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What’s the Story Behind the Hit Magnum P.I. Theme Song?

The Magnum P.I. theme song many have come to know and love wasn't the same title song used in the pilot of the original series in 1980 – but when it did debut later that season, it quickly  became a fan-favorite.

By Jill Sederstrom
Does the New Magnum P.I. Ever Reference the Original Show? | Magnum P.I. | NBC

The Magnum P.I. reboot has its own unique take on the crime-fighting private investigator Thomas Magnum — but key elements of the show including the Hawaiian shirts, red Ferrari, and instantly recognizable theme song continue to pay homage to the original series.

How to Watch

Watch Magnum P.I. on NBC and Peacock.    

The Magnum, P.I. theme song from the 1980s is a regular on best tv theme song lists with its action-packed high-tempo beat, but many don’t realize the original theme they’ve come to know and love wasn’t always the series opener.

When Magnum P.I. premiered in 1980, starring a mustached Tom Selleck as the heroic private investigator, the title sequence of the show was a jazzy theme composed by Ian Freebairn-Smith, according to Art of the Title.

It was replaced mid-season by the theme song many know today. The new theme was created by the successful song writing duo Mike Post and Pete Carpenter and eventually became a Top 40 hit in 1982.

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Post was in his 20s when he met a much older Carpenter — who was then in his 50s — at a golf tournament in 1968, and they formed what Post described in an interview with the Archive of American Television as “the best partnership this town has ever known.”

“We worked together 18 years, we wrote approximately 1800 hours of television together,” he said.

Despite their different backgrounds (Carpenter’s background was in the brass section, while Post’s expertise was in the rhythm section), the business partners worked seamlessly together.

“I don’t know who wrote what. I never gave one s--t who wrote what, he never gave a damn who wrote what. At the end of it, we looked at each other and laughed,” Post said of the partnership. “We laughed all the way through it. We never had a contract, never had an unkind word between us, not one, not one argument.”

A good theme song, according to Post, “becomes a character” on its own and adds to the drama or comedy.

“It’s magic and I don’t even know how it happens,” he said of the song-writing process. “About half the time or three-quarters of the time, I’m a witness, you know, I’m just kind of standing there you know and the train comes by and it’s oh ok, we’re going to do that.”

The Magnum P.I. theme was “very easy to do” because of Post’s own connection to the show’s titular character.

“I had gone to grammar school, junior high and high school with Tom Selleck, been friends with him my whole life,” Post told the Archive of American Television.

That insider knowledge made it “easy to capture” the essence of the character, Post explained.

“It was right there,” he said. “I mean, he was just right there.”

After Carpenter’s death in 1987, Post went on to create music for Law & Order, Law & Order: Special Victims Unit, NYPD Blue, Doogie Howser, MD, The Commish, Silk Stalkings, Quantum Leap and more, painting the musical backdrop to American television.

Fast-forward more than 30 years and composers Brian Tyler and Keith Power needed to give the iconic ‘80s Magnum P.I. theme song a face lift for the reboot of the series, which stars Jay Hernandez as the crime-fighting private detective.

“I grew up on Magnum P.I., you know,” Tyler said in a video on TikTok from a Warner Brothers recording stage.

Tyler wanted to honor the original theme while creating something new for the next generation of fans.

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“It’s not every day that you get to record an orchestra for a tv show, but on this, we — it was great, we had the backing of the studio, they said, ‘You know what, if you want to do orchestra and do it for real with strings and brass and make it even bigger, [OK].’ We used a bigger orchestra than even the original,” he said. “It has that really new sound of the drums and guitar with the classic sound of, you know, brass and strings. It’s kind of like a throwback, you know, a nod to the past, while doing something new.”

Tyler described the new version of the song as “very epic” and “action-packed.”

“It has a rock feel to it,” he said. “It’s that hard-driving rhythm section that just all came together.”

To catch up with Magnum and his partner Juliet Higgins, tune in to Magnum P.I. Sundays 9/8c on NBC or available streaming on Peacock the next day.

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