The Historic Sound of Western Movie Scores

February 27, 2023
6 mins read

The music of Western movies is an essential element that helps create the iconic imagery and mood of the American West. This article will explore the musical features, their importance within the storytelling, and how they contribute to the unique atmosphere of these films.

American Western movies are regarded as one of the most definitive genres that evoke themes of adventure, love, violence and the exploration of the American identity. Transporting the viewer to the frontier of the wild west is captured in the imagery and from the evocative sound world of the film score.

Composers such as Ennio Morricone have created cinema’s most memorable scores. Such captivating scores instantly give us a taste of the bewildering wild west, from the vast sense of space to the tense gun showdowns between enemies. But how is this all created? What musical features make up this distinctive sound world? 

Origins of American Western Music

To understand the distinct sound of the American western movie genre, let’s return to where it all started. 

Origins can be traced back right to the 19th century. Cowboys are roaming the open plains and valleys of the American West, but how would they entertain themselves amongst the vast land around them? Through the medium of music. 

Cowboys would entertain themselves and fellow riders by singing folk songs accompanied by fiddles, guitars and harmonicas. This, in turn, became the foundation of the musical genre recognised today. 

In early Hollywood films, the music heard primarily borrowed from the era’s popular songs and folk melodies. This includes themes like The Streets of Laredo: a traditional cowboy ballad, also known as “The Cowboy’s Lament”, which tells a story of a dying cowboy reflecting on his life and experiences. 

Red River Valley is another traditional cowboy song, representing a cowboy leaving his loved one behind to go on a cattle drive. 

As western movies grew in popularity, composers were hired to score original music that specifically tailored the unique imagery and themes of the film genre. Those influences of traditional folk songs continue to inspire new generations of composers and filmmakers. It’s an exciting sound world that is continuously evolving. Composers such as Ennio Morricone, Max Steiner and Dmitri Tiomkin have implemented a style that provides some of cinema’s most memorable and impactful music. Let’s explore some of the musical features of American Western Movies. 

Musical Characteristics

The instrumentation makes this genre so unique to any other film genre. Most scores that are a part of the American Western genre are made up of acoustic instruments, from a full orchestral force to traditional folk instruments. These combine to create an expansive yet distinguished soundworld that accurately represents the American West. 

Close up shot of a cowboy figure with a black hat playing the harmonica.

With that, these instruments can adapt to various scenarios, from heroism and unlawfulness to more intimate and heartfelt themes. The brass instruments, for example, can be used in moments of grandeur due to their powerful timbre. The strings are typically the core of the orchestral force but are great for depicting tension and high drama. Percussion holds significant use in the American Western genre, ranging from the snare, tom toms and the classic bell sound, all of which drive the action forward, providing excitement to the scene. 

Other instruments that aren’t typical of the standard orchestra are heard in these scores. An example would be the Ocarina: a traditional flute instrument from Italy known for its mellow and haunting quality. This instrument was popular in modern “spaghetti” westerns, a sub-genre in the wake of Sergio Leone‘s filmmaking and westerns being produced with Italian crews. This instrument is the sound in Morricone’s iconic leitmotif for The Good, The Bad and The Ugly. 

Composers would also use vocals in their scores to help convey the storytelling and connect the audience more emotionally. The use of vocals in Morricone’s The Ecstasy of Gold has a poignant yet heroic nature. 

Banjos, harmonicas, fiddles and a saloon piano (which has a slightly detuned quality) are also heard in these scores as a nod to the traditional instruments cowboys would use back in the 19th century, giving a more authentic western sound. 

The Role of the Film Score in Westerns: Once Upon A Time In The West

While the role of a film score is to accompany the on-screen visual, provide the audience with a sense of the sonic atmosphere, and convey emotions that can’t be seen, in Western films, the music has a much more integral role. 

The music is so present in these American Westerns that it becomes an entity. Compared to many modern-day films, it’s much more at the forefront of the film than mere background music. Ennio Morricone’s Once Upon A Time In The West is a prime example of how music can tell the story just as much as the visual action. 

