TV show composers don’t get enough credit for the incredible work they do. Relive moving instrumental pieces from the soundtracks of Lost, Battlestar Galactica, Sherlock and more.
Just like you, we here at Hypable love soundtracks. Classic scores inspire us to work out, write stuff, and generally live our lives to the fullest – and who can’t hum along to the themes of 2001: A Space Odyssey, Gone With the Wind, Star Wars, The Lord of the Rings, Harry Potter, and… need we go on?
But while a lot of television shows use pop and indie music to evoke emotion in their audience, some of the best, most ambitious series have composers create countless original tracks, usually to accompany a specific character or story theme.
To celebrate the work of these underappreciated geniuses, we have put together a list of 15 of the most iconic instrumental tracks and leitmotifs composed for TV series. We have tried to pick one track per show, and obviously this is a subjective list – which will hopefully encourage you to follow the links and discover more music from these brilliant composers.
15. Xena: Warrior Princess: “Soulmates” (Joseph LoDuca)
It’s not often that you hear someone say, “Yeah, I loved Xena! The music was awesome!” Xena: Warrior Princess is underappreciated in general, but if it’s ever talked about at all, we can almost guarantee that it’s not because of its soundtrack.
But composer Joseph LoDuca created some great pieces for the series, and listening to them again brings everything right back. It’s hard to choose just one track, but we went with “Soulmates.” It’s not the most recognizable, but it has everything we loved about Xena: the romance, the mystery, and the feeling that we’re entering some ancient, mythical world.
LoDuca uses a duduk in this song; we’re suckers for TV composers experimenting with unknown, alternative instruments. It only makes the music more unique and memorable.
14. The X-Files: “Scully’s Theme” (Mark Snow)
For a show that started out as a procedural and ended up heavily serialised, and occasionally switched out its lead characters, The X-Files had consistently great music.
“Scully’s Theme” is a fan-favourite track. However, it is not available on YouTube (but you can still listen to it on Dailymotion), so instead you get “This is Not Happening,” an equally memorable piece which incorporates some of the same musical themes.
We honestly believe that a big reason that these classic shows continue to resonate so strongly with viewers is their incredible use of music. The special effects and picture quality might date a show like The X-Files, but great music never feels outdated.
13. Alias: “Something Fishy” (Michael Giacchino)
Michael Giacchino is a very acclaimed movie composer these days, continuing his partnership with J.J. Abrams and scoring most of his movies, including Star Trek and Super 8. Notably, he also composed the music for Up, The Incredibles, and Dawn of the Planet of the Apes.
But let’s not forget his first Abrams collaboration. This was Giacchino’s first TV job after working as a video game composer, and he definitely brings that vibe to the series.
“Something Fishy” might seem like a random track to choose, but for people unfamiliar with the music of Alias, this has the best of both worlds: it shows off Giacchino’s eclectic, electronic style when scoring Alias, and if you go to 1:42, you get the beautful orchestral Arvin Sloane theme. This was probably the best recurring piece of music in the series, barring only the Irina Derevko suite.
Giacchino moved on to score Lost, and provided some truly epic pieces we’ll get to further down the list.
12. Supernatural: “Dean’s Dirty Organ” (Christopher Lennertz)
Supernatural has a lot going for it, and its iconic soundtrack definitely tops our list of “things that make this show cool” (the name is a work-in-progress).
With songs like “Back in Black” and “Carry On My Wayward Son” blasting as the brothers drive the Impala down dirty country roads, it’s hard to imagine that the show needs a composer at all.
But it certainly does, what with all the high tension murder stuff and brotherly angst! And Christopher Lennertz and Jay Gruska both capture the mood of the show perfectly. “Dean’s Dirty Organ” doubles as the Winchester brothers’ theme, and Supernatural fans will immediately recognise that parts of it are used a hell of a lot (some might even say too much) to underscore comedic moments.
11. Downton Abbey: “An Ideal Marriage” (John Lunn)
We love tracks that incorporate the main theme of a show in some way, calling back to the very beginning of the series and reminding us of the importance of what we’re watching.
“An Ideal Marriage” contained a slowed-down version of the Downton Abbey theme tune, and is fittingly used to chronicle the central relationship of Matthew and Mary, which was always meant to be the heart of the show.
