Music in Film

The Good, the Bad and the Ugly (1966)

The soundtrack for this classic Western film was composed by Ennio Morricone, and has become so famous that fifty years later many people who haven’t even seen the film will recognise the main theme.

The title music is a distinctive motif based on two alternating notes, with a slight pitch bend at the end which gives the impression of something wild and untamed.  It is played as the three main characters are introduced and is given a slightly different twist for each one: played on flute / pipes for the ‘good’, more sinister sounding lower pitched pipes for the ‘bad’, and a savage voice for the ‘ugly’.  This association continues throughout the film, usually at the end of a scene or shot where one of the characters has done something significant, underlining the moment and giving the film a sense of cohesion.

The orchestration of this soundtrack is particularly interesting to analyse.  The most commonly occurring instruments are ones that would likely have been played in a real setting in the ‘Wild West’, such as the harmonica, accordion, pipes, castanets and guitars.  These instruments along with a fiddle can all actually be seen playing live music as a band in one particular scene (known in the industry as diegetic music).  Also to be heard at various points are tribal singing/shouting, whistling and bell gongs, all of which fit well with the desert setting and make the film feel very tangible.  Where orchestral instruments are used they have been carefully chosen with the specific scene in mind; for example brass instruments which are often associated with the military are used in a battle scene (an urgent trumpet fanfare) and also a more sombre shot of dead and injured soldiers.

The placing of music within the film is another interesting aspect.  There are sometimes long silences or dialogues where music is not used at all, and this absence intensifies the effect when it does finally start.  One good example is near the beginning of the film; music kicks in very suddenly after an unexpected shooting: an instantly loud, high-pitched, chromatic and unsettling passage startles the viewer and increases the scene’s tension and horror.  Another particularly powerful scene takes place in the remote desert when Tuco leaves Blondie to fend for himself without water or shelter in the heat of the sun.  Quiet tremolo strings set up the suspense as the scene starts to play out, and then a bassoon accompanies Blondie during his long journey through the desert with a melancholy melody.  After a while it modulates upwards to a different key which is effective in suggesting the passage of time.

It wouldn’t do the soundtrack justice to end this discussion without at least a brief analysis of the legendary duel scene at the end of the film.  After a sudden, suspenseful silence while the three characters eye each other up, a sparse musical accompaniment begins again: rumbles in the timpani and gun fire effects adding to the sense of unease.  The music builds up to a satisfying climax with a slow, deliberate and powerful trumpet melody and driving rhythm in the accompaniment.  As the first shot is fired the music instantly stops again, leaving just the audible whistling of the wind in the trees – immediately both breaking the tension of the duel and beginning yet another kind of tension as we are left to wonder how it will end.

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