While the classic Western is defined by a great many iconic tropes—from the lone wolf antiheroes to the grand, sweeping landscapes—it’s difficult to deny its countless amazing scores have been the genre’s most prominent and enduring aspect over the decades. An essential tool in bringing the wonder and grandness to the mesmeric visuals and rugged characters, Western soundtracks, more so than plenty of other genres, have a significant role to play in the storytelling.
With the likes of Ennio Morricone, Dimitri Tiomkin, and Max Steiner, among the many great composers, plied their musical craft in the genre, Westerns have been very well served in this department for decades. From immortalized classics still enduring over 50 years to subversive scores from more recent times, Westerns have had no trouble creating some of the best soundtracks cinema has ever seen.
‘Dances with Wolves’ (1990)
After decades of domination from the genre and its countless mesmerizing scores, John Barry did the seemingly impossible job of re-imaging the sound of the frontier while making the perfect soundtrack for Dances with Wolves’ sweeping landscapes. The epic score includes 11 themes from a 95-piece orchestra and 12-person choir, took inspiration from Native American music, and stayed true to Barry’s trademark romanticism.
The score earned an Academy Award (one of seven the film won), a Grammy, and is still viewed as one of the mightiest soundtracks of any film, regardless of genre. To make the feat even more impressive, it served as Barry’s comeback after two years out of the industry due to a ruptured esophagus.
‘3:10 To Yuma’ (2007)
Having carved out a solid career as an astute composer for horror and action movies, Marco Beltrami made a name for himself with his score for 2007’s 3:10 to Yuma. From director James Mangold, the remake offered a grittier and sharper realization of Elmore Leonard’s classic novel than the 1957 original.
Beltrami focused on taking inspiration from many of the great Western soundtracks from the 1960s without being derivative of them, finding ways to innovate the score, such as using nature in the music. It earned Beltrami his first Oscar nomination, one of two nominations for the film received at the ceremony.
‘Brokeback Mountain’ (2005)
A romantic epic, Brokeback Mountain earned high praise upon release as a timely revisionist Western and was nominated for eight Oscars, winning three. While it may have been snubbed of a deserving Best Picture Oscar, the Academy recognized composer Gustavo Santaolalla’s achievements as he won his first Oscar for his haunting yet beautiful score.
The Argentinian composer leaned into an Americana style, underscoring every emotional beat of the film brilliantly. In addition to the Oscar win, Santaolalla was also nominated for two Golden Globes (winning Best Original Song for “A Love That Will Never Grow Old”) and a Grammy.
‘The Searchers’ (1956)
Often regarded as the greatest Western ever made, The Searchers boasted all the genre’s trademark spectacle while introducing a touch of darkness which has rendered it one of John Wayne’s most timeless pictures. Something of a revisionist Western from John Ford, the film touted a compelling boldness that needed a soundtrack to match.
It got one, with veteran composer Max Steiner delivering an amazing soundtrack that balanced traditional American ballads and anthems with the poignant character-driven tragedy of the story. Steiner’s work undoubtedly helped The Searchers reach its current standing as an all-time classic.
‘For A Few Dollars More’ (1965)
Sergio Leone’s anthological “Dollars” trilogy ranks among The Godfather and The Lord of the Rings as one of the best film trilogies ever made. For a Few Dollars More was the second installment, following two rival bounty hunters who unite to bring down a violent criminal gang and their fearsome leader.
While the characters and the adrenaline-pumping twists helped solidify the film as a classic, Ennio Morricone’s score made the film so much more rewarding. With the guttural chants, whistling, and the Spanish guitar featuring prominently, it built upon what A Fistful of Dollars’ soundtrack introduced to become one of the most iconic movie scores ever made.
‘Red River’ (1948)
One of America’s greatest Westerns, Red River is essentially a character-driven family drama unfolding against the backdrop of a sweeping U.S. epic as a rancher and his adoptive son, among other hired hands, embark on long cattle drive from Texas to Missouri. The film was well-received upon release and earned two Oscar nominations, but Dimitri Tiomkin’s score was astoundingly overlooked at the ceremony.
A grand symphonic soundtrack encapsulating the scope and grandeur of the characters’ journey, Tiomkin’s score has created a legacy as one of the most influential movie soundtracks ever made. Infused with famous American folk songs, the score calls upon familiarity to evoke passion from the audience, while at other times, it relies solely on the power of Tiomkin’s themes.
‘The Big Country’ (1958)
After almost 20 years working in the industry, Jerome Moross finally broke into his own with his energetic yet quite brutal score for The Big Country. Calling back on his experience in the Great Plains and the American folk music he adored as a child, Moross composed a soundtrack that added hefty weight to the characters’ emotions and embodied the mighty landscape of the story that transpired within.
Providing eight different themes and a motif, Moross’ soundtrack for The Big Country is viewed as his magnum opus, with the film’s central theme standing out as one of the best of Hollywood’s Golden Age. The score earned Moross his first and only Oscar nomination and has inspired composers of all genres in the decades since.
‘Once Upon a Time in the West’ (1968)
Another of Sergio Leone and Ennio Morricone’s timeless collaborations, Once Upon a Time in the West, is one of the finest spaghetti Westerns ever made. Amid a deadly scheme involving the railroad, a hunted widow, and a bandit resides the vengeful story of Charles Bronson’s leading man, referred to only as “Harmonica.”
The instrument, which is revealed to be essential to the character’s revenge plot, is a key element of Morricone’s soundtrack for the main character and one of the most iconic pieces of film music ever produced. However, with each character getting their leitmotif, the score evokes plenty of passion for all the characters and blends all its elements together for one hell of an epic climax.
‘The Magnificent Seven’ (1960)
One of America’s great Western blockbusters, The Magnificent Seven took Akira Kurosawa’s Seven Samurai and transplanted it into the Old West. Elmer Bernstein composed the film’s stellar soundtrack, making an exciting and rousing score that supported the all-star cast and epic tale quite beautifully.
Bernstein’s soundtrack earned the film its only Academy Award nomination and, in 2005, was included in the American Film Institute’s list of the top 25 American film scores, placing eighth. A rollicking score that brought pure wonder and amazement to the story can still excite audiences today like few other soundtracks.
‘The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly’ (1966)
Yet another Leone and Morricone collaboration, the iconic score for The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly is arguably cinema’s greatest ever. The soundtrack was an instant hit, featuring gunshots, whistling, and even yodeling to incorporate new and inventive ideas into the music, which exuded a fierce and cut-throat attitude very much in line with the film itself.
From the legendary main theme, which was designed to mimic a howling coyote, to its pulsating standoff tune “The Trio”, and, of course, to its gripping hit “The Ecstasy of Gold,” Morricone’s score is loaded with energetic numbers which helped elevate the film to be one of the greatest of all time.