Posted by: Jeremy C. Young | December 19, 2011

The Classic Western Sound, I: Introductions

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.


  1. Yes, we’ve been imitating Moricone’s “Soundtrack Mexican” schtick so long that it’s a cliche. And?

  2. Right, but I’m going to argue that there’s more to it — that Morricone comes from a series of moves that move inexorably from one another, and that begin with Brahms and Mahler.

  3. Props for the intriguing hook, dude! You got my attention, Jeremy, for sure. Brahms and Mahler, yeah, they’re on that pink iPod. Interestingly, it turns out my taste in music is very much that of the Archivist of the United States David S. Ferriero, who befriended me this year (w00t! he is a totally awesome dude) — and to some degree, that of Richard Nixon. Go figure. Look forward to your future posts.

  4. […] operatives reportedly had a hold placed in 2009 on the nomination of David S. Ferriero as AOTUS.  Jeremy Young, Jonathan Dresner and I once exchanged comments in a congenial manner at HNN, at its blogs and under essays on the […]

  5. Sorry for the delay, Maarja — thank you for your comment and your mention in your blog (which I read often, though rarely comment any more). I hope the rest of the series lives up to your expectations!

  6. […] a whole bunch of the markers that you hear in the mature classic Western sound (see the video in my first post). So who is this guy, and what exactly is he doing to make us hear the Western sound in this […]

  7. Thank you, Jeremy. I just read Part II. Excellent points, especially about the use of folk music by Steiner. Very much in the tradition of Euro classical composers. Liked that you cited the New World Symphony.

    Pleased that you read my blog. You and the Big Dude, AOTUS David Ferriero read Nixonara. Wow! Seriously, I think you would like David and he would like you. You both understand Myers-Briggs and comm issues really well. (I know Ferriero’s four component MBTI as he told it to me once.) He also knows a great deal about classical music and reads very widely. Awesome dude.

    As you know, as a Navy hospital corpsman in Vietnam Ferriero’s specialty was neuro-psychiatry. I can tell that from the way David deals with people issues in public and behind the scenes. Very deft. Strikingly so.

    As head of the National Archives, David has demonstrated a passionate commitment to improving civic literacy and citizen engagement. He’s a contemporary of mine (just a few years older) but extremely forward thinking on technology issues. Totally gets the soc media thing. And he really understands outreach issues, in all their complexity and at multiple levels, as you do, too. I’ve followed what you’ve written about historians and public engagement for years. You really get it.

    Since Ferriero reads my blog, he knows I’ve cited your former blog, Progressive Historians, as a model for an historian engaging intelligently and comfortably with readers.

    I like your vibe, Jeremy. Have for a long time. You’re comfortable in your own skin and it really came through in your past blog and comes through now at this one. Stuff like that, you can’t fake.

  8. Maarja, thanks again! I’m honored by your comments and your continued friendship.

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