It’s one of the single most recognizable musical motifs in film history: a keening wail over a heavy bass drum beat, followed by low, staccato horn blasts. Ay-ya-yahhh. Wah-wah-wah. Then a reverb-heavy guitar kicks in, along with a chorus of background voices and a martial beat, and you immediately feel like you’re in the most feral outpost in the wild, wild West, staring down sweaty, stubbly men as the instrumental builds to an massive crescendo. This is the theme of The Good, the Bad and the Ugly. It’s the sound of an entire world laid out in front of you, before you’ve even seen a frame of film.
We, of course, have Ennio Morricone to thank for the score that’s most closely associated with both “spaghetti Westerns” and Clint Eastwood’s early frontier antiheroes — as well as dozens of other memorable soundtracks for European genre flicks, Hollywood blockbusters and a lot more. The Italian composer, who died at age 91, may have been closely associated with the gloriously over-the-top subgenre, but his work runs the gamut from the oddball instrumentation of his early collaborations with Sergio Leone and Sergio Corbucci to the more lush orchestration of his work on period pieces, historical melodramas and more. Here’s a quick rundown of 10 of his essential soundtracks. Ciao, maestro.
A Fistful of Dollars (1964)
Sergio Leone and Morricone had actually attended the same primary school as children — though when the director called the composer in 1963 to ask about collaborating on a project then titled The Magnificent Stranger, neither of them immediately remembered they’d met before. He was hoping Ennio would contribute some music pieces to a Western he was working on. Even though Italian horse operas had been, per Morricone, “in a state of crisis” for a while, Leone wanted to turn this loose, gunfighter-centric remake of the Japanese film Yojimbo into something mystical — and different. From the moment you hear the first few bars of Fistful‘s opening theme, in which a gently strummed guitar is accompanied by the sound of whipcracks, rapid flute notes and what sounds like a church tower bell in the center of a rural Texas town circa the 1800s, you feel like Morricone nailed the “different” part. And then the choral voices and whistling (!) kick in against the fat, twangy guitars, and boom: you’re into the mystical. The album would change the genre and top the sales charts for soundtracks in Italy. It was the beginning of a beautiful partnership.
For a Few Dollars More (1965)
For the duo’s follow-up to A Fistful of Dollars, Morricone built off his original recipe of vocals, guitars, timpani and whistling — but this time he also added Bach references and a bouncy jaw harp into the mix, as well as what he’d call more “guttural” chanting in the background. The composer also somehow makes the score seem like it’s galloping faster than its predecessor, and the sound of a music box (evoking one character’s childhood) and a tinkly player piano add a patina of nostalgia to what is, by the maestro’s own admission, a darker and more sorrowful score. (See: “Il Vizio D’Uccidere.”) It’s also a beautiful balance of the spare and the majestic, a combination that suited the director’s vision to a tee. “Leone and I were in tune,” he admitted in the 2016 book Ennio Morricone: In His Own Words, “agreeing on all the nitty-gritty details prior to and not after shooting.” That “synergy” would pay off even more in their next film.
The Good, the Bad and the Ugly (1966)
“[I wanted] to evoke the coyote’s voice in order to convey the idea of animal violence in the Wild West,” Morricone said. The question was: How? He came up with the idea of transposing “two hoarse male voices” and using a wah-wah effect on them…and the rest is film history. The final entry of “the Dollars trilogy” gives each of its three protagonists a signature sound — a “good” flute, a “bad” ocarina and some “ugly” vocals — and layers in lots of horns that often suggest a Western calvary charging into battle…or an army retreating. Everyone knows the main theme, but flamenco-esque track “The Trio” (those mariachi horns!) and the exquisitely epic “The Ecstasy of Gold” are equal stand-outs; Metallica began using the latter track as opening music to their concerts. This is what a perfect score sounds like.
Once Upon a Time in the West (1968)
The opening track is as operatic and mournful as the movie’s title; the next cut (“As A Judgment) is all skeletal, sharp guitars (Morricone said he wanted them to “wound the audience’s ears”) and what sounds like a hot wind blowing through a graveyard before a horn section comes in. And what else would you use as the musical signature for a character named Harmonica but…a harmonica. The soundtrack for Leone’s great post-Dollars trilogy Western is all over the place — the track “Bad Orchestra” lives up to its name, and makes great use of a slide-whistle, a tuba and a banjo — but Morricone understood that this brutal revenge tale starring Charles Bronson and Henry Fonda (as one nasty villain) was, at heart, a melancholic story of the fading West. The fact that he wrote “Jill’s America,” one of the most moving pieces he ever composed for a film, and made it fit into a violent tale of retribution gives you a sense of how much depth he could add to what were still considered “B movies,” Hollywood stars be damned. Leone wanted to make a story about payback and a civilization going gently into the night. You can hear it in the music.