Another track used for Mary/Matthew scenes (which also calls back to the main show theme) is “Did I Make the Most of Loving You.” It has actual lyrics, just to shake things up!
10. Angel: “Hero” (Robert J. Kral)
Angel isn’t necessarily known for its score, but that doesn’t mean it wasn’t memorable. Music was used very well to give the show its own identity, marking it as darker and much more gloomy than Buffy.
“Hero” was used in season 1, to accompany the first major character death. The moment itself was very emotional and moving, and the music will forever be one of Angel‘s most iconic pieces.
If you like the music used in this show, add “I’m Game,” “Untouched” and “The Birth of Angelus” to your queue! For more calm, melancholic pieces, look for anything which references Cordelia – two good examples are “Princess Cordelia” and “Cordy Meets Fred.”
9. Avatar: The Last Airbender: “The Last Agni Kai” (Jeremy Zuckerman and Benjamin Wynn)
The ReWatchable Podcast hosts are all in agreement that this is the best piece of music from Avatar.
Avatar‘s composers are known for experimenting with unusual instruments when scoring the show; you’ll hear instruments like the guzheng, pipa, and duduk (though you probably won’t realise it!) on the soundtrack.
“The Last Agni Kai” is a sombre, heavy piece used for the final battle between Zuko and Azula. It captures the epicness of the moment, and the tragedy of the brother-sister duel.
8. Once Upon a Time: “Snow White & Prince Charming” (Mark Isham)
Mark Isham has created a very consistent score for Once Upon a Time. The central love theme for Snow and Charming is repeated almost as much as the line “I will always find you,” but that doesn’t make us love it any less.
This light yet epic romantic fairytale track was one of the first things which told us that Once Upon a Time would be a show worth watching. The writers and actors are creating something epic here, and the music is enough to convince any non-believer.
“Emma’s Theme” is another recurring track. It’s slow and sad, perfectly capturing the loneliness of Emma’s life. And of course let’s not forget “Tallahassee,” one of the show’s most unique music pieces. It starts off like a retro version of “Emma’s Theme,” but picks up pace, and reminds us that for once, we’re flashing back to the real world, not fairytale land. And we can’t leave Once behind without mentioning “The Evil Queen” and “Rumplestiltskin In Love“!
7. Sherlock: “Sherlocked/Irene Adler’s Theme” (David Arnold, Michael Price)
Sherlock’s first and (so far) only romantic interest, Irene Adler, came complete with her own stunning leitmotif. While Sherlock mainly focuses on Sherlock and John’s friendship and their mystery-solving skills, it’s nice to break up the listening experience with a few softer pieces.
We are equally blown away by “Addicted to a Certain Lifestyle,” which (while used to underline Mary’s betrayal of John) captures the tragedy of Sherlock’s life.
6. Merlin: “Gwen & Arthur” (Rob Lane and Rohan Stevenson)
Merlin definitely had its silly moments, but also true epicness and very emotional friendships and love stories. Rob Lane and Rohan Stevenson capture all of this in their score, but we definitely prefer the slower pieces.
The Gwen/Arthur love theme and its variations are actually used throughout the series, and not just for that couple. The Lancelot/Gwen theme very closely resembles the piece (so you might say these are just variations of Gwen’s leitmotif), and is arguably the better version.
But the track is epic no matter which couple it is applied to – and will evoke strong emotions in you whether or not you’ve watched the series.
Another strength of Merlin is the way in which it reinvents the classic King Arthur legend. The track “Knights of the Round” played when Arthur first discovered the iconic Round Table in the season 4 finale, and reminds us how big this story really was.
The music of the show always managed to weave in medieval sounds, without ever being over the top – one of the reasons this is one of our favourite TV soundtracks.
5. Buffy the Vampire Slayer: “Close Your Eyes” (Christophe Beck)
Buffy of course had its mainstream soundtracks, with iconic (if obscure) songs used in the show. The first album is actually very good, if you’re into that kind of thing.
Through its seven-year run, the show did use a few mainstream artists to punch home particularly emotional moments (see Sarah McLachlan’s “Full of Grace” and Michelle Branch’s “Goodbye to You”), and of course the musical episode invented a soundscape all of its own.
