10:45am PT by Josh Wigler
'Game of Thrones' Composer Breaks Down 7 Key Music Moments
Dragons. Dragonglass. Valyrian steel. These are all powerful weapons that will prove instrumental in the great Game of Thrones war to come. Here's another powerful weapon: the instrumentation built into the series by Emmy-winning composer Ramin Djawadi.
A key part of the HBO drama's fabric from the very first season, Djawadi is not the man responsible for killing Robb Stark (Richard Madden) and incinerating the Sept of Baelor, nor is he the matchmaker who brought Jon Snow (Kit Harington) and Daenerys Targaryen (Emilia Clarke) together for the first time. But Djawadi is one of the key reasons why viewers felt horrified and heartened in those fictional moments, his music providing the necessary emotional undercurrent to contribute to the series' iconic success. There's a reason why his touring Game of Thrones concert experiences have sold out around the world, a reason why the very mention of the words "Red Wedding" send shivers down the spine.
"I really get emotionally attached to the pieces I write," he tells The Hollywood Reporter. "When I use these themes, it really affects me in the way it's supposed to affect any viewer watching the show. I guess that's my personal rule: I need to be affected myself by the music that I write, and then hopefully it'll do the same to the viewer."
Those hopes are still alive and well, as the final six episodes of Thrones are set to begin their voyage on April 14 before concluding May 19. Before the last remaining melodies hear the light of day, Djawadi joins THR for a walk down memory lane, surveying what he describes as the seven key pieces of music that best categorize his journey through Game of Thrones. Read on for Djawadi's discussion of his selections, details of his close collaboration with series creators David Benioff and Dan Weiss and much more.
1. Main Title
The first piece of music heard in (almost) every episode was not the first piece Djawadi composed for the series. He was already hard at work on creating themes for individual characters, houses and other scoring components by the time Benioff and Weiss informed him of the need for a main title theme. "The first thing I remember [writing] was the Stark theme," he says. "And then we started discussing the main title."
"The idea was to really capture the overall mood of the show," says Djawadi. "I didn't want to be specific to any house and character. I wanted to create a theme or piece of music that says: 'This is Game of Thrones. The show's starting, and this is the mood you want to be in.' The words that were described to me were, 'Make it a journey. There needs to be some mystery, some adventure. All these characters are traveling or separated, and then they [will] get back together.'"
Even conjuring the idea of the iconic Game of Thrones main title theme is likely to create an all-day ear worm for those who know it by heart (you're welcome), and when he first created it, Djawadi was no exception. "I first heard it in my car, funny enough," he explains. "It was when David and Dan invited me over to the effects house where I saw the visuals for the opening developing. As I was driving back to my studio, this melody came to me while I was in the car. I got back to my studio, and that's when I started sketching out the actual piece. The cello came up pretty quickly as the go-to instrument. It just felt like an instrument that could capture the overall mood of the show very well. David and Dan really liked that instrument, too, so we thought it would be great to have that in the main title right away, to really make that statement of what the show is all about."
2. A Lannister Always Pays His Debts
If the main title theme evokes excitement, this next one evokes fear and dread: "A Lannister Always Pays His Debts," better known within the Game of Thrones universe by another name: "The Rains of Castamere." It's a haunting tune, one most commonly associated with House Lannister writ large and the Red Wedding specifically. For Djawadi, it's one of his best examples of the close collaboration he enjoys with Benioff and Weiss.
"I normally get the episodes before I start writing the music, but with this one, they called me up [after the first season] and said, 'There are lyrics in the book for "Rains of Castamere," and we need you to write a melody that will become the Lannister theme,'" he remembers. "They told me about the Red Wedding, which wasn't even happening until season three. But they told me about it after season one, because we needed to establish this new theme which we'll introduce in season two, and by the time we get to season three, it's a known theme that viewers will identify with the Lannisters — so when you hear it, you will know something is off, and that this melody does not belong at this wedding."
It's the clue that draws in Catelyn Stark (Michelle Fairley) right before the gruesome mass murders take place, too little too late. The rest is horrifying history, haunting the dreams of Thrones viewers far and wide — something he has observed firsthand when performing at Game of Thrones concerts.
"In general, the concerts have been so much fun and the crowd really gets into it," he says, "but with this piece, when we perform the Red Wedding, you can always tell there's a little bit of hesitation from everybody. They're exhausted from watching and reliving this scene — and it's not exactly a scene where you want to clap, but the piece just ended, so, 'I guess we have to clap?' You can always tell there's a little gap where people have to digest what they just relived."
When it arrived, The Red Wedding was the climax of the series up to that point. One episode later, came a form of catharsis: Daenerys Targaryen reaching the Essos city of Yunkai and liberating the slave population, followed immediately by a veritable crowd-surfing sequence in which she's embraced by these men, women and children. It's a strong emotional counterpoint to the horror of the Red Wedding, a sign that there's still hope in the world of Thrones, even with so many Starks dead and gone.
From an instrumentation standpoint, Djawadi looks fondly on "Mhysa" for its use of men, women and children's choirs to support the mood, complete with what he describes as "Valyrian-inspired lyrics."
