The Player Piano: Music in Westworld.

Before I begin, I want to say this article contains spoilers. Please do not read this post if you have not seen Westworld and you do not want any of the plot ruined for you. I discuss some key plot twists.

Westworld is a show rich with philosophical debates, literary allusions, art references, and the discussion of science. All of the areas stated in the previous sentence are large topics the human race tackles – and will continue to tackle – throughout time. What makes Westworld such a revolutionary piece of TV is its many layers. It is a TV show within the sci-fi genre. It is a show about love. A show about villains. About the Renaissance man. About current developments in science. And so much more.

This blog post will focus on how music is used in Westworld. Music is an important element in the show and interweaves tradition with the contemporary. Music is the glue that holds multiple plots together and if the soundtrack for Westworld was not so well thought out, I would argue the show would not be as brilliant as it is.

In general we are reminded that the word heimlich is not unambiguous, but belongs to two sets of ideas, which, without being contradictory, are yet very different: on the one hand it means what is familiar and agreeable, and on the other, what is concealed and kept out of sight. Unheimlich is customarily used, we are told, as the contrary only of the first signification of heimlich and not the second. – Sigmund Freud, The Uncanny.

I want to start with a quote from the father of psychology – Sigmund Freud. The quote above explains the psychological term “the uncanny”. For something to be uncanny, it must make the familiar become unfamiliar and therefore eerie. Westworld plays on this concept insanely well as the soundtrack is full of instrumental songs by famous bands. What is interesting is that the creators have not only chosen popular songs by artists but slightly more obscure pieces that only fans of the bands would probably recognise. If you love Radiohead, you will notice they appear everywhere in this show. If you are a casual Radiohead listener, you will probably be able to pick up the change in music the player piano in the saloon plays from classical to a more contemporary sound.

One of the most iconic scenes in episode one of Westworld is the massacre by Hector and his gang. As the hosts are slaughtered, a familiar tune plays. Eventually you realise it is Paint it Black by The Rolling Stones. A popular song becomes alien due to the orchestral rendition and the added intensity the song carries when paired with this scene. Go and listen to the orchestral version of Paint it Black afterwards and you will find it difficult to disassociate the song with the scene.

Another example is in episode eight when the piano (which is a motif throughout the series) plays Back to Black by Amy Winehouse. As a contemporary audience, most of us will already have a pre-existing relationship with this song. We hear it on the radio when we drive home, it is in the background of adverts on the TV, we have the album on our MP3 players but hearing the song slightly altered (as a piano piece) and in a nineteenth century setting makes the song uncanny. Winehouse’s song juxtaposes the classical music played during the series. Despite not hearing Winehouse’s voice, you as an audience who is familiar with the original song can layer the lyrics onto the scene and relate the words to Mauve’s narrative. This shifts the scene being about a prostitute in the nineteenth century to a being facing contemporary issues.

The alternative versions of modern songs (House of the Rising Sun is haunting) work as signifiers to automatically grasp the audiences attention. Shifting the music to the unfamiliar familiar causes active viewing during key scenes, such as Mauve’s epiphany in the scene above. It emphasises the complexity of the show that it is not simply a period drama, or a sci-fi, or a hybrid of the two genres. Just like the timeline of the show, the music allows the show to float in time and space to create a sense of uncertainty of what is actually happening and where we actually are in both the story’s timeline.

Now for the big spoiler.

The two examples of modern music I have mentioned in this post contain the world “black” in the title. Analyse the lyrics and names of multiple songs on the soundtrack and a lot of imagery about darkness and night will become evident. Of course, this links to the idea of dreams – which are vital to the plot of Westworld and deserve another blog post entirely dedicated to them – but the repetition of darkness alludes to the big reveal in episode ten.

We follow Black Hat (played by Ed Harris) throughout the park in season one and only really know he wants to find a deeper story-line to the park. Episode ten reveals Black Hat is William and making the theme of darkness even more significant. Again, an entire blog post needs to be dedicated to this plot twist.

This is just a brief analysis of music in Westworld. I could say a lot more about the use of Radiohead in the series or the use of classical music, but I wanted this to be a brief introduction to the contemporary music in the series. The music in Westworld definitely acts as a glue to keep the layers of the show together and allow complex ideas to be played with.

I am planning on making this the first post in an ongoing series about Westworld. It is such a complex show and has plenty of themes to analyse. I particularly want to talk about the use of clothing in the show. Let me know if you would be interesting in reading that!



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