The Thing (1982)
No slouch in the film-score–composing department, John Carpenter nonetheless sought out one of his idols to work on the soundtrack to his remake of the 1951 sci-fi classic. “All I said to him was, ‘Fewer notes,’” the director said. “If you see The Thing, the ultimate theme is the result of our conversation: really simple, synth-driven, effective.” For fans used to the Italian composer’s reverb-y walls of sound and heavy guitar/woodwind scores, his ominous music is indeed simple — and definitely effective. And the while you can hear bit of Carpenter and some Bernard Hermann-like strings on his complete score, it’s very much a Morricone project. “In the end, he chose just one single piece of music,” Morricone later said, after admitting he’d given the somewhat uncommunicative filmmaker numerous cues to choose from. “Now one of the pieces he didn’t use is in The Hateful Eight.”
Once Upon a Time in America (1984)
Sergio Leone had been talking about his magnum opus, a gangster film about the rise and fall of two Jewish mobsters, for decades; when he finally got the chance to make would turn out to be his final film, he naturally enlisted his old partner to come up with a score. “I consider it Sergio’s masterpiece,” Morricone told Alessandro De Rosa for In His Own Words, and it’s impossible to separate the filmmaker’s long, winding tale of friendship, betrayal, organized crime and the ties that bind from the music that’s wed to those images of a bygone America. Morricone has always been a master of evoking wistfulness, and tracks like “Cockeye’s Song” and “Childhood Poverty” mirror the movie’s themes of the past dissipating and fading away. He also drops some period-style music with elements of trad jazz and old-school funeral marches that suggests the boom before the inevitable bust. And it’s Morricone’s music that holds Leone’s original vision of telling the story out of sequence together, weaving in and out of the characters’ memories. An elegiac soundtrack, for the most elegiac of movies.
The Mission (1986)
Morricone’s score for Roland Joffe’s historical drama, about a Jesuit priest (Jeremy Irons) and a reformed mercenary (Robert De Niro) defending an indigenous Paraguayan community from colonial forces, had become a highlight of the concerts he’d perform in his later years. The opening track, “On Earth as It Is in Heaven,” lays out exactly what the musician was trying to do in terms of blending cultural styles and instrumentation: a heavenly choir is suddenly, unexpectedly joined by percussive drumming just underneath the orchestral maneuvers. It’s a high-conceptual idea, and Morricone turns it into a sound that’s equal parts earthly and transcendental. And “Gabriel’s Oboe,” which was originally set to a scene of Irons’ holy man showing a native how to play the title’s reed instrument, became a bona fide hit — singers later added lyrics to the piece when they covered it, with the composer’s blessing. Morricone had said he was done doing soundtracks when he was approached to do the project, and the result earned him an Oscar nomination and a “relaunch into…cinema.” He would refer to it over the years as a genuine miracle.
The Untouchables (1987)
Brian De Palma’s big-screen take on the ’50s TV show about ’30s gangsters and the G-men who love to bust them got a huge boost from Morricone’s score — chances are good that the first thing you think of when someone mentions the movie, besides Robert De Niro’s Al Capone wielding a baseball bat, is “The Strength of the Righteous.” You can practically hear the heavy, striding footfall of Kevin Costner’s crusading Eliot Ness in the track’s forward momentum, and though Morricone later said he had some issues delivering a suitably winning theme for the gangbusters’ saga (“I’m not so keen on composing triumphant music,” he’d humbly admit), there are any number of stirring, stand-up-and-cheer moments nestled in between the more characteristically Morricone-ish cuts like “Machine Gun Lullaby” and the Western-saloon-meets-giallo track “Al Capone.”
Cinema Paradiso (1988)
Morricone was about to go work on another project when his old friend Franco Cristaldi asked him to read the script of a film he was producing. The musician read it, and by the time he got to the story’s climax — a montage of screen kisses — he’d dropped out of his previous commitment and came aboard. One of the most successful foreign-language films of all time, Giuseppe Tornatore’s story about a movie-mad boy (Salvatore Cascio) and the film projectionist (Philippe Noiret) who takes him under his wing features what may be Morricone’s most unabashedly romantic work. Everything from the silent-comedy piano to the swooning symphonies feels like it could have been lifted from old Hollywood films, and the whole thing brims with a sentimentality that — at least music-wise — never tips over into mawkishness. The fact that Ennio composed one of the love themes with his son Andrea, thus replicating the movie’s theme of mentorship and bridging the generations through art, only makes it that much sweeter.
The Hateful Eight (2015)
Quentin Tarantino has never hidden his superfandom for the composer; he’s used bits and pieces of past Morricone scores for his films since the early ’00s, and approached the Italian to see about commissioning original music for Inglourious Basterds. Morricone, for his part, admired Tarantino’s skill as a filmmaker but was reluctant to simply give him sonic “scraps,” as he feared they would be recontextualized. It wasn’t until Tarantino came to Rome and read the script with Morricone that the composer agreed to work on it. Because the turnaround was tight, he gave him a reworked piece that he’d used for The Thing and several other pieces of music; when talking to Rolling Stone in 2016, Morricone mentioned how the film’s opening overture was getting standing ovations at some screening. It not only lent Tarantino’s movie a good deal of gravitas and connected it to a long legacy of Westerns, it also won the maestro a long overdue Oscar.