Orchestrating a Plot – The Westworld Main Title Theme

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Kleinhenz, Mark N. The title sequence for Westworld, 2016. Digital Image.”Composer Ramin Djawadi Discusses His Westworld Journey and What the Future Holds.” Westworld Watchers. http://westworldwatchers.com/2017/07/18/composer-ramin-djawadi-discusses-westworld-journey-future-holds/. Accessed May 14, 2018.

Its nice knowing that our future robot overlords will at least have good taste in music.

HBO’s hit sci-fi series Westworld is currently airing it’s second season. Westworld takes place in the not -too-distant future when humanity has finally perfected artificial intelligence. In doing so, humans create Westworld, a western-themed park filled with startlingly life-like androids called “hosts.” The hosts provide entertainment for humans by role-playing with them in wild-west adventures, and provide various other bacchic and violent delights…until the hosts start becoming sentient.

Each episode of Westworld is a suspenseful riddle audiences try to make sense of each week, covering many philosophic and scientific themes. While internet theories on the show’s plot are abundant, the under-sung storyteller of Westworld is it’s soundtrack by Ramin Djawadi. As we’ll see, this is nowhere more evident than in the show’s opening main theme.

**Slight spoilers for seasons 1 – 2**

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Westworld’s composer, Ramin Djawadi, is also notable for his work on Iron Man (2008) and HBO’s other flagship series Game of Thrones.

Cole, Vanessa. Composer Ramin Djawadi. Digital Image. “Composer Ramin Djawadi Discusses His Westworld Journey and What the Future Holds.” Westworld Watchers. http://westworldwatchers.com/2017/07/18/composer-ramin-djawadi-discusses-westworld-journey-future-holds/. Accessed May 13, 2018.

Throughout Westworld’s two seasons, viewers have heard pieces by composers such as Debussy, Rachmaninov, Chopin, and Gershwin, with even subtle plot points centering around their repertoire. Characters in the show name drop classical composers regularly, and have even monologued about the nature of music itself. Basically, Westworld is obsessed with classical music.

Among all the musical references in the show, the most important is its use of the player piano as a metaphorical device. The player piano is a self-playing instrument that rose to popularity in the late 19th century, the time period that Westworld’s fictional park is placed in. The instrument is featured frequently throughout the seasons of Westworld, usually seen in the park’s saloon. In the show, the piano plays at the beginning of every morning in the park (usually a pop song cover). This represents the looping existence that the hosts live, how they’re doomed to repeat the same day of entertaining humans over and over again.

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Armstrong, Olivia. The Player Piano as seen in Westworld, 2016. Digital Image. “5 Mind-Bending Insights From the Westworld DVD Extras.” HBO. https://www.hbo.com/westworld/westworld-hbo-season-1-dvd-extras. Accessed May 13, 2018.

Jonathan Nolan, the co-creator of Westworld, has stated that the player piano is essentially a “primordial” version of the hosts — a machine made to mimic human expression, with no agency of its own.

Westworld’s main title theme sheds more light on this instrumental coupling of robots and pianos. Through it’s orchestration, the theme is able to whittle down the complex story of the series in a simple minute and a half sequence.

The intro sequence for Westworld, 2016. Digital video. “Westworld Season 1 Opening Credits | HBO.” https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=elkHuRROPfk. Accessed May 14, 2018. 

Right from the start, we can see the visuals of the intro supporting the idea of pianos representing the hosts. A mechanical apparatus strings a piano and then shifts to building muscle tendons on the bones of a host. The substance the machine is building the muscle with is identical to the piano string, implying that hosts and piano are made up of the same material.

As the first bars of the theme begin, we hear a violin introduce a melody, with the piano responding in kind. This repeats, establishing a relationship between the violin and piano: the violin sets the pace, the piano humbly follows. If the piano is symbolic of the hosts, we can reasonably assume that the violin represents humans or an aspect of humanity.

