From its very beginnings as a genre, Western film has trafficked in the iconic, in the larger-than-life imagery of the tall tale and the never-ending, expansive wilderness that forms the crucial backbone to these stories. More than perhaps any other genre, Westerns deal in types, with their characters standing in for the Other, the Immigrant, the Hero, and the Villain (in their black hat), telling universal stories of camaraderie and isolation, of running from and fighting for civilization, and morality tested by the harshest circumstances. The conventions of the genre run the gamut, from performance (heroes must be taciturn!) to costuming and scenery (gotta have a tumbleweed), and one of the most important elements to any Western is its score.
Most Westerns, particularly those from the heyday of the genre, feature orchestral scores. Given the American frontier setting, most scores tend to feature a number of specific characteristics which have come to define for many the sound of American orchestral music, regardless of the actual variety of American music both at then and now. The single composer most influential in developing the sound later adopted for Westerns is Aaron Copland, whose work even those utterly uninterested in orchestral music will know (including “Hoedown” from Rodeo, or the “Beef. It’s what’s for dinner.” song). Copland was a prolific composer but also impacted a generation of musicians as a teacher, including Elmer Bernstein, who wrote the score for The Magnificent Seven, and many more.
One of the most common characteristics of orchestral scoring in Westerns is the use of leaping melodies. Rather than going up or down a scale one note at a time, Western themes tend to outline chords, jumping by thirds, fourths, and fifths and leaving out the passing notes in between. Listen to this example, “My Rifle, Pony, and Me” from Rio Bravo:
The introduction has some stepwise motion, “sun is sinkin’” and “redwing settles in”, but otherwise this song is almost entirely comprised of leaps. The same is true of the Bonanza theme, below, and countless others. Both songs are also in 4/4 time, another characteristic of Western scoring. Other than the rare use of a 3/4 waltz beat, for a slow dance or romantic moment, most orchestral scoring is in a strong 4, regardless of tempo.
Another common trait is syncopation, where the music falls inbetween the beats, rather than on them. A famous Western example of this is the rhythmic introduction and accompaniment to the main melody of the theme for The Magnificent Seven, which begins at 22 seconds into the clip below. While this famous excerpt features prominent syncopation, the underlying beat, the strong sense of 4, is never lost, and that’s typical of the genre. This is also a fine example of ostinato, or the repetition of a particular measure or rhythmic motif over and over, which is another very common musical trait of Westerns.
Orchestration for these scores unexpectedly tend to highlight instruments audiences connect with the frontier, including violin or fiddle, horns and trumpets, particularly if the cavalry or military or a mariachi band play a role in the film, and more cowboy-friendly instruments like guitar and harmonica, even whistling. Composers also tend to incorporate shifts in tonality, rhythm, and orchestration for scenes and moments featuring Native American or Mexican characters. Whereas scoring for the majority of the film will usually stay in major and minor tonalities, the score often becomes a bit more ostentatious and adventurous tonally to cue the appearance of non-white characters.
Each of these tools are incorporated to provide elements of Mickey Mousing, a technique coined for the use of music in Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, as well as thematic tone-setting. An example of Mickey Mousing, or mimicking of the on-screen action in the music, would be the use of steady, fast, and repetitive music during a scene of a character riding a horse at a gallop. The speed and repetition of the music matches the stride of the horse and keeps the audience involved in the action onscreen. The leaping intervals give the illusion of space and openness, matching the wide-open frontier setting, as well as the leaping motion of a horse at a gallop, an image that pops up frequently in Westerns. The rhythmic base of 4 mimics the left-right left-right motion of walking or riding a horse as well. Syncopation drives the pulse forward without speeding up the tempo, pushing the audience’s energy without overdoing it, and ostinato, whether the tempo is fast or slow, gives the sense of repetition, be it in a farmer’s daily routine or the unchanging landscape of a seemingly endless desert or prairie.
Original orchestral music is just one element of Western scoring. Another common compositional tool is the use of popular music, parlor songs, folk songs, and hymns. John Ford in particular favored using these songs and his films are full of them, featured both diegetically and incorporated into the score. A song may be used to represent a character, as with Lucy Mallory in Stagecoach (“Jeannie with the Light Brown Hair”), to fill the audience in on elements of a character’s backstory, as with Ethan Embry in The Searchers (Confederate ballads “Lorena” and “Bonnie Blue Flag”, memorably used in the intro, below), as part of the onscreen action that also comments on the film’s themes, as in High Noon (“Battlehymn of the Republic” sung in church), or as a narrative device, as in Rio Bravo (“De Guella”).
