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5 Compositional Elements That Define the Music of Ennio Morricone

Ennio “Maestro” Morricone is a composer as revered in the hearts of generations of Americans (whether they realize it or not) as he is in his native Italy. As an expert craftsman capable of coaxing exquisite beauty and violent bombast out of an orchestra with the same deftness, Maestro has weaved between opposite extremes to create a magnificent body of work spanning over six decades and 500+ films (and counting!).

As a young headbanger, I first became aware of Morricone’s work while watching Metallica’s Live Shit: Binge and Purge concert DVD. The band famously prefaces their Seattle 1989 set with one of Morricone’s most popular compositions, “The Ecstasy of Gold,” taken from the film, The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly. I loved the piece, and the way the band used it to set the stage for their concert, but it wasn’t until I saw Quentin Tarantino’s The Hateful Eight that I became obsessed with his compositional style — so much so that it inspired the overture to my own short film/music video, “Auracle Bone Script.”

As a member of the Gruppo di Improvvisazione di Nuova Consonanza, Morricone spent at least a decade prior to scoring his first Western flick working on anti-musical systems and instant composition employing noise-making techniques, which he continues to develop in the modern era.¹ His exploration of the unusual allowed him to create strikingly ordinary lines that quake with unimaginable magnitude using a narrow set of harmonic possibilities (much like the Beatles did with popular music in the 1960s).

Gone were the grand schemes and sweeps of Gershwin and Irving Berlin, music was a means of blunt communication. Morricone’s transition to scoring films also happened to coincide with cinema’s transition away from the romantic and toward the new-wave realism of hardship, violence, and longing, fittingly appropriate for Maestro’s concrète and mechanical-sounding style.

He never left Rome for Hollywood or learned to speak English (he wears this as a badge of pride).² I think this is brilliant considering he has scored some of the greatest American Westerns in cinematic history.

Here, I would draw a parallel between Morricone and Igor Stravinsky as innovators. While Morricone received a formal education, unlike Stravinsky, both were “removed” from the arenas for which they were writing, casting aside influence in favor of invention — the lack of any social stimulus perhaps forcing the composer to stretch beyond the limits of his imagination.

Historically speaking, Morricone’s oeuvre of orchestral film scores sounds unlike anything to come before or after it. With such an enormous body of work, however, it’s sometimes hard to know where it all connects. So, I’ve decided to break down five of Morricone’s most trusted compositional tools, which appear commonly throughout his greatest works and exemplify how he employs them.

On the Research

I chose to approach writing this like a scientist would a research endeavor. Using my existing knowledge of the composer, I created a hypothesis, a chart listing the five compositional elements I felt were most integral to setting Morricone’s work apart, then tabulated them as I heard them appear. Those are:

1. Pulse

A continuous rhythmic ostinato or riff that carries throughout a song. Rarely, if ever, does this pulse drop out entirely during a Morricone composition. When one instrument falls, another rises, so to speak, carrying the rhythmic torch like a train on a circular track. This is a compositional tactic that I first became aware of listening to the Beach Boys’ Pet Sounds and which plays a central role in numerous Morricone staples such as “The Ecstasy of Gold” and “The Good, the Bad and the Ugly” (main theme).

2. Voice

This refers to the human voice being used not as a conduit for prose or verse, but as a melodic instrument in and of itself — including calls, whistles, and the whoops and hollers found in the scores of some “Spaghetti” Westerns.

This refers primarily to the voice of singer Edda Dell’Orso. Dell’Orso sang on a large selection of Morricone’s work, including the stunning original recordings of “The Ecstasy of Gold,” “The Good, the Bad and the Ugly,” and “Once Upon a Time in the West.” Edda’s first collaboration with Maestro came in I Malamondo, a 1964 documentary chronicling strange behaviors around the world. But it wasn’t until 1966, when Morricone was contracted to compose the music for Sergio Leone’s The Good, the Bad and the Ugly, that she became a sensation. They would work together at least 28 more times on many of Morricone’s most notable scores and several more times on future Leone/Morricone efforts.

3. Triads

In this article, Morricone is asked about the relationship between his own music and heavy-metal bands such as Metallica and Slayer. He responds unexpectedly, drawing a comparison between their use of simple triads and his own.³ While one could argue that all musicians are using triads all of the time (they are), I began to notice Ennio Morricone had a unique approach to his exploration of elementary intervals. Things other “learned” musicians may deject as vanilla and basic. This led me to believe that Morricone’s manipulation of simple, three-note primary and secondary triads and tetrachords was a hallmark of his style.

