You can fault “Westworld” for plenty of things – self-importance, convolutedness, lack of soul–but definitely not attention to detail. The show thrives on the exact precision of every single frame, costume, and spoken word–each one appearing exactly as its creators Jonathan Nolan and Lisa Joy intended.
This painstaking precision allows the creators to cement central themes, create layers of meaning and hide easter eggs in an elaborate maze. And at the start of each episode is music that represents the entire maze itself: the theme song, written by Ramin Djawadi. At just a minute and a half, the lilting score reveals “Westworld’s” entire premise and fundamental conflict.
If you’re reading this, you probably understand at least the basics of the show: humans have created a theme park filled with automatons that behave nearly identically to humans. Over the course of the first season, the line between the real and coded blurs, as some of the robots show emotion and decisionmaking far surpassing their framework.
So how does Djawadi mirror this complex narrative? At the center of his song is the player piano, used as a musical representation for the show’s androids. The player piano is an apt choice for several reasons: old enough to be contemporary to the Wild West, but laying the blueprint for a mechanical replication of fluid, human creativity. Unlike strings or horns, all that’s required to play a piano is a hammer action; what before was the pinnacle of artistic passion is achieved in a few automated keystrokes. Onscreen, we see a sinewy robot being taught to play the melody, who in turn teaches the piano to play itself.
But the android needs a creator, so the first voice we hear is not the piano, but the cello, whose slow burning warmth conveys the human touch. Strings are used throughout the show by Djawadi to signify human pathos or emotion: for instance, as when Maeve remembers her daughter and her subsequent tragic murder. Here, the cello tentatively lays out its first line of code: a simple pentatonic phrase.
Immediately, the piano plays back the same notes, but in inverse order. It’s gained the basic melodic language, but for now, can only echo what its creator has prescribed.
The main melodic motif enters a couple bars later, with the cello and piano playing in unison. This represents the early, harmonious days of the park, with Arnold and Ford methodically building their world together. Their creations are lively and flowing, but still simple and wholly bound.
As the theme establishes itself, low strings begin to emerge, churning away at double the melody’s speed, imbuing new harmonic undertones. The creators have added to their programming team and tacked on more intricate narratives, settings, and emotional responses. Right on cue, the piano takes the string’s rhythm and jumps into a jagged, rapidfire chromatic line, using notes far more harmonically complex than the simple melody it began with.
The strings use the piano riff as a launching pad, and a furious symphony emerges in layer upon layer: there’s dense harmony in every register and alarming syncopation. This is Ford and Arnold’s minds spinning into overdrive, being fueled on and tormented by their own creations to push into more dissonant territory. The melody, once placid and eager to resolve to the tonic, is now fraught with anxiety. It ascends higher and higher, reaching for some sort of epic resolution–
But as the strings are about to finish their melody, they’re cut off completely by a jagged piano line, which races forward on its own, now up an octave and played with trembling fury. The piano has gained sentience and broken out of its loop.
The song then ends abruptly, and all that’s left of the cello is amorphous buzzing low notes, quivering in fear of its own creation.