summers.

My grandparents lived in Eastern South Dakota along the Missouri River, and every July or August my parents would take my brother and me on a road trip to spend a couple of weeks in Yankton and Vermillion, South Dakota.  To this day, I can still remember the enveloping heat of the heavy, humid air and the rich smell of dark fertile soil in fields of 7-foot tall stalks of sweet corn. Not a lot of that in Wyoming where I grew up, so the feel of the Midwest was always a striking change.

And I loved it.

I have not been back to South Dakota in years, yet thinking about it now sparks many nostalgic memories of my youth—a youth filled with the smells and sounds and sights of summer’s simple pleasures: hot concrete and cool chlorine-infused swimming pool water, the buzz of cicadas and the sad song of mourning doves, the blur of telephone poles and trees zipping past the car window ticking off the miles on the long road trip east.

And music.  I remember music was everywhere. From the mix of bells, whistles, and laughter at the county fair, to the smooth sounds of Captain and Tennile playing on cassette in my parents car, to Saturday afternoon matinee movie soundtracks, to the Sunday morning church choir singing Amazing Grace, to simple call-sign jingles on the radio. And of course, television show theme songs.

Last week I finished binge watching The Office on Netflix and, after wiping a tear or two from my eyes as the credits rolled and the show’s theme song played for the last time, I thought about how the music we hear on television can cause a wave of memories and emotion. Even simple station bumper theme music is enough to create nostalgic overload. Like this:

I always remember that the CBS Special Presentation theme always preceded an awesome show, like A Charlie Brown Christmas (and A Charlie Brown Christmas, of course, has a pretty nostalgic beginning sequence as well).

Or this one, from PBS:

Or maybe you remember this one from your days of watching Disney videos:

These bumper themes were a simple means to transition between programming elements, yet hearing them today instantly takes me back to my younger TV-watching years and makes me smile. Ah, the power of nostalgia at work!

And then there are the TV show theme songs themselves. Television show theme song writers seem to know exactly how to hit the right… well… chords, manipulating your emotions and immediately connecting you with the show and its characters. Think about those first piano notes in the Cheers theme:

Or how about the telephone ringing, Bob’s “Hello?”, and the opening piano chords from The Bob Newhart Show:

Or the lonely french horn from Little House on the Prairie:

Or those happy, hopeful lyrics of Love is All Around, sung by Sonny Curtis in The Mary Tyler Moore Show opening credits… “Who can turn the world on with her smile?“:

Even music from more recent TV shows pulls you into a nostalgic web of emotion:

And of course there was the show that I believe was the best show ever to grace the small screen: Northern Exposure. Hearing that show’s theme song always gives me a happy little boost of nostalgia:

If you were a fan of these shows, their theme songs are indelibly inked on your soul. Hearing them, you remember the laughter, the tears, the best episodes, and the most clever—and most poignant—endings.

Even for causal TV watchers, TV theme songs can create a bridge from the present to the past, connecting you to the places and characters you came to know and love. Think about the wacky world of WKRP In Cincinnati:

Or how about the comedy genius of The Dick Van Dyke Show?:

Does this one make you think of John Travolta and the rest of the “Sweathogs”?:

Maybe M*A*S*H was your go-to show, with its haunting “Suicide is Painless” theme song:

Not only do these theme songs connect you to the shows themselves, they connect you to the times and places and people from your own past.  Maybe they take you back to Saturday nights after taking a bath and snuggling in your jammies on the couch, watching The Love Boat and Fantasy Island…

Or maybe you remember Happy Days and Laverne & Shirley on Tuesday nights…

Maybe the small-screen theme songs take you back to your high school and college days, when you watched Friends or Frazier, Seinfeld or Saved By the Bell, Mad About You or Married With Children. Maybe they take you back to watching your favorite shows with family, eating dinner on TV trays… or watching alone in bed with a pint of Häagen-Dazs.

Or maybe they take you back to last week, when you and your 16-year-old son finished binge-watching every episode of that TV show you missed when it first aired. The Emmy-winning series that everyone talked about and told you how funny it was. The show that when you finally watched it, you wondered what you possibly could have been doing that kept you from being entertained by it the first time around.  The show that gave you moments like this:

And this:

The show that—through the talents of its actors and writers and directors—created funny, memorable characters and compelling, absurdly wonderful stories that allowed you to establish a connection with your own kid through shared laughter and emotions and conversation and appreciation.

