The Unwound Third > Other Musical Interests

Pentatonic Scales--Melodies and Harmonization in Western movie and TV themes


Hi all,
We have another thread in this Board on pentatonic melodies and how they're harmonized in Appalachian songs, and I realized recently that another place where pentatonic scales supplied the main melodic vocabulary was in theme music for Western movies and TV shows. I'll just post a couple of my favorites and won't do any heavy analysis, but perhaps just point out a couple of things. I grew up on this music to a certain extent, and the sound and feel of the best of it still really appeal to me. I'll start with my favorite, I think, the theme music for the old TV Western, "Wagon Train":


   * The theme uses a major pentatonic scale for its A parts, starting on a V note, and going like so, in its first two A parts, with the double dashes indicating pauses Each A part has two halves and the halves are indicated by the bent brackets.
  [ 5-6-1--6-1-2--1-2-3-2-1-5-6]--[5-6-1--6-1-2--1-2-3-2-1-3-2]--[5-6-1--6-1-2--1-2-3-2-1-5-6]--[1-2-3-5-3-1-6--1-6-1]--
There are two places where the melody is harmonized in a way that really sits up and speaks: At the end of the second half of the first A, the melody holds a 2 note of the scale, which with writers like Stephen Foster would normally be harmonized with a V7 chord. Here, though, it is harmonized with a major chord built off of the bVII note of the scale, so if the theme was in C major, the chord at that place would be a Bb major chord. What is the sense of that? Well, if we were in C minor, the relative major of C minor is Eb major, and Bb is the V of Eb, so by ending that phrase on a Bb chord, it's as though you were momentarily in C minor. The other really neat harmonization is on the last note of the second A part, the I note, which is harmonized with a IV7 chord, which gives it a momentary bluesy sound before resolving finally on the I chord.

The B part of the theme is not strictly in the major pentatonic scale, because it includes the IV note of the scale which is not in that pentatonic scale. There's nothing wrong with the B part, but it doesn't seem as distinctive to my ears. The final A part modulates to the key of the IV that the bridge melody included. 

Another Western theme I really like is to the movie "The Big Country": Here it is:


I like it after it gets past the bombastic opening fanfare. See if you can figure out the chords yourself, if you like it. Once again, I don't think the B part can hold a candle to the A part.

A lot of the old Warner Brothers TV Westerns like "Maverick" and "Cheyenne" had pentatonic themes, too, for the most part. If you're old enough to remember them (and they made enough of an impression on you when you were the right age), you can find them on youtube. I don't imagine anyone will find this as interesting a type of music as I do, but I figured this Board is the right place for something like this.

All best,

I really appreciate these posts, John it's great to learn something more about any genre of music. My favorites in this genre are probably "Maverick," which still gets stuck in my head along with the lyrics, and the original Bernard Herrmann music for "Have Gun, Will Travel" (I mean, just about anything Herrmann did was great).

Hi Chris,
I'm glad you like these, too! I remember seeing Doc Watson, I think before he began performing and touring with Merle, doing "Maverick" at a show or shows. It works out great as a fingerpicking tune in C. Once you see how the composers treated the harmony for these themes you realize what a harmonic language and vocabulary they developed. That bit of ending a phrase on the bVII chord is emblematic of the whole genre--and no wonder, it's a great sound and just seems to conjure up those wide open spaces.
All best,

I'll have to try that out with Maverick  I learned the chords once years ago. Time to revisit! Your post also reminds me that I've never seen The Big Country, an oversight I need to remedy.

You are not the only one. I've heard bluegrass and jazz players quote these tunes in their more mischievous moments.  Usually with the Flintstones Theme but also Bonanza. The Wagon Train theme has the preponderance of a grand march to it. It is a grand fan fare.


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