Back in the 1990s, years before smartphones could bring content from around the world to the eyes and ears of America’s youth at the palm of their hands, it was cable network giants like Nickelodeon which introduced a generation of kids to the sights and sounds of cultures outside of their own. The Viacom-owned television empire introduced the children of the 90s to the music and lifestyles of Gullah culture with Gullah Gullah Island, and brought nations together through sport and fitness with a teen-focused version of the Olympics with Global Guts–find me a younger millennial who didn’t want to ascend that Super Aggro Crag.
In terms of music, however, there was no show on the loaded lineup of 90s Nickelodeon programming that had as strong of influence in turning a new generation of future music fans on to the colorful world of jazz like the smooth and exploratory original score as heard in every episode of Hey Arnold!
The animated series which ran for 100 episodes over five seasons beginning in 1995 explored the rich diversity of pre-teen youths living in the neighborhoods of a fictional city very similar to that of Brooklyn or Queens. It’s not too far of a stretch to assume the show’s setting was directly inspired by New York City. Considering the comings and goings of daily urban life was a constant theme throughout Hey Arnold!, so it was only fitting that the music heard throughout the series capable of bringing the spontaneity of the city to life was that of jazz.
The person behind the show’s musical direction was composer Jim Lang, a past Todd Rundgren collaborator and former touring member of R&B vocal group the Pointer Sisters. Lang’s compositions throughout the series undoubtedly set the framework for the smooth flow of each episode, which began with the lively spirit of the show’s memorable theme song. The horn-filled, Bebop-inspired instrumental launched viewers into the quirky and fun universe of the show and set the tone each week as to what viewers might experience with the animated exploration of pre-teen city life.
Hey Arnold! [Official Theme Song]
[Video: Nick Animation]
“I remember, as we got onto the second or third series, thinking ‘I’m going to get as weird as I possibly can’,” Lang told Vice in a 2018 interview in relation to his experience working on the show. “‘I’m going to get some post-bebop Art Ensemble of Chicago weirdness into this.’ That was really fun – working with that freedom.”
The vibrant mix of lush, dreamy, and energizing jazz pieces heard throughout the series provided the necessary touch of color and companion for the adventures on which Arnold would embark alongside a colorful cast of friends, boarding-house roommates, neighbors, and eccentric grandparents. The smoothness of the instrumentals also helped to contrast some of the serious undertones which different episodes explored, and always found a way to compliment the scene without overtaking the dialog.
It wasn’t just the general introduction to jazz styles that made the show’s soundtrack such an enjoyable listening experience for the young and uninitiated. Lang’s compositions also delivered time and time again in pulling a plethora of emotional strings at some point in each episode. Pieces like “Headin’ South” uses the melancholy tones of trumpets, atmospheric keyboards, and soft rhythms to establish more of a relaxed vibe, as if the characters had just wrapped a long, rainy evening about the city. In contrast, a piece like “Harold’s Boogie” lifted the viewers into the hustle and bustle of urban life, while keeping the mood light and soaring upward thanks to the bright and quirky lead lines from the xylophone and the spirited sounds of horns.
Jim Lang – “Headin’ South”
Jim Lang – “Harold’s Boogie”
The piano and saxophone were also utilized by Lang to represent the innocent vulnerability of the show’s odd romance storyline between Helga Pataki and Arnold, as evident in tracks like “Helga’s True Love”. Also staying on the serious side, one of the more well-known episodes was that of the “Pigeon Man,” which featured a vagabond-like hermit character often found in cities across America. The theme to Pigeon Man does drift away from the traditional styles of jazz, but finds calming solace in soothing synths with some added strings and flute lines.
Jim Lang – “Helga’s True Love”
Jim Lang – “Pigeon Man Theme”
Revisit the show’s wonderful exploration of jazz via the 20th-anniversary soundtrack below.
Hey Arnold! Official Soundtrack [20th Anniversary Edition]
[Video: J. Otárola]
Fans can head to Jim Lang’s website to hear more music from his various projects over the years. It’s also worth noting that episodes of Hey Arnold! are available to stream on Hulu.