Why Westworld Uses a Player Piano

Photo: HBO

Following each week’s episode of Westworld, show composer Ramin Djawadi (Game of Thrones) will be Vulture’s guide to the music

This week on HBO’s Westworld, the show threw us for a loop by not playing any modern music — just a little bit of ragtime and classical. ”Peacherine Rag” kicks in when Dolores goes into Sweetwater, while the classical, a Debussy piece called “Reverie L.68,” is played by a host on a player piano in Dr. Ford’s office.

Sometimes it’s not about the song, though, but the instrument. Showrunner Jonathan Nolan thinks of the player piano as a touchstone image for the show — something akin to the stoplight cycling from red to green on Twin Peaks — and credits Kurt Vonnegut’s debut novel, Player Piano, for the idea.

Using one on the show requires a lot of effort, because the music has to be transcribed and mechanized, and only a few companies today (such as Gnaw-Vol-ty Rolls and QRS Music Technologies) can translate digital sound files into perforated paper rolls. “It’s 100 percent different” from a regular, human-played piano, Djawadi said. “It’s got a robotic harshness to it which is very distinctive. When a human plays it, the dynamics are modified. But when the player piano hits a note, it’s always the same.” It’s the same when a robot host plays the piano, Djawadi said, which makes the host player redundant. Why would Dr. Ford keep one in his office, then? “Maybe to keep him company!” Djawadi laughed. “And it shows his control, as well. This is his world. He created everything. So he can have as many hosts around him as he wants. I would pick a human, though. There’s something about the human performance that a robot could never get close to.” And if Westworld’s robots are that advanced, does it even matter?

Why Westworld Uses a Player Piano