Cowboy Music


When we were little kids, back in the good old days, most of us played cowboys and Indians. We loved watching all those TV Westerns, and seeing good guys and bad guys shoot it out in the movies. As grown-ups, we still love them. Not much has changed with the genre, except that, nowadays, the Indians are portrayed by real Indians – excuse me, Native Americans – instead of white actors. What can never change is the mythology of the great American West, as depicted in television shows and movies. And how can we relish them without the galloping music accompanying them? In this Active Minds program, we'll relive those dramatic tales of our Wide Open Spaces. So saddle up, strap on your holster and (how can I resist?) ride 'em, cowboy!


If you love movie-star cowboys, you surely love the music that goes with them. Those memorable themes were created for the Westerns that infatuated America and, let's not forget, the rest of the world, mostly back in the '60s and '70s. Composers such as Elmer Bernstein and Alfred Newman captured the rhythms of charging horses, the steady stream of endlessly long wagon trains, the war cries of attacking Indians, and those nerve-rattling gun duels at high noon. When the folks peddling Marlboro cigarettes decided to market their product using macho cowboys on horseback, it was Bernstein who provided the memorable music, with the exciting start-stop rhythms of his “Magnificent Seven” theme. The first great “adult western,” Gary Cooper's nail-biter “High Noon,” used a   score by – ready for this? – a Russian named Dmitri Tiomkin. Not only did he capture the unbearable tension of the clock moving toward noon with pulse-pounding music (for which he won the Oscar for best score), but Tiomkin also garnered that coveted statue for the title song, which provided the back story to the film. One of the most famous of scores was Alfred Newman's hard-driving, high-energy music for 1962's epic “How the West was Won,” which was nominated for an Academy Award, but lost out. Inspired by Newman's and Bernstein's scores, the music by John Morris for Mel Brooks' 1974 Western parody, “Blazing Saddles,” was honored with an Oscar nomination for its subtly mocking title song (which cleverly featured “Rawhide” whips snapping). Surprisingly, multi-award-winning composer John Williams didn't even receive a nomination for the rip-roaring score he created for the John Wayne charmer, “The Cowboys” in 1971. But its Overture has become a concert-hall staple for professional orchestras as well as college and high school bands. Perhaps the most familiar music inspired by the American West wasn't created for films or TV – two scores by Aaron Copland were written for ballet companies. Choreographer Eugene Loring's dramatic “Billy the Kid” has remained a favorite with ballet troupes, long after its 1938 premiere, perfectly capturing the saga of the young outlaw (complete with a drum-pounding gun fight), while Agnes DeMille's delightful “Rodeo” is now known to everyone, thanks to the use of the “Hoedown” in TV commercials for the National Livestock and Meat Board.

Exploration Questions

  • The music for “Bonanza,” the huge TV hit from the 1960s, was composed by band leader David Rose. What famous star was his second wife in the 1940s?
  • What famous work came from the famous collaboration of George Gershwin and Ferde Grofé (composer of the “Grand Canyon” Suite)?

Reflective Questions

  • If you were a fan of Hollywood Westerns (TV or movies), what was your absolute favorite? And who was your fave star? – no fair naming John Wayne.
  • Why do you think the Western has almost disappeared from TV and the movies?

More to Explore

Books For Further Reading

  • Barson, Michael and Parker Robert B. True West: An Illustrated Guide to the Heyday of the Western. Texas Christian University Press. 2008. 175 pages. There are dozens of books on TV and movie Westerns. Here, for example is an enjoyable look into the multi-generational popularity of the Western, saluting the beloved gun-slinging stars, the comic books, toys, films, TV shows – you name it. They're all here, in bright, eye-catching illustrations. Great fun for the fan or the newcomer.
    Click here to order