Monday, 5 January 2015

Music Mondays: Western Film Tunes

Welcome to another sporadic and unfinished series: Music Mondays! This is where, on the odd Monday, I share some things about music I like and why I like them. It's going to be eclectic and it's going to be bizarre.

Western Film Tunes
The Western Film genre probably has some of the most exciting or memorable theme tunes. They often capture so much about the genre itself: the sweeping landscapes, the palpable tension or the beat of hooves on the dusty terrain. There are some particular traits of film music that run through it like a thread of spaghetti (see what I did there).

1. Sweeping melodies
Often, the melodies are broad, with long, sustained notes on strings. It seems to me that sometimes the shorter notes are just incidental: a way to get from one long note to another. Often, the notes are augmented to emphasises this. One of the most iconic examples of the sweeping string melody is The John Dunbar Theme from Dances With Wolves.

If it's not the string section then it's probably the resonating brass timbres that carry the tune. Sometimes, it's shared between the two. Either way, they're going to be heavily underscored with the brass and strings. Sometimes, they will forego the strings or brass for a more interesting solo instrument, such as Man with the Harmonica from Once Upon a Time in the West. I like this version, because you can see what instruments are being used. And yes, there is an electric guitar (which crops up more often than you think in Western music). Notice how the brass and the strings underscore the flowing harmonica melody.

2. Percussion
It's not just the strings and brass that get the action in this genre, the percussion is pretty busy too. The tunes often have a strong beat and a driving rhythm made by whacking a few instruments with sticks. Sometimes, the beats are almost militaristic in nature. I think there is not a percussion instrument missing from Western scores; you'll find timpani, cymbals, xylophones and glockenspiels, woodblocks and even a few rain-sticks and vibraslaps. See how many percussion instruments you notice from The Magnificent Seven Theme. And don't forget to listen for those strings and brass.

3. Antiphony (call and response)
The melodies often have a sort of question and answer quality to them. There'll be a short rising phrase (probably comprising of sustained notes, played on strings), followed by a short falling phrase (or vice versa). This helps create the sweeping, undulating melodies. Often, one of these phrases is repeated throughout, often as a leitmotif that not only reoccurs throughout the piece, but throughout the film.

One brilliant and fun example of this call and response is in the overture for The Hallelujah Trail. Most of the melodies are made of up of short, repeating themes that are interspersed by a response. This is emphasised in sections when the call is made by one instrument, and it is responded to by another (which are, you've guessed it, brass and strings). But this structure becomes really evident just after half-way in. First, it is marked by a really interesting choice in percussion: clapping. Then the vocals kick in, with a call and response song, switching between male and female voices, and the whole choir together. It definitely has a marching-song quality to it. It's nigh impossible not enjoy the rousing tunes of this theme.

Now, I've put off including this tune for long enough. It has a bit of everything. The sweeping tunes, the percussion and the really, really famous leitmotif. It perfectly exemplifies the Western film tune. Oh, and it even has an electric guitar for good measure.

The famous two note leitmotif reoccurs throughout the piece and the film. It is used for the three main characters, but played on different instruments: flute, arghilophono (a type of ocarina) and vocals. These are shared throughout, it a call and response manner. It has a driving beat that begins on the timpani and goes through the whole percussion section. It even has brass and strings. You can't really get much better than this. This is why Sergio Leone is considered the quintessential Western film composer.

What's your favourite film music?
What do you think makes the perfect Western film?
Which examples have I forgotten?

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