Try something for me: watch this commercial shot by students at the International Film College twice. First, listen to it with your eyes closed, and describe what’s going on in the scene. Then, watch it again with your eyes open.
You already knew what the commercial was about, didn’t you? You’ve just heard the classic Western sound — a type of music that somehow evokes virtually every romanticized notion Americans (and others) have about the American West. No matter what type of music you like to listen to, you know the classic Western sound. You’ve absorbed it through osmosis somehow; it’s part of your cultural identity.
Here are some interesting facts about the classic Western sound that you probably don’t know:
- There is nothing about it that is authentic to the old West, or any type of West except the Hollywood West.
- In large part, it is the work of just two outstanding composers, one of whom was an Italian, the other a New York Jew.
- It was the product of a gradual evolution — out of classical music.
Hopefully I’ve caught your interest. What I propose to do in the next few short posts is to explain to you what this is all about and how it happened. In each post, I’ll play you an important Western soundtrack theme, show you what the composer is doing to evoke the West, and explain what’s new about it and what’s consistent with what came before him. You don’t need any musical knowledge to follow along; your cultural understanding of the classic Western sound will be plenty.
Next time, we’ll start with a composer whose deep roots in German Romantic classical music should have made him ill-suited to write Western soundtracks — yet who played a major role in the development of the classic Western sound.