Yeah, who would have thought a TV show could do that? Honestly, there is so much garbage on television these days and I’ve never been one to seek out television as a primary means of entertainment. But once in a while, there are those shows that create a timeless link between the past and the present.  Shows that when you are watching them, you know that 20 years from now, you will hear that opening theme song, and you will smile, and you will remember the people, the places, the laughter, the tears, the happiness, the sadness, the ups, the downs, the beginnings and the endings.

Talk to me: What was your go-to TV show as a kid? What is your favorite TV theme song?

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And speaking of vacations, in 1975 my parents took my brother and me to Disneyland for the first time. Last week, I again traveled to Disneyland, this time with two of my own sons. Join me later this week as I take over Throwback Thursday and reflect on the nostalgic wonders and wizardry of this iconic California theme park.

At The Nostalgia Diaries, our goal is to help you simplify, enhance, and engage your lives by focusing on the most important things: remembering, appreciating, believing, and becoming. It’s all about celebrating the past to create better days today.

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50 thoughts on “Channeling Nostalgia | The Music of Television

  1. With TV theme songs, you hear these short, 20-ish second clips over and over, perhaps for years or maybe just days if you binge. And then maybe you go years without hearing or seeing it, and then you’ll catch a repeat one day and all of the sudden, every lyric or scene comes back and it’s so familiar and welcoming and pure, and in this way, TV theme songs are unlike anything else.

    1. They are a like little music videos that you never get tired of! Thank you for your comment! -Steve

  2. Gilligan’s Island was my go-to and I could still sing the entire theme song by heart! I also fondly remember the Mr. Roger’s “Won’t You be my Neighbor”. Funny how these tv songs truly become a part of our ‘story.’

  3. Oh the memories! Thanks a lot!! Now I have several theme songs stuck in my head!! One of my other favorites is the “threes company” song.

    1. Ha! There were also some really bad theme songs… Glad I didn’t get any of those stuck in your head! – Steve

  4. You are so right! I forgot about the “Feature Presentation” voice, but that is super nostalgic! The Friends theme-song is a classic and I love The Office song. I wake up to the Parks and Rec theme song every morning, the Bones themesong is my ringtone, and I LOVE the Phineas and Ferb song!

    1. But where can I find a place that has 104 days of summer vacation?! I too love Phineas and Ferb! – Steve

  5. Ahhhh the bumpers before the shows! The CBS one still gets me giddy like a kid at Christmas because you are right, it was always before Charlie Brown or Rudolph or something like that. And the theme songs, man I love a good theme song. A radio station in my town does TV TRL on Fridays and has people call in and request theme songs they want played – it’s one of my favorite days of the week!

    1. Isn’t that CBS Special bumper soooo nostalgic? What is the radio station? Are they also on the internet? I’ll have to give it a listen! – Steve

  6. I loved, loved, loved Welcome Back Kotter back in the day. They still play the theme song every once in awhile on the 70’s channel on XM. Brings back fun memories of Vinnie Barbarino and the Sweat Hogs.
    Thanks for a super fun post! Loved it!

    1. So glad you liked it! I love The Nostalgia Diaries blog and glad I have been able to contribute! -Steve

  7. I love this – it’s so true how television and movie intros can bring back such great memories. The Disney video intro definitely brings back a lot of childhood memories for me. In more recent years, the Gilmore Girls intro definitely does. I love the Office one – it as my ringtone for years during college.

  8. These all bring back so many childhood memories. Gilligan’s Island is one that always sticks in my brain. We watched Happy Days as a family all the time! The Office was one of my more recent favorites, along w/ Friends.

    One of my absolute favorite shows as a kid was Full House and I have to admit I was super stoked they did a re-make with Fuller House.

    1. Watched a lot of Full House! Does Fuller House use the same or similar theme music as Full House? -Steve

  9. You covered so many of my favorites! Happy Days, Little House, Cheers, Friends! They all bring different memories when I hear them! More recently Psych is a favorite we have around here! It is amazing the way music can channel in specific memories from that period of our lives.

