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  • Writer's pictureToby Ellis

Mission Impossible-ing Part 1: The Theme Deconstructed – Music & Sound Studies – Ref

Updated: Jul 18, 2019


The Mission: Impossible (1996) scene – Famously with no music attached to it

Mission: Impossible-ing…

Here we are at reflection article 6! And this week, over two posts I wanted to talk about thematic musical composition and the re-use and development of a theme. Given that after my profound love of Mission: Impossible Rogue Nation in 2015, the 2018 summer instalment Mission: Impossible Fallout came to me as such an unanticipated audio phenomenon and debatably one of the best sounding and best directed action movies I think I have ever seen; I just could not pass up the opportunity to take a short moment to not only express my love for Fallout and many a glimmer in the rest of the franchise but to also critically research and analyse into the way in which the sound & score functions within the narrative of the Mission Impossible saga.

The fist to the air thrill ride experience that is in my own humble opinion, and arguably considered by many as one of the most prolific action and adventure movie franchises in the history of cinema to date… Mission: Impossible. With incredible directorial delivery from 5 differentiating incredibly admirable directors including the likes of Brian De Palma, Brad Bird, J.J. Abrams and Christopher McQuarrie; from iconic into extravagant movie set pieces (that will completely knock the stuffing out of you by Mission: Impossible Fallout); led after 6 movies spanning over 22 years by veteran action hero Tom Cruise and most importantly of all the phenomenally and wonderfully rich musical theme that has been resiliently standing the test of time since the year 1966. Considered ‘among the most well-known and enduring musical motifs in popular culture’ (2018. P.54) the mission impossible theme is up there with the most resilient. Certainly is when you think with the likes of John Williams’ orchestral masterpiece Star Wars (1977), Monty Norman and John Barry’s suave and unquivering ‘James Bond Theme’ (now past its 24th outing with Spectre in 2015) and Morton Stevens’ groovy tones and blistering drum solo intro for the piece for hit show Hawaii Five-O (still airing prominently on prime time television today).

But why? What makes it so unique? And how has Schifrin’s theme been applied to the franchise so effectively to keep it so maintained in its current distinctive state as one of the greats? This today for the benefit of my own compositions is what I wanted today to explore…

The Theme – Deconstructed 

For the purpose of history and understanding, below is Lalo Schifrin’s upbringing of the ‘Mission: Impossible Main Title Theme’ in all it’s original glory. With the further television show title variations included, relating to later series all the way up to the series end in 1973:

Theme Analysis:

  1. First thoughts: Embodies thrilling mystery and energy.

  2. At a glance its not obviously melodically accessible/appearing conventional to the lister:

  3. For starters its in a 5/4 time signature.

  4. It leaps across wide intervals that are hard to sing.

  5. It has chromatic notes outside its natural minor – It hits 9/12 of the notes involved in the chromatic scale.

  6. The Base: 2 Bar Bass Riff.

  7. Gives a solid foundation for the theme and something to easily relate back to.

  8. Tonal Centres are used as opposed to chords. (In the case of the starting in the key of A Minor)

  9. A Minor – 8 Bars

  10. D Minor – 4 Bars (Melody shifts up 4th to the sub dominant of the key)

  11. A Minor – 4 Bars

  12. Almost every bar of the melody is starting with the same two notes each time.

  13. In the key of A minor it would be A and C. Key Note and Minor 3rd.

  14. These two notes define the key and aid in giving us something else to relate to in between the held melodic notes that leap extreme intervals.

  15. Extreme Intervals – Augmented 4th, Major 7th, Minor 7th, Major 6th.

  16. Held notes instead follow a pattern moving down in semitones, making each bar a response to the previous one.

  17. Melodic Shape – Over 8 Bars

  18. First 4 Bars

  19. Second 4 Bars (Inversion of the first 4)

Overall the piece takes on all the principles and features of a winning strategy for producing a world class theme:

  1. The Two Bar Bass Riff

  2. The Solid Tonal Center

  3. The Short Repeating Notes in the Melody

  4. The Held Notes Falling In Semitones

  5. The Melodic Patterns In Each Evolving Bar

Giving the seemingly anarchic melody some musical order and providing a balance between musical turmoil and musical sense.

Introduction to Thematic Application – My Favourite Moments

Mission: Impossible 1966


Mission Impossible – 1996

Mission: Impossible – 1996. Musical Score Composed by Danny Elfman

In Mission: Impossible my favourite use of the theme is where we reach the unpredictable end to our story. Ethan Hunt finds himself on top of a high speed bullet train, his head about to be turned to mush by the blade of a helicopter that has found its way into a tunnel in pursuit of the train carriage. Just before it does the helicopter snags on the tunnel and Hunt seizes the opportunity, he springs into action pulling out one last trick up his sleeve. He leaps with all his might onto the side of the helicopter, a heroic theme actions as he jumps and lands and as soon as he does the Lalo Schifrin theme kicks in with such sass that its impossible to resist the urge to crack open a smile. Hunt grabs his exploding gum, gives a cheeky line to the villain Jim Phelps (Jon Voight) and slaps it on the front of the helicopter. The theme then indicates with bigger stabs, some notes moving up chromatically to anticipate the explosion as Ethan springs back to the train and avoids a near miss with the theme returning for a close shave at the finish…


  1. Themes and Titles. (2016). Mission: Impossible Theme and Title Sequences. [Online Video]. 16 April 2016. Available from: . [Accessed: 7 November 2018].

  2. nx610. (2012). Atonement – Joe Wright – opening scene. [Online Video]. 10 February 2012. Available from: [Accessed: 8 November 2018].

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