4. Sound Design (SFX)

The use of acoustic instruments as a cinematic device or instrumental foley. These are instances in which the composer uses the instrument in unusual ways to put a pastiche on the onscreen action or to create drama and bombast in the composition tailored to the tone of the piece.

5. Guitar

Morricone was an early ambassador of the Fender electric guitar. “Fender” referring here to the combination of a Fender guitar and Fender amp, complete with jangly reverb and vibrato. This sound became incredibly popular in the early 1960s in cinema with pieces featured in the James Bond theme music by Monty Norman and the Mission: Impossible theme written by Morricone protege Lalo Schifrin.

My chart… looked like this (complete with coffee stains).

The research is based on a list of 40 of Morricone’s greatest tracks, which are highlighted in the Spotify playlist “The Best of Ennio Morricone.” Each of the five above elements appear in various stages of symbiosis throughout the entire two-disc set with the Pulse and Triads columns each receiving a check on all 40 songs. Eight compositions feature all five elements with the others, Voice appearing 26 times, Guitar appearing 17 times, and SFX appearing 16 times. If I were a baseball player, I’m batting about .600.

The Music

Let’s explore these ideas further with some analysis. The majority of pieces boasting the full array of all five compositional elements come from the composer’s tenure with director Sergio Leone. In an effort to dig deeper into his catalog, however, I’ve featured some individual commentary in the section following this one, detailing additional breathtaking examples of Maestro’s genius. Follow along with the YouTube links below, or if Spotify is better suited, here’s a link to the playlist where all of these tracks can be found.

“The Ecstasy of Gold” (The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly, 1966)

Pulse 0:00 – This piece opens with an Am9 arpeggio on the piano, which will propel the music forward. It’s quickly joined by an oboe to introduce the primary melody leading us to…

Triads 0:28-0:40 – Morricone crafts this part of the melody using just four notes over two chords. Over the Am9 (A C E B), we have the root, A, followed by the fifth, E. As the arpeggiated piano part beneath shifts to a G9 (G B D A), the melody line follows, with the third, B, and the root, G.

Interestingly, the notes used over G9, the root and the third, also belong to our parent Am(7)9 chord, functioning as the 9th and dominant 7th respectively. So while the harmony underneath is shifting, the melody acts like an extension of the previous chord. This relationship and its harmonic efficiency create a powerful line that evolves without mutating past the point of discomfort.

Pulse 0:39 – The piano pauses here, but the oboe keeps the piece moving, before the drums enter at 0:47, establishing a strong gallop which begins to build in intensity.

Voice 0:48 – Edda Dell’Orso’s beautiful coloratura makes it’s stunning entrance, taking the place of the introductory oboe as the primary melodic force.

Triads 1:10 – Here is that line again, this time split between the strings, still simple, still direct and devastatingly effective.

Pulse 1:16-1:25 – As the snare drums temporarily exit, the strings and backing vocals rise up to fill the dead space, continuing to drive the tune with quarter notes and carefully placed dynamics, which flow seamlessly into the reintroduction of the percussion at 1:25. The composer may have made a choice to silence the rhythm section, but using the rest of the orchestra as a security blanket, he allocates for the risk of lost flow with his signature flair.

Pulse 1:47 – What’s that sound? It’s just Ennio Morricone being a genius. At 1:47, we get a sharp tacet on the entire ensemble, in less than half a second, the string section already begins building a galloping ostinato to take the place of the fortissimo gallop that immediately preceded it.

SFX 1:50 – During this call and response between (anybody? anybody?) seemingly an effected wind instrument and Edda Dell’Orso, we have our first instance of an instrument being used outside the bounds of its tradition, as a device that drives the plot of the film. In this scene from The Good, the Bad and the Ugly, Tuco is frantically searching a graveyard for a bag containing several hundred thousand dollars in gold coins. This part enters as he scans the headstones for his prize, the camera swooping in for a medium shot of the seeker, while the interplay between the effected instrument and the vocals symbolize the gold calling out to Tuco, and Tuco’s lust in answer as the camera pulls further and further away from a sweat drenched Tuco, chasing ghosts.

Pulse 2:05 – At 2:05, the baton is passed back to the rhythm section as it triumphantly returns to reclaim the gallop seized by its counterpart in the string section.

Guitar 2:59 – Lastly, at 2:59, the “Fender” electric guitar enters to put a decidedly modern exclamation point on the piece, creating a spacey recapitulation of the melody that has become so wonderfully familiar during the first three minutes of the composition.