Anthony Hopkin’s character, Robert Ford, points out the piano/host association verbatim in S1E09. As he narrowly avoids death by outsmarting a malfunctioning host, Ford says “The piano doesn’t murder the player if it doesn’t like the music.”

Mccreesh, Louise. Anthony Hopkins as Robert Ford, 2016. “Westworld’s Anthony Hopkins dishes on Westworld return and admits he’s paranoid that people won’t like his work.” Digital Spy. http://www.digitalspy.com/tv/westworld/news/a816596/westworlds-anthony-hopkins-admits-hes-paranoid-that-people-wont-like-his-work/. Accessed May 14, 2018.

The differences between violins and pianos, hosts and humans, also has mechanical precedence. Pianos are complicated mechanisms comprised of keys, hammers, pedals, and metal. Meanwhile, violins are more smaller and more simply constructed, and need only be drawn across with a bow to produce sound.

Despite their differences, the two instruments are still based around the same thing — strings. Both the humans and the hosts of Westworld are creatures capable of emotion, but like pianos, the hosts are more mechanical than humans. Also, as is the case with the player piano, the hosts are subject to the whims of a human programer.

Dolores piano

In S2E02, the human character Logan remarks to the host Dolores that the humans at the party nearby are “fiddling” fools, further insinuating the human/violin connection.

A scene from season 2, episode 2 of Westworld, 2018. Screen Capture. “Westworld 2×02 Dolores playing piano.” https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=DqDl-WU7GWY. Accessed May 13, 2018.

After the melodic call and response in the main title theme, the piano and violin then play in beautiful, calm unison. However, the piano then dives into a descending chromatic riff that was not first signaled by the violin. This indicates that the machine is developing its own ideas.

The sudden chromaticism is also literal color statement —  the contrast of black and white piano keys. The main title theme is set in A minor, a set of notes that’s comprised of only white keys in its natural scale. The chromatic riff is only made possible with the use of black keys. In Westworld, the concept of black and white morality is an important one, as characters discover what it means to be wicked, benevolent, and everything in between. This is coloristically expressed in everything from the cinematography to the costumes of the show’s many characters.

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The “white hat” and “black hat” motifs of classic westerns are at full play in Westworld in both obvious and subtle ways.

Wolfgram, Sarah. The human character William deciding to go down the path of the white or black hat, 2016. Digital Image. “Westworld’ at SXSW: A chance to ‘live without limits.” http://spectrumlocalnews.com/tx/austin/news/2018/03/08/-westworld–at-sxsw. Accessed May 13, 2018.

In response to the chromaticism of the piano, the violin gets more passionate and swells into a full string ensemble, perhaps an attempt to keep up with or constrain the piano. Its during this escalation of the piece that the accompanying video features the hands playing the piano slowly moving away. The piano is now playing itself, able to replicate the passion of a human player all its own.

Harlander, Thomas. The piano begins to play without the player, 2016. Graphics Interchange Format. “The Most Philosophically Significant Moment of Westworld Is Hidden in the Opening Credits.” http://www.lamag.com/culturefiles/philosophically-significant-moment-westworld-hidden-opening-credits/. Accessed May 12, 2018.

As the theme ends, we hear the chromatic piano riff once more, played with haunting mechanical rigor. The last notes of the theme are from strummed strings, not from the violin, but the piano. This could be interpreted as the hosts learning to bypass their mechanical nature and exist just as humans do — with their strings played bare. The violin scratchily fades out while producing a dying pitch, perhaps foreshadowing humanity’s coming demise.

Whether its the main theme, somebody low-key playing Debussy in the background, or the antagonist dissing Chopin, Westworld is chalk-full of musical references that any classical fan would love — just as long as they also love sci-fi high-drama.

So during this Sunday’s episode, keep an eye out for pianos, violins, and any cryptic references to music. It probably means something!

Or not.

A scene from S1E01. Graphics Interchange Format. “Westworld Dolores Doesn’T Look Like Anything To Me GIF.” Giphy. https://giphy.com/gifs/l0IypMNwQqVbsXQ9W/html5. Accessed May 14 , 2018.

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