Machine and Man: Alexander Desplat’s Imitation Game

From the first measures accompanying the film’s titles, Alexander Desplat makes a strong statement about the score and film to come. Machines and men, numbers and human emotion, they all coexist beautifully in The Imitation Game’s excellent score. But how does he do it, and why does it work so well? We’ll dive into that all that soon, all with musical samples that I will play for you. We will talk about leitmotifs to help you understand what I will talk about – similarly to the way in which I explained minimalism when analyzing Interstellar – and then we will look at and listen to some of the themes in The Imitation Game.

Musical Minds

Few things are as attractive for a composer as mind and emotion. Think about it: If what you are portraying can easily be demonstrated using images, what can music add to it? The wonderful thing about a beautiful mind – and by the way, a film carrying that name also has an amazing score that I recommend listening to – is that there is a lot going on “behind the image.” There is a lot going on inside that character (or characters) that we cannot see or hear in dialog. Under a great director, that goes in hand with the conducting thoughts that carry a great story.

Much alike Ron Howard in A Beautiful Mind, Morten Tyldum takes a very human approach to prodigal intelligence. But there is a crucial difference in the portrayal of intelligence in both films: A Beautiful Mind is a character study, The Imitation Game is not. As much as The Imitation Game focuses on Turing’s struggles, his brilliance and importance in history is conditioned by his machine’s success, which rely on Turing’s calculations. Turing’s mathematical brilliance is a key element in moving the plot forward, and we want him to succeed, we want his mind to save the world.  This was not the case in Ron Howard’s film, more focused on admiring intelligence than on its pragmatic effects on the real world. Both scores reflect that difference. And standing up for the challenge, Desplat manages to split the two characteristics into two intertwining themes, or motifs.

Understanding leitmotifs

1. Leitmotifs as we know them today were introduced by German composer Richard Wagner.

2. Wagner had an immense amount of admiration for Beethoven (though who doesn’t, right?), and had the belief that music and drama should go hand in hand from then on.

3. Wagner had a serious impact on the art of writing operas, somewhat setting the new standard.

4. When films were born  – or rather, when they started having customized scores – opera was the closest thing that had ever existed to scoring a film.

So, what are these leitmotifs, and how are they related to this film? They are simply leading themes, and it would be a huge stretch to say that Desplat’s score is in the style of a Wagnerian opera. For example, a film score built around leitmotifs, would work a lot like this one:

You don’t really need me to tell you what music is playing with that picture, do you? You know what that music would be. At the same time, you don’t need to see that picture to know what’s coming every time you hear the Imperial March! That is the power of leitmotifs. Musical themes representing characters and thoughtsThey’ve been tied to films even earlier than original scores have, since (e.g.) a pianist playing along a silent film would have a certain evil-sounding theme that would be played every time the bad guy comes in.

And I repeat it: The Imitation Game isn’t built around leitmotifs, at least not to that extent, but there is a relation. And there are big clues to be found in Wagner’s work, which brings us to…

The Imitation Game

Let’s take a look at what happens at both the beginning of Wagner’s entire (and we are talking about a 15-hour work) Ring Cycle, and see how it resembles the start of The Imitation Game. Quick reminder: Wagner is often regarded to as the father of leitmotifs.

A first leitmotif evokes the river Rhine, where Das Rheingold is set:


Rhein 1



Pretty, isn’t it? Now take a look at how it develops, and you will see why I titled this section “The Imitation Game”

Rhein 3


That’s right! The same thing again, played by different instruments. That’s how that line develops. And how it continues to develop, until it becomes something like this:


Rhein Developed


And then, the note density plus a few passing notes, help the theme develop into this:

Rhein Evolved

A second leitmotif, representing the Rheinmadens, comes as the melody, while the first theme is now used as accompaniment to the new leitmotif.

Rhein with Vocal



Sounds familiar? Check out the main theme for The Imitation Game.

First, a four-note pattern in repetition:

Imitation 1

Then, the same theme transposed, imitating the first one. Now, I promised to keep this analysis free of spoilers, so that’s all I can say. But if you have seen the film, give that some thought. And if you haven’t, you can still imagine that:

A. There is a strong reason for the film’s title

B. A theme imitating the very first theme you hear is kind of a clever way of starting to score a film called The Imitation Game.

Give it a look/listen:

Imitation 2

Do you know what that is called? That’s an ostinato line. Ostinato is Italian for Obstinate. It’s a line repeated with obstinacy. Now think about the literary themes portrayed in The Imitation Game… Wouldn’t you say obstinacy would be one of them? Ostinato lines are very popular in films nowadays, because they keep the story moving forward. Think of a mantra that you would repeat over and over to keep you focused. But they take an even bigger meaning in the story…

There is a wonderful example of how Desplat (possibly with Tyldum’s direction) uses this line. During the first hour of the film, we see the horror and despair that a German airstrike bring on the civilian population of England. An inexperienced composer would have probably gone for the dramatic, sentimental approach, full of strings and sorrow. But not Desplat and Tyldum. Whether or not it is due to the fact that the story is told through Turing’s eyes, Desplat prefers to show the need to keep moving forward. The attack over England is there to show urgency, not to get sentimental. There is no time to mourn: There’s a code to crack and a war to win. Desplat scores high on this one. Pun intended. 

But that’s not all. Remember the Wagner example? Just like in the Rhinegold, the original theme becomes the accompaniment a new melody: a beautiful, very sensitive violin line.

Imitation Full

Lovely, isn’t it? Not only does Desplat’s score invite us to live inside Alan Turing’s mind, it helps us move forward through the story, and then gives us more information about Alan Turing, the human being, all within the same musical cue. The Imitation Game works well as a thriller without losing sight of the character, and Desplat’s score does a great job achieving this marriage. In my opinion that’s what works so well about The Imitation Game’s score. It will have you biting your nails, laughing, and crying, and I truly don’t believe that would be possible without Desplat’s score.

And let’s go in even deeper. Notice the instrumentation and interpretation that Desplat chose. One theme, the one played on the piano, is even, repetitive, and almost automatic. It’s almost like looking at numbers: an invitation to the analytical side of Turing’s brain. Then there are the numbers imitating the numbers. More of the same. But when that pretty, colorful, (in the dorian scale, for musicians out there) , slower-paced theme comes in,  it is played by a violin section, and nothing says drama and expression more than that. That is the emotional journey that Turing goes through, the emotional side of Alan’s brain. That is the wonderful theme juxtaposition that makes The Imitation Game an amazing score.

What were your thoughts on The Imitation Game and its score? I would love to know! Let me know in the comments below, and don’t forget to tune in this weekend for more Alexander Desplat, as I analyze what is probably my favorite score of 2014: The Grand Budapest Hotel. 



Diego Delfino
Diego Delfino
Diego Delfino is an Argentine-Italian composer living in the United States, a film sound instructor at SAE Atlanta, and a former student of LSU, SAE, and the School of Music of Buenos Aires (EMBA). You can find out more about him at, as well as listen to some of his musical compositions.
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One comment to Machine and Man: Alexander Desplat’s Imitation Game

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