  10. I’ve really been into old TV shows lately. And one of the shows I’m watching for the first time is The Mary Tyler Moore show. And the music from that show that strikes me is the version of the theme song that is played at the closing credits. As a child, I was very scared at night to sleep alone once my parents went to bed. And this is the show that my parents watched right before they went to sleep. So hearing it made me really scared because I knew they were about to go to bed. So even though I never watched that show before, the theme is a huge memory when I hear it. Though it isn’t an upsetting memory at this point. It’s just nostalgic.

    1. I’m glad the memories of the MTM show music isn’t upsetting anymore! It is fun to go back and watch the old TV shows. So much has changed in entertainment over the years. – Steve

  11. TV them songs used to be one of the best things about the show. I was a big fan on The Cosby Show and Family Matters. And although I didn’t watch TV a lot, many of the shows you listed I knew those theme songs too.

  12. Oh how fun is it to go back in time and reminisce! I had so much fun recollecting some of these TV shoes. They brought a lot of smiles to my face decades ago, and still do today!

  13. OMG, YES!!!! WOW, I haven’t thought about those pre-show songs (PBS / CBS / Disney) in AGES. Funny, that. How something as simple as a theme song or a melody can bring back a flood of memories from an earlier, more simple time, eh?

    Excuse me. Something in my eye.

    Okay, then. Yes. The Office. What a fine tv show that was. I just had all the feels watching that emotional Jim/Pam hug all over again. GAH!!!

    1. 🙂 Glad you liked the post! Yes, there is a lot of emotions that get stirred up hearing those old theme songs. And the Office . . . yes! A very well made show! -Steve

  14. OMG- the feels! You’re so right- hearing a song or bumper from long ago brings so much feeling to the surface! I’ve gone back and started binge watching Friends again- and the music still gives me goosebumps! Remember waiting every week to watch? Getting excited when it came on?

    1. The anticipation of waiting for your favorite show to come on every week made it that much more special! – Steve

  15. Loved your post, so many memories wrapped up in some of those TV shows. My parents let us watch TV for an hour a night, and we loved our shows! My mom always made popcorn and my sister and I shared a bottle of pop.

  16. What a touching post. You did brought back a lot of memories. Good thing is that, we have all that in dvd format now and we can go back in time whenever we want.

  17. Loved I love lucy and Andy Griffith. Such great picks! I also grew up in the TGIF days, so Family Matters, Full House, Step by Step…

  18. Awww it’s so true that music is a big trigger for memories! I’m watching the Office through again currently but I’ve never seen the entire last season so I can’t wait for that!

  19. This was so much fun to read. Though I didn’t know a few of the shows listed here, I definitely had my fair share of theme songs. I really liked the one for Charmed and Friends.

  20. I love this! You’re right, the music for the opening title sequence brings back so many memories. I always loved the Wonder Years and Boy Meets World themes. I feel like in today’s world of streaming and fast forwarding through commercials, these special theme songs are disappearing. I hope that doesn’t continue!

  21. Bonanza, It Takes a Thief, Bewitched … loved these theme songs as much as the shows! My go-to was always Land of the Lost, even though Slestaks scare the bejesus out of me!

  22. I’m so happy to see The Office on here! I had never watched The Office until a couple years ago when I was pregnant and my husband and I would just lay in bed and binge watch it on Netflix. Then, when my daughter was born, we’d watch it as we were trying to get her to sleep. She’s now 15 months old and LOVES the office theme song! My husband downloaded it and plays it on his phone for her at least once a day and she immediately stops everything to dance! It’s so adorable!

  23. OMGosh you’ve got me singing!! I was just having a moment like this with my Kiddies the other day. Duck Tales is back on TV but for them it’s like it’s brand new. So when it started and I sang the ENTIRE theme song they were looking at me like I was nuts! Ma! How do you know the song already… aah Kiddies – if you only knew! 😀

  24. SO many memories. Thanks for what you do here with the nostalgia. I have such wonderful fond memories with my Dad (who has now passed) as we watched all the 70s and 80s shows together. Can’t get these songs out of my head now. My favorite by far were the Sunday night Disney movies like ‘Witch Mountain’ and stuff. Thanks!

  25. Oh the cheers theme song!!! I don’t know why but it always makes me feel so sentimental for my youth and when things were more innocent! We recently visited Boston for the first time and had to stop by the restaurant/set!

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