“A Fistful of Dollars – Main Theme” (A Fistful of Dollars, 1964)

Pulse 0:00 – The piece begins with that familiar Morricone pulse. An acoustic guitar pounding out a Dm11 chord, spelled here as a D A G triad in a driving 16th note pattern.

Voice 0:04 – A whistle introduces the melody. Again, carrying the tune using the human voice.

SFX, Pulse 0:29 – A flurry of notes on the piccolo heralds the start of a hybrid pulse/SFX sequence. Bells and the sound of whips not only help to connect the listener to the events on screen, but help drive the piece as it develops, adding a strong statement with a double edge. This is really fascinating. Let’s take a closer look.

If we looked at this like a kit drum beat, we’d have a kick on 1 and a snare on 3. To me, this is the “Levon Helm” half-time groove found in much of the Band’s music, which gives it that wonderful swagger. The piccolo falls on 1, acting as the kick, and the crack of the whip on beat 3, snare. This is augmented by a bell on beat 2 on repeats three and four. When the harmony shifts to the relative major, F, the bell also signals a change by repositioning on the “&” of beat 3, where it remains.

Voice 0:52 – Background vocals enter here, this time carrying a mantra but still acting out of character, and functioning primarily as an instrument. The lyrical content is secondary to the rhythmic utilization of the voice.

Guitar 0:56 – Enter the “Fender” guitar. An ultra clean lead enters here, adding another layer to this multidimensional musical construction.

Pulse, Voice 1:37 – We lose the musique concrète beat at 1:37, but a majestic armada of strings rises up to take its place immediately, sawing away on the same 16th note gallop as the intro guitar. At the same time, a male chorus enters to carry the melody, another example of the voice being used as a melodic instrument sans text.

Pulse 1:46 – With the strings now tacit, a barrage of tight snare drums and acoustic guitars enter for a short time to protect the beat, keeping it safe until the entire assemblage reappears in dynamic form at 1:51.

Triads 2:00 – The guitar employs a similar harmonic shift used in “The Ecstasy of Gold” here. A melodic anticipation as the harmony shifts underneath. The guitarist plays a simple F major triad over an F major chord (F A C), extending the second pass to the 6th, D, to create an F6 (F A D), in anticipation of the Dm chord lying in wait, before finishing on a simple Dm triad. It’s also notable that the 5th degree, C, is omitted in the F6 arpeggio. This follows Morricone’s tendency to distill a three note cluster from a chord featuring extensions.

“The Trio” (The Good, the Bad and the Ugly, 1966)

“Trio” contains all of the key elements I included in my hypothesis. Let’s take a look at a few of them.

Triads 0:00 – The piece opens with a brooding flute part which centers around a three note phrase (D E F). While not exactly a denotative triad, this phrase does represent a hallmark of Ennio Morricone’s style. A small note cluster twisted and manipulated through deliberate limitation.

Pulse, Triads 0:24 – At 0:24, a familiar guitar part enters, beating out the same 16th note pulse found in myriad other Morricone compositions. Outlining a Dm9 chord, this is tied to “The Ecstasy of Gold” albeit in a different key here, but nonetheless, taken from the same score.

Pulse, SFX 0:32 – Here the galloping guitar drops out, leaving the strings and a bevy of SFX to carry the weight of the rhythm section. This cycle repeats with various harmonic variation until 1:40. Featuring a call and response between the melodic ostinato introduced by the flute and the fluid, arpeggiated guitar parts.

Voice 1:40 – The voice is used instrumentally again. A choir of female voices lock in with the string section to drive the crescendo, spearheaded by the violins.

Pulse 1:43 – A blaring trumpet takes control of the melodic line, while the female vocals continue to provide rich harmonic information. Underneath a solid dirge directs the procession of the piece. A syncopated pattern featuring this rhythm, found throughout our other analysis;

1 + 2 + 3 + 4 +

x   x x x    x

Triads (and No Pulse??) 2:24 – At 2:24, we register a rare respite from the motoric chugging away of many of Morricone’s compositions, as the guitar and percussion break down into a high-noon duel. The guitar, exploring the same three-note cluster we mentioned at the top of this piece — has a conversation with the sustained strings before the piano enters for a brief rehash of the tetrachord from the top of the piece at 2:42. This interplay is repeated with slight variation (as is the way of Morricone) until 3:50, when the entire ensemble recommences in forceful fashion, recapitulating each element introduced earlier in the piece.

SFX 5:11 – Seemingly a Fender guitar plus amplifier (with the reverb driven to 11) combo provides a rattling explosion of obligato bombast, mimicking the sound of 19th century ordnance, and again giving us a barometer on the tone of the piece, and the film itself.

