WARNING: Some spoilers for Westworld Seasons 1 and 2 are ahead!
It’s nice knowing that our future robot overlords will at least have good taste in music.
HBO’s hit sci-fi series Westworld is currently airing its second season. Westworld takes place in the not-too-distant future when humanity has finally perfected artificial intelligence. In doing so, humans create Westworld, a western-themed park filled with startlingly life-like androids called “hosts.” The hosts provide entertainment for humans by role-playing with them in wild-west adventures and provide various other Bacchic and violent delights—until the hosts start becoming sentient.
Each episode of Westworld is a suspenseful riddle audiences try to make sense of each week, covering many philosophic and scientific themes. While internet theories on the show’s plot are abundant, the under-sung storyteller of Westworld is its soundtrack by Ramin Djawadi. As we’ll see, this is nowhere more evident than in the show’s opening main theme.
Westworld’s composer, Ramin Djawadi, is also notable for his work on Iron Man (2008) and HBO’s other flagship series Game of Thrones. Photo credit: Westworld Watchers.
Throughout Westworld’s two seasons, viewers have heard pieces by composers such as Debussy, Rachmaninoff, Chopin, and Gershwin, with subtle plot points based around their repertoire. Characters in the show name-drop classical composers regularly and monologue about the nature of music itself. Basically, Westworld is obsessed with classical music.
Among all the musical references in the show, the most important is its use of the player piano as a metaphorical device. The player piano is a self-playing instrument that rose to popularity in the late nineteenth century, the time period in which Westworld’s fictional park is placed. The instrument is featured frequently throughout the show, usually seen in the park’s saloon. The piano plays at the beginning of every morning in the park (usually a pop song cover), representing the looping existence that the hosts live, doomed to repeat the same day of entertaining humans over and over again. Jonathan Nolan, co-creator of Westworld, has stated that the player piano is essentially a “primordial” version of the hosts—a machine made to mimic human expression with no agency of its own.
The player piano as seen in Westworld. Photo credit: HBO.
Westworld’s main title theme sheds more light on this instrumental coupling of robots and pianos. Through its orchestration, the theme whittles down the complex story of the series in a simple minute-and-a-half sequence. Right from the start, the visuals of the intro support the idea of the pianos as representing the hosts. A mechanical apparatus strings a piano and then shifts to building muscle tendons on the bones of a host. The substance the machine is using to build the muscle is identical to the piano string, implying that the host and piano are made up of the same material.
The intro sequence for Westworld, 2016.
As the first bars of the theme begin, we hear a violin introduce a melody with the piano responding in kind. This repeats, establishing a relationship between the violin and piano: the violin sets the pace, the piano humbly follows. If the piano is symbolic of the hosts, we can reasonably assume that the violin represents humans or an aspect of humanity.
Anthony Hopkins' character, Robert Ford, points out the piano/host association verbatim in S1E09. As he narrowly avoids death by outsmarting a malfunctioning host, Ford says, “The piano doesn’t murder the player if it doesn’t like the music.” Photo credit: John P. Johnson, HBO.
The differences between pianos and violins, hosts and humans, also has mechanical precedence. Pianos are complicated mechanisms comprised of keys, hammers, pedals, and metal. Meanwhile, violins are smaller and more simply constructed and need only be drawn across with a bow to produce sound.
Despite their differences, the two instruments are still based around the same thing—strings. Both the hosts and humans of Westworld are creatures capable of emotion, but like pianos, the hosts are more mechanical than humans and subject to the whims of a human programmer.
In S2E02, the human character Logan remarks to the host Dolores that the humans at the party nearby are “fiddling” fools, further insinuating the human/violin connection. Photo credit: HBO.
After the melodic call and response in the main title theme, the piano and violin play in beautiful, calm unison. However, the piano then dives into a descending chromatic riff that was not first signaled by the violin. This indicates that the machine is developing its own ideas.
The sudden chromaticism is also literal color statement— the contrast of black and white piano keys. The main title theme is set in A minor, a set of notes that is comprised of only white keys in its natural scale. The chromatic riff is only made possible with the use of black keys. In Westworld, the concept of black and white morality is an important one, as characters discover what it means to be wicked, benevolent, and everything in between. This is expressed coloristically in everything from the cinematography to the costumes of the show’s many characters.
The “white hat” and “black hat” motifs of classic westerns are at full play in Westworld in both obvious and subtle ways. Photo credit: HBO.
In response to the chromaticism of the piano, the violin becomes more passionate and swells into a full string ensemble, perhaps an attempt to keep up with or constrain the piano. It’s during this escalation of the piece that the accompanying video features the hands playing the piano slowly moving away. The piano is now playing itself, able to replicate the passion of a human player on its own.
The piano begins to play without the player. Photo credit: HBO.
As the theme ends, we hear the chromatic piano riff once more, played with haunting mechanical rigor. The last notes of the theme are from strummed strings, not from the violin, but the piano. This could be interpreted as the hosts learning to bypass their mechanical nature and exist just as humans do—with their strings played bare. The violin scratchily fades out while producing a dying pitch, perhaps foreshadowing humanity’s coming demise.