But Buffy wouldn’t have been the same without composer Christophe Beck, who created some truly epic pieces. The Buffy/Angel love theme is probably the most celebrated and memorable, but we also encourage you to give “Sacrifice” (from the season 5 finale), the “Hush” suite (which also includes the very good Buffy/Riley love theme) and “Moment of Happiness” (a slower version of the love theme) a listen.
Beck has since moved on to score mainstream movies like Frozen, Edge of Tomorrow and We Are Marshall.
4. Battlestar Galactica: “Passacaglia” (Bear McCreary)
Battlestar Galactica has a lot of epic music, and this track is not usually on fans’ “best of” lists. That is exactly why we chose it.
This video mixes “Passacaglia” with “The Shape of Things to Come.” Both are used in season 1, and as such help set the tone for the show.
There is something both beautiful and ominous about the piece: you can almost feel that something is ending, and yet it’s like we are on the precipice of a major change. It’s not a bad change; it’s like the movement of water, changing everything in its path and yet flowing around it. Excuse us for getting a bit poetic there, but that’s just how this piece of music makes us feel.
Bear McCreary is one of the most talented TV composers. He currently works on Outlander and Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., and has also scored tracks for The Walking Dead.
3. Doctor Who: “Rose’s Theme” (Murray Gold)
Doctor Who is another series with a very memorable soundtrack. Some character themes are better than others, of course, and “Rose’s Theme” is arguably the most emotional of them all – closely followed by the “Bad Wolf Theme” which was used a lot in the early reboot years.
While Rose might not be everyone’s favourite companion, her bond with the Doctor was epic, and you can almost feel the heartbreak of their “Doomsday” goodbye when you listen to this.
2. Game of Thrones: “Mhysa” (Ramin Djawadi)
There were a lot of Game of Thrones tracks we could have gone with, and “Mhysa” wasn’t an easy choice. Especially considering its placement on the list! But we ultimately went with this iconic piece from the season 3 finale, because of the way in which it uses the main theme of the series to bring everything full circle, feeling both like the end and the beginning of something huge.
The season 3 finale had a lot to live up to, not just music-wise; the previous episode had killed off two fan-favourite characters, and we were pretty much ending on a note of complete sadness and depression.
But then came Dany’s victory over the slave traders, and we saw her rise up as the Mhysa of thousands of people that needed her. Despite what we know happens in season 4, this will forever be one of the show’s most epic moments. And this track gives us goosebumps every time we hear it.
Honourable mention goes to “Heir to Winterfell,” a very different piece of music which perfectly captures the hopeless but proud feeling of the North.
(Note: Before you bombard the comment section, “The Rains of Castamere” was disqualified, because we were looking for songs that are either completely instrumental, or have choir ambiance.)
1. Lost: “Life & Death” (Michael Giacchino)
We can’t even begin to describe how much we love the music of Lost.
Michael Giacchino followed J.J. Abrams from Alias to Lost, and has created a lot of beautiful, memorable themes for the series. He was often commended for his unique approach to scoring the show; because it was set on an island, Giacchino went to great lengths to use “indigenous” and obscure instruments: scraps of metal from the plane were used as percussions, and a superball was dragged across a gong for that unique, eerie sound so often associated with the show.
“Life & Death” is probably Giacchino’s most iconic track, and is repeated throughout the series, often when a main character has died. “Oceanic 815” features a reprise of the song, used to signify the “death” of the characters’ past selves, as they are reformed on the island.
It’s also worth mentioning the close runner-up “Locked Out Again” (which is absolutely fantastic and heartbreaking), the beautiful “Rose and Bernard,” Hurley’s fun “I’ve Got a Plane to Catch,” the epic “Hollywood and Vines,” and the romantic “A Touching Moment.” All beautiful, whether or not you’ve watched the show.
Of course Lost also has a lot of jungle beats to accompany all the fleeing from monsters, Others and wild boars the characters are constantly doing. These are perfect for an energetic workout session; they’ll get your heart pumping before you’ve even done any exercise!
And that’s the list! We can’t emphasise enough how much we enjoy television series with strong, memorable music. These themes will stay with us forever, and no matter how outdated these shows will eventually become, their music legacy will live on.
Did your favourite TV soundtrack pieces make the list? Share your thoughts in the comments, and recommend any TV composers’ work which wasn’t represented here!