A lifelong Rome resident and classically trained musician, Ennio Morricone began studying at the Conservatory of Santa Cecilia at age 12. Advised to study composition, Morricone also specialized in playing trumpet and supported himself by playing in a jazz band and working as an arranger for Italian radio and TV after he graduated. Morricone subsequently became a top studio arranger at RCA, working with such stars as Mario Lanza, Chet Baker, and the Beatles. Well-versed in a variety of musical idioms from his RCA experience, Morricone began composing film scores in the early '60s. Though his first films were undistinguished, Morricone's arrangement of an American folk song intrigued director (and former schoolmate) Sergio Leone. Leone hired Morricone and together they created a distinctive score to accompany Leone's different version of the Western, A Fistful of Dollars (1964). Rather than orchestral arrangements of Western standards à la John Ford, Morricone used gunshots, cracking whips, voices, Sicilian folk instruments, trumpets, and the new Fender electric guitar to punctuate and comically tweak the action, cluing in the audience to the taciturn man's ironic stance. Morricone's name became almost as well-known as Leone's when his more ambitious score for The Good, the Bad and the Ugly (1966) yielded a Top Ten hit.
Even more so than in the first two Dollars films, Morricone's scores for The Good, the Bad and the Ugly and Leone's epic Once Upon a Time in the West (1968) elevated the action to operatic heights. Reaching crescendos in The Good's famous graveyard shootout and West's showdown between Charles Bronson's Harmonica and Henry Fonda's Frank Booth, Morricone and Leone created set pieces that were as powerful musically as visually, placing music on a par with the image rather than subordinating it. Morricone's scores were so integral to Leone's Westerns that he had Morricone write and record Once Upon a Time in the West's main themes, and then played them during shooting so that the actors could move to the score's rhythms. Morricone and Leone repeated this for their equally effective collaboration on the gangster saga Once Upon a Time in America (1984).