Furthermore

If I did a full breakdown of every song I analyzed, this would be a short novel, so I’d like to continue my list with some honorable mentions: songs that didn’t contain enough of the compositional elements to warrant a full breakdown, but which masterfully feature some of the key elements from my hypothesis.

“Once Upon a Time in the West” (Once Upon a Time in the West, 1968)

The main theme to Once Upon a Time in the West features the voice beautifully, with a delicate melody credited to Morricone and delivered by Edda Dell’Orso.

“For a Few Dollars More” (For a Few Dollars More, 1965)

This piece begins with almost a minute-long music concrète tapestry of various SFX ranging from spurs and boots to matches and neighs. A mysterious voice hums and whistles a simple tune, a great, groaning wind lashes around in the background. A resounding gunshot at 0:55 carries us into a piece not dissimilar to many of the other Leone compositions, but featuring a wide array of foley that paints a stunning visual counterpart.

“Chi Mai” (Maddalena, 1971)

“Chi Mai” features a great example of pulse at 1:48. The song has swelled to a mid-tempo 6/8 feel complete with delicate brushes and rolling guitars. As this falls away, the piano steps in to carry the rhythm with somber 8th note chords during a half-time breakdown that closes the circle between the song’s opening and its conclusion.

“Giu la testa” (A Fistful of Dynamite, 1971)

This piece features fantastic vocals and powerful use of triads. Beginning with a stark, three-note phrase played on the “Fender” guitar during the intro, the piece slowly builds into a playful, Vince Guaraldi-esque smooth jazz number with more delicate, simple melodies driving the piece forward before an absolutely gorgeous fleet of voices enters at 1:16. This time it isn’t just a single female vocal dancing around our ears, it’s a positive kingdom of lush background harmony, punctuating the piece with sharp counterpoint and endless headroom.

“Death Rides a Horse – Main Theme” (Death Rides a Horse, 1967)

This piece is incredible. The chaotic flutes during the intro evoke the bombast of Wagner, with a haunting chant driven by a small, mixed choir. At 1:50, the voices return with what may be my favorite employment of Morricone’s voice on this entire compilation. What could easily be mistaken for a Frank Zappa & The Mothers of Invention piece lays the groundwork for what, throughout, is a dark, dark film.

“Ninna Nanna” (Cuore di mamma, 1969)

The voice is used artfully throughout this piece to carry a whimsical melody layered over beautiful suspensions and glassy mallets.

“Il figlio e la nostalgia” (Il principe del deserto, 1989)

This late-’80s Morricone composition features the voice as lead instrument and a beautifully arranged piano and later harpsichord that carry the pulse of the piece after the conclusion of the first movement.

As with all things, my writing here is highly subjective. You may think that I’m looking at it all wrong or that I missed something crucial. If that’s the case, I want to hear about it. Leave a comment below, and let’s start a discussion. Digesting six decades of work in a matter of days is an impossible task, so for me, and for the readers as well, I hope, our research on Maestro doesn’t end here.

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Works Cited

[1] – Madden, Dave. “Ennio Morricone’s Noise Ensemble: Gruppo Di Improvvisazione Di Nuova Consonanza.” DangerousMinds, 21 Dec. 2015. Web.

[2] – Sweeting, Adam. “The Friday Interview: Ennio Morricone.” The Guardian, Guardian News and Media, 22 Feb. 2001. Web.

[3] – Doran, John. “Features | A Quietus Interview | Ennio Morricone Interviewed:” The Quietus, 8 Apr. 2010. Web.

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Dre DiMura
Dre DiMura

Dre DiMura is a creative artist from New Jersey. As a guitarist he has shared the stage with legendary artists such as Gloria Gaynor, Dee Snider, and Steve Howe of YES. He is the lead guitarist in LA based soul/rock band, Sugar Fly, and the primary creative force in psychedelic rock trio, Lunar Electric. He has toured internationally with Australian rock band, Evol Walks, who were recently cited as one of Australia’s top 5 emerging artists. As an actor he has appeared in commercials, independent films, and on television shows for ABC, Nickelodeon, and HBO where he worked with critically acclaimed director, David Fincher. You can hear more from Dre in Soundfly's free course A Conversation with the Blues.

  • Vince Di Mura

    Brilliant! But I’m partial…still does not mean this is not a brilliant understanding of amazingly important and complex work.

  • Gabriel Fragoso

    Ennio Morricone, the legende alive.

  • Raymond Bryan Horton

    Excellent!