western standoff music

Western Movie Music & Genre: America’s Love Affair With The Old West

Western movie music is a definitive genre that creates specific imagery and transports the listener to the western frontier – making the western movie genre the epitome of the American spirit.

Typical western movie themes are about the frontier, the wild west, love, violence, and adventure. It’s a genre that has not only come to define part of American culture but also impacts other societies, other countries and it’s own sub-genres.

So what is the history of country western movies and its music; and how can you produce your own western theme songs? 

Let’s travel to the wild west to discover the answers.

An Introduction To Country Western Movies

The Western film genre began in the silent era and gained much popularity in the 1930s. It hit its peak in the 50s with classics such as High Noon, The Searchers, and Shane

John Wayne and Gary Cooper fueled box office hits, creating new imagery of the American West. This continued well into the 60s with the Sergio Leone classic starring Clint Eastwood The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly.

The popularity of the genre lies in the themes: civilization vs. the wild, taming the unknown, and manifesting destiny; all representing the American dream. 

The roots of commercialized cowboy culture romanticized the dangers and adventure of the frontier. It also valued the concept of owning and protecting your property on your own, a deeply rooted American value. Country western movies are truly an American genre with never ending tales of adventure and manifesto, love and violence. But more importantly, Westerns are a reflection of America itself. It has created an iconography of what the American spirit is and how the rest of the world views it.

While the cinematic influence of the Western, or the “cowboy genre”, has lost popularity in modern times, there have been some recent successes such as the remake of 3:10 to Yuma, Academy Award-nominated True Grit, and the widely popular HBO show, Westworld

While these newer interpretations of Westerns are a shadow of their old self in popularity, there’s no escaping the western movie theme songs that made the genre iconic. 

Westworld’s composer, Ramin Djawadi, made a genius interpretation of Soundgarden’s Black Hole Sun, on the slightly-out-of-tune saloon piano – a homage to the times with the reminder that it takes place in modern society.

The Roots of Western Movie Music

So where did this distinctive cowboy movie music genre come from? 

The beginning of country music comes from the mixing of Mexican folk music, Appalachian folk songs, and English/Scottish/Irish ballads. 

Western film music got its inspiration and musical influence from popular music from around 1865 to the 1900s. What Hollywood came up with was a mix of music from white settlers and the indigenous people of the area.

Life on the frontier was not one of luxury. If you weren’t constantly traveling on horseback through the range, you were in a dusty town with a single saloon for entertainment. 

It’s these scenarios that created that backbone of western movie music. It’s the soul, authenticity, and grit that makes the genre so identifiable. And with so many influences fueling the genre, it became easy for producers to make original sounding western film theme music. 

Here are a few musical aspects that vividly represent the wild west movie music genre.

Western Film Scores And Its Instruments

Simple String Instruments

Cowboys are always on the move, rounding up cattle on the range. So they needed simple instruments that were easy to travel with. The banjo, fiddle, and guitar are some of the classics. 

The simple plucking of piano strings can also give this raw, Western effect.

Take for example, this royalty free track; Pass The Spaghetti from Patrick Smith that is part of our Western Music library

Saloon Piano

You can’t have old western style music without the classic upright piano that’s tucked in the corner of the saloon. 

But you need a little more than just a classic upright to get an authentic-sounding cowboy western music instrumental. 

Many of the saloon piano sounds come from the fact that it’s slightly out of tune. This of course came from the fact that saloon pianos were not given the best care. 

As the composer of 3:10 to Yuma, Marco Beltrami explains, it’s a G# minor with E on top. 

But if you can’t get that perfectly out of tune sound, you can also resort to using a mandolin as it also creates that old-timey sound.

As an example, have a listen to John Wayre’s Old Saloon Rag.

Ocarina

The ocarina is a type of flute originally invented in Italy. 

It made its way as a staple for Western movie music with the popularity of “Spaghetti Westerns” – which were western films produced with an Italian crew. 

The ocarina made its film debut in Sergio Leone’s The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly. 

Ocarinas are now commonly used in modern spaghetti western music, western standoff music, parodies of Westerns, or simply as a cultural cue that a gun-slinging showdown is about to happen.

This is a perfect example of Spaghetti Western music courtesy of Patrick Smith and his track Pass The Spaghetti.

Tom Toms

Many composers looked to Native American culture for influence, as they were often characters in Western films. Most notably is the influence of percussion and drum rhythms. 

One of the most recognizable native instruments in a Western movie composition is the tom tom. 

The simple drum produces a hollow, almost ominous sound. It created a distinctive theme to cue in Native characters. It can also be used in country western movies to add depth to a scene and to signal the arrival of a native character.

Horns

The geographical location of Western movies also influences the types of instruments used in the score. As many take place in the American Southwest, Latin and Mexican culture comes into play. 

Horns make their way into several films, creating that classic cowboy movie theme music vibe – like Dominik Hauser’s This Is The Wild Wild West track.

Tempo

The tempo is one of many important elements of a western film; with most cowboy genre musical scores staying in 4/4 tempo, avoiding the slower, more romantic feel of a 3/4 waltz. 

Case in point, go listen to this track from The Sound Room.

Syncopation is also another popular tempo technique which has the music fall on the offbeat; creating a distinct rhythm like what Sergio de Ruiz Gamboa did on his track Farwest.

Another common tempo technique is to mimic the sound of a horse’s gait. There are three gaits: walk, trot, and lope that many composers try to replicate using tempo. This is one of the most common old west sound effects and is perfectly captured on this track by James Shepard.

Osintino is another popular tempo technique that repeats a measure or theme over and over again. This can also contribute to a sort of galloping sensation within the rhythm.

Last Man Standing by Dominik Hauser illustrates this mood perfectly.

 And while the influence of the Western has spawned several sub-genres over the past century; the musical themes of old western style music still play a huge role in its present interpretations.

How to Find Western Movie Music

If you are a composer, you now have the history and tools to make a great Western movie music theme. But if you are like most us you’re going to have to license it from a reputable library.

Maybe you happen to know one of these talented composers who can create an adventurous sounding western movie theme song. Or perhaps you’re thinking of hiring a musician to do the work for you. 

There are many options, but if you want to save time and money – purchasing royalty free western music from stockmusic.net is your best solution. Go browse our Western Movie Music Library and you will find a wide range of curated, high quality royalty free western music and old west sound effects made by professional music producers.

From western duel music like Dominik Hauser’s Duel At High Noon, to modern spaghetti western music, we have everything you need to score your western film project with authentic-sounding western film theme music – at a very reasonable price.  Purchasing royalty free music from us is not only easy, but a wise choice as well as we made the entire process easy and simple.

All you need to do is search and pick a song or effect you like, pay a one time fee, and get a license that legally allows you to use the audio forever.

The best part is, once you buy Western movie music from Stockmusic.net, you can use it again and again without having to pay additional royalties; or worry about copyright issues.

Looking to create something along the lines of the horror genre, check out How to Create Terrifying Horror Film Music.

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