The Secret to Westworld’s Success Is in Its Music

The HBO drama’s newly released soundtrack is a memory-teasing good time.

Thandie Newton as Maeve in 'Westworld'

The official Westworld score has been released, and it’s worth a listen for anyone curious about exactly how an ambitious but deeply flawed sci-fi philosophy riff became such a big hit for HBO. Ramin Djawadi’s blend of classical orchestration and electronica in darkly dramatic recurring themes and instrumental pop-music covers deserves a lot of credit for the show’s appeal. Heard as an album, it does a nice job—better than many scores—of both holding the listener’s attention and sending them back to specific moments they remember from the source material.

Which is similar to how music—as meta as anything else in Westworld—functioned within the show. On a plot level, songs mattered because they influenced the hosts of the titular theme park; in particular, Debussy’s “Reverie,” heard throughout the season, was revealed to be hard-coded into the robots’ memory to act as a tranquilizer. The music’s effect on viewers, too, was primal and linked to memory. Whenever the melody of a popular song played, it sent audience members back to their own recollections of that song while also serving as a reminder of the trippy time-crossing nature of the show’s setting: Remember, it’s not really the Wild West if people are listening to The Animals.

The music also boosted the show’s appeal as a puzzle, which is to say as a vessel for a-ha moments. The viewer gets an a-ha when they realize what song is being reinterpreted by the score. They get another one when they figure out—or read about online—the thematic parallels between song and scene. Amy Winehouse’s Back to Black works well for a brothel of amnesiacs: “I died a hundred times / You go back to her / I go back to black.” And Radiohead’s catalogue of songs about repression, awakening, and revolution was so fitting that four songs of theirs made the cut (“No Surprises” also shows up in two versions on the soundtrack). On a broader level, the image of the player piano—programmed to spit out emotionally affecting material—was a particularly rich symbol in a show full of rich symbols.

But more than anything, the score’s pop covers did the simple, essential work of boosting the show’s entertainment value. Westworld’s popularity rose in spite of obvious flaws, flaws that critics seemed to point out ever-more-loudly as more people tuned in: “The show is so ambitious, so audacious, conceptually so much richer than almost everything else on TV, that its inability to satisfy at the level of drama is often infuriating,” Matt Zoller Seitz wrote in his finale review. Some of the complaints: over-reliance on monologue, hazy motivations for the people within the show, characters whose personalities were either blank (most of the hosts) or overdetermined (the ridiculous writer character Lee Sizemore), and story twists that relied more on trickery by the filmmakers than on believable plot development. I have affection for Westworld but can’t deny that its problems often brought the viewing experience to the edge of turn-off-the-TV boredom.

But what are people looking for when they tune into a show week after week? A single moment of grand drama, one great shiver of emotion, is probably more than enough. Westworld provided those moments through its songs. Thinking back, the first season’s highlights were less its reveals than its reveries: Maeve touring the Delos facility to “Motion Picture Soundtrack”; the first battle for the saloon set to a Bonanza-fied “Paint It Black”; Dr. Ford delivering his final address over “Exit Music (To a Film).” Reliving those scenes today thanks to the tie-in album, it almost seems as though Westworld’s chief insight was nothing more heady than the idea that everyone loves a good music video.