"It's not really Valyrian," he explains, "but I took some of the sounds and some of the syllables and kind of created my own little language with it that felt like the rhythm of it and the sound of it. I actually liked that we didn't have lyrics that really meant anything. … I'm not always good with words, I'm not always articulate, but I like when instrumental music makes you interpret a feeling without saying words. For me, personally, I just hear these syllables and sounds that match the feeling of what I wrote. There are some little Valyrian notes that I took from the language and modified so it doesn't mean anything, but it [represents] Daenerys' army growing, her powers growing, everything positive that's developing about her character."
4. Light of the Seven
The children's choir would go on to play a key role in "Light of the Seven," yet another haunting example of Lannisters paying their debts — this time, in the form of Cersei (Lena Headey) executing her enemies via wildfire. Shortly after the episode first aired in 2016, Djawadi went into great detail about the sequence with The Hollywood Reporter. Years later, what felt like an instantly iconic song remains a central weapon in Djawadi's musical arsenal.
"When I write my music, I never think about a piece becoming successful or being well received. I just try to do my best," he says. "But it's absolutely fantastic when it gets such great recognition, just like the main title, when all these cover songs started popping up. It's very rewarding. It means I did my job well and I achieved something special in a certain scene. With 'Light of the Seven,' for example, because there isn't much dialogue at all, the music really needs to carry you through that scene and reveal things as they become more clear. What's really about to happen? It definitely made me excited when people responded to it so positively."
Once again, "Light of the Seven" helped pushed Game of Thrones forward musically, with the first-ever appearance of piano and organ, played on the track by Djawadi himself. "We're six seasons in now at that point," he remembers, "and it wasn't something we could do in the first season of the show, but now, because we're so far in, the sound is so established and all of a sudden, you can bring something in that's so different, that it really takes you sideways right away."
Djawadi's next selection, "Needle," once again leans on unique instrumentation: the hammered dulcimer, which made its first appearance during the first season. It was one of the earliest examples of the composer thinking about how to channel a character through music — specifically, interpreting the young Arya Stark (Maisie Williams) and her water-dancing through the form of the hammered dulcimer.
"The instrument has this very pointy sound to it," he said. "I thought it was very fitting. When she gets her sword-fighting lessons, that's when we started using it first. It was very fitting for where she was."
Though the theme first developed in season one, it eventually evolved for the sixth season when Arya finally broke free from her Faceless Men training in Braavos: "It's such a unique instrument that it kind of pokes out quite a bit. It's very light, and because the show is so dark, it sometimes doesn't work to bring this light instrument in."
6. The Winds of Winter
Season six's final episode shares a title with author George R.R. Martin's still unpublished sixth novel: "The Winds of Winter," featuring the full arrival of the snowy season in Westeros, after years and years of hype.
For Djawadi, the titular theme represents a collision of characters and themes he developed across the run of Thrones, as triumphant moments throughout the Houses Targaryen, Lannister and Stark all play out in rapid succession. The final sequence, in which Daenerys and her army finally set sail for Westeros, stands out as a key example of themes folding in on each other.
"There's the main title theme, there's Daenerys' theme, the dragon theme, the Unsullied theme and the Greyjoy theme," he says. "All of those themes are here within this one piece. I really had fun because they're all together now for this big moment. It's a great example of how over the course of a season, you can start merging all these melodies together."
Not only was it a moment of triumph for Daenerys, it was also a huge moment for the Thrones audience, as the season six finale led into what was at the time the longest hiatus between seasons. For Djawadi's part, he felt a responsibility to leave the viewers with a sense of excitement: "Just like how the main title is supposed to get you into the show, this cliffhanger should really get you excited about wanting more and making you wait for the next season to come. It always was meant to be this big, last moment for the show, and therefore, I tried musically to set up the next season."
On that same note, Djawadi presents "Truth," one of the final pieces of music heard thus far on Game of Thrones through seven seasons. It's the melody that plays as Jon Snow and Daenerys consummate their feelings for the first time.
"Again, it was a matter of working with David and Dan, knowing that we were going to end up on this boat scene with Jon and Daenerys falling in love," he says. "I wrote the theme fairly early on, actually. I normally go in sequential order, but I actually wrote the last scene and the last episode fairly early on, and then we went back from that and started placing this new theme earlier, but not playing it as a love theme. We just played it as a new theme, here only because these two characters are meeting. We played it in a more neutral way, so it wouldn't give away their relationship. As the episodes went on, we started to open it up a bit more and give it more warmth and more emotion — and then it formed into this love scene."
Of course, Jon and Daenerys' declaration of their feelings for one another was not the only reason why Djawadi named the theme "Truth."
"There's this voiceover happening at the same time," he explains, referring to Bran (Isaac Hempstead Wright) and Sam (John Bradley) deducing the true nature of Jon Snow's Targaryen roots. "Bran is describing who Jon Snow really is. That's why I saw 'Truth' in the theme. It's the truth being revealed about Jon Snow, who he really is."
Here's another truth: "Truth" earned Djawadi an Emmy. "It was absolutely amazing to get this recognition for the season," he says, and that's about all the praise he allows on the subject. For Djawadi, as always, it's about the work, and the personal emotional journey that went into building out the theme.
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