In this particular scene, the harmonica is an essential feature of the individual character (The Man With The Harmonica), so much so that Morricone took this to his advantage to compose one of the most significant leitmotifs in cinematic history. 

In this climatic moment, in just under 9 minutes, only eight words are spoken, and the music becomes an essential communicator. The character Harmonica uses this instrument as his voice to a certain extent. In musical terms, this would align with a tool called a leitmotif, a specific melody representing a character or scenario. 

(Spoiler alert of Once Upon A Time in The West)

Whenever we hear the theme, it signals to the audience and the characters in the story that he’s present. Upon entering the flashback, we hear the harmonica’s lament resonate amongst the silence of the desert. We learn the real reason for his revenge; we see how Harmonica is carrying the weight of his brother whilst being hanged on a bell. 

Harmonica’s brother refuses to subject his younger sibling to the cruel punishment and instead kicks him away so he can face the noose on his own will, while the bell tolls in the background, serving as a death knell. Moriconne expertly employs musical instruments to convey distinct situations, yet the lack of dialogue and the reliance on music to convey the scene creates a more engaging viewing experience. Moreover, the strategic use of silence heightens the drama and adds to the impact of the reveal.

This particular scene has become a significant influence on films in the 21st century. Pirates of the Caribbean: At World’s End takes homage to Morricone’s compelling soundworld and Leone’s masterful filmmaking. Hans Zimmer quotes Morricone, which works superbly, setting the tone of what is coming. 

Well-Renowned Western Movie Scores

Let’s examine some of the greatest Western movies and how the score enhances the on-screen visuals. 

In addition to Once Upon A Time In The West, Ennio Morriconne’s score for The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly is one, if not the most recognisable and memorable score of this unique genre. His compelling handling of the instrumentation and ability to deliver various themes is why this movie has stood the test of time. 

One of the most unforgettable cues is the Ecstasy of Gold. To many western fans, this is regarded as a masterpiece, and this music is still used today commercially. From the initial bell toll and piano ostinato, it sets the tone. From here, the cor anglais plays what we know as the central theme for this cue. The strings enter for more texture depth and a way to build dynamics. The main melody is replaced by a soaring lead vocal, accompanied by percussion, which sounds like a march. It continues to build, with the strings taking over the theme, and finally, the trumpet takes over. 

Moriconne uses a call-and-response technique with a theme between the strings and the lead vocal and trumpet. This back-and-forth exchange is a great dynamic and engaging technique that creates a sense of tension and release, making the motif much more memorable. 

Other honourable mentions include Elmer Berstein’s The Magnificent Seven, from the memorable melodies that take influence from traditional Western folk songs to the identifiable leitmotifs. Bernstein’s rich orchestration and incorporation of Western folk traditions create a brilliant score. 

Dmitri Tiomkin is another iconic composer for Westerns, including Rio Bravo. He handled instrumentation well, including vocal performances by the cast to add a sense of community and camaraderie. Furthermore, Tiomkin would incorporate non-western musical elements such as Latin rhythms and melodies to add extra flavour and represent the film set in the Southwestern area of America. 

To sum up, the musical elements, including the instrumentation and the integration of traditional folk songs, are vital in crafting the distinctive ambience of American Western movies, forming a sound world that truly captures the spirit of the Wild West. Ennio Morricone, among other composers, has produced some of the most significant and enduring scores in film history, influencing modern-day productions. Through the strategic use of instrumentation, vocals, and leitmotifs, these scores elevate the on-screen visuals, evoke emotions, and establish a sonic atmosphere, making them an integral part of the storytelling experience.

For more on music, check out these other articles:

Zoe Sones

Zoe Sones is a UK-based composer who focuses on acoustic contemporary classical and ambient electronic composition. In her works, she explores an array of textures and timbres of both instruments and nature’s very own sounds. She enjoys creating haunting electronic drones, writing harmonically rich and serene chords, while also being a bedroom DJ.