The strong, silent hero may be the type we most associate with Westerns now, but an equally prominent persona was the singing cowboy. Based in reality (cowboys would sing at night while they patrolled the cattle so they’d be heard approaching and wouldn’t startle the cows when they rode up), this more light-hearted approach to the protagonist was a staple of radio before breaking through in the ‘30s and ‘40s with stars like Gene Autry and Roy Rogers. The music featured in these films and television shows was incredibly successful and influenced the development of country and western music. By the ‘50s, however, this style of Western and lead had decreased in popularity and by the end of the decade, they’d all but disappeared.
One singing cowboy, Tex Ritter, found renewed success, however, with his hit, “Do Not Forsake Me, Oh My Darlin’”, the theme song for High Noon, below. Prior to High Noon, it was rare for dramatic films to have an opening theme song, but it was such a success, both the film and the theme independently, that this became common practice. Composer Dimitri Tiomkin builds his entire score around this song, which plays over the opening credits and outlines the central conflict of the film. The success of the film, and score, led other directors to use this technique but it was rarely as successful. The necessary climax of High Noon becomes clear early on and the entire film builds anticipation and dread for this showdown; the sense of foreboding is only heightened when the opening song tells the audience what’s to come. In other films, this practice served to spoil the upcoming action.
Again, note the characteristics from earlier. The song, in clear 4/4, opens with ostinato mimicking the chugging of the train to come later in the film and this continues, almost oppressively, throughout the entire piece, emphasizing the inevitability of the coming conflict. Also, while the refrain uses quite a bit of stepwise motion, the verse is almost entirely leaps.
Theme songs may have been a popular staple of Western film, but the ones that have stayed most in the public consciousness are the television themes. Westerns dominated the small screen, to an almost unbelievable extent, and though most today will not have seen these series, even the long running classics Gunsmoke and Bonanza, themes from these shows and others have permeated popular culture. From “The Ballad of Davy Crockett” (Davy Crockett) to “Happy Trails” (The Roy Rogers Show), many Western TV themes have already outlived their series. It will be interesting to see how long they remain culturally significant, and for what reason (for example, at this point, more people probably know “Rawhide” as a song from Blues Brothers than as the titular theme song for a TV show about cattle drivers).
Of the myriad Westerns, a few feature scores that stand out among the greatest ever composed for film. Elmer Bernstein’s The Magnificent Seven, above, with its sweeping main theme, consistent and well balanced underscoring, and interesting secondary themes, is easily in the conversation as one of the absolute best. Another standout is Ennio Morricone’s The Good, The Bad, and the Ugly. Morricone is inarguably a master, with a career full of excellent work, but The Good, The Bad, and the Ugly features one of the most memorable themes ever composed.
Working with the same two-note motif, Morricone creates a unique feel for each of the three titular characters via instrumentation (flute for the Good, ocarina for the Bad, and human voice for the Ugly) and then incorporates these as leitmotifs throughout the film, bringing them to the forefront to represent each character as needed. There’s plenty of other interesting scoring in the film as well, and a restrained approach to several of the scenes which are heightened by a lack of music, but this theme alone is enough to earn this score’s place as one of the best. For an interesting melding of music that fits some of the standard characteristics above and throws others out the window, check out Jerry Fielding’s score for The Wild Bunch, and a recent interesting addition to the genre is Johnny Greenwood’s fantastic score for There Will Be Blood.
From the rollicking strings accompanying a horse race through the prairie to a lone harmonica played to a peaceful sunset, Westerns have developed a musical language all their own, to go with the white hats of the heroes and the swinging doors of the saloons. Regardless of the universality of the pioneer experience, these images and sounds have been inextricably tied to a sense of Americana, of a time and place that may never have really existed, but is sure fun to visit now and again. It may not be the most subtle genre, but Westerns tell stories in a way little else can, through type and trope, in broad, colorful, memorable strokes. It’s only fitting the music of the Western should match.