'Game of Thrones' Series Finale: Ramin Djawadi Charts the Final Season's Musical Journey

From "Jenny of Oldstones" through "A Song of Ice and Fire," the 'Thrones' composer breaks down the final season's most powerful musical moments.
Courtesy of HBO

Jenny of Oldstones never wanted to leave, and neither did Ramin Djawadi, the Emmy-winning composer behind Game of Thrones

The person who crafted the unforgettable "Rains of Castamere," which should never play at any wedding other than the Red one, is the same man who brought so many other intense and emotional music experiences to life over the course of eight seasons of David Benioff and Dan Weiss' adaptation of George R.R. Martin's "A Song of Ice and Fire" novels — including, well, "A Song of Ice and Fire," the very last piece of music featured in Game of Thrones.

Unlike the millions of Thrones viewers who will no longer see what's ahead for Jon Snow (Kit Harington), Arya Stark (Maisie Williams) or Tyrion Lannister (Peter Dinklage), Djawadi's time in the Seven Kingdoms (or Six Kingdoms, we should say) isn't quite over. His Game of Thrones Live Concert Experience series resumes in the fall, debuting September 5 in Syracuse, New York, set to conclude a month later in Los Angeles on October 5. When the concert returns, Djawadi will have the full arsenal of the final season at his disposal — including "Jenny of Oldstones," "A Song of Ice and Fire" and the other pieces he discusses with The Hollywood Reporter in the following conversation. Spoilers from the final season are ahead.

Before we reach the series finale, there are two musical moments from earlier in the season I wanted to touch on with you: "Jenny of Oldstones," first, which stems from one single lyric in George R.R. Martin's books. How was the rest born?

Yeah, I believe that very first lyric comes from George, and then the rest? David and Dan wrote it. It's interesting. Sometimes, with the way collaborations work, the four of us have written the song together without sitting in the same room together. The three of them wrote the lyrics, and I put the music to the lyrics. Like many times in past seasons, this time, they sent me the lyrics and had me write the melody to it. I didn't have any picture to it. I did the same with "Rains of Castamere," as well. This was done before they were shooting, because in the show, they have Podrick (Daniel Portman) singing it, so they obviously wanted to have it in time for shooting the scene.

When you read the lyrics, what did you feel the song needed to sound like?

I felt it needed to be like… I don't know if "lullaby" is the right word, but it needed a somber feeling. The scene takes place in the night before "The Long Night," the big battle. A lot of our characters are together in a room, then there's the montage where you're seeing everybody else, and the emotional anticipation for them. This is the last night before some of them die or every one of them may die. To me, it needed to have a somber quality to it. That's what I was going for. 

I also wanted to ask you about "The Night King," which plays in the closing moments of "The Long Night," as the tide of the battle goes through its final shift. It's only the second time piano has been used in the Game of Thrones score, that I can think of…

To go back to the other piano piece, "The Light of the Seven," that one had quite an impact because — and I've talked about this before — but the fact that we're using piano there for the first time was quite a shocker in itself. It wasn't part of the language of the score. When that piano came in, the listener immediately goes: "Whoa, what is this music? What's happening?" It slowly unfolds into the big explosion of Cersei's plan. Jump to "The Night King." At this point in time in the episodes, we have had 70 minutes of tension and action music in this big battle. Here's a scene where there's an opportunity to use the piano again, and yet again influence the listener in certain ways. This time, we're telling them, "There's piano coming in. The battle is over. We've had multiple attempts to stop the Night King and nothing has worked against his army." The piano starts, and the intention is to give you some closure. It almost has the reverse effect as "The Light of the Seven." We knew how that song would slowly build and at the end, there's the explosion. In this particular case, you're seeing closure all the way. Everyone is at the end of their abilities and they have either given up or will give up and it will soon be over. The Night King, just like Cersei, will follow through. This is going to be it. But then it has the reverse effect when Arya comes out of nowhere to save the day. It was interesting to be able to do this just because of the one other time we had piano. The buildup here is even more than it would have been because we had "The Light of the Seven."

Tying it back to another piece, piano on Game of Thrones almost has the same impact as "The Rains of Castamere" within the show's universe. Catelyn Stark hears that melody at the Red Wedding, and she knows something is terribly amiss. We hear piano on Game of Thrones, and we are trained to expect the worst after "Light of the Seven." It helps with the surprise when Arya bursts in and saves the day.

Yeah, and not to get too technical about it, but it starts at a different key and a different tempo, and I even went as far as ending up in the same tempo and key as "The Light of the Seven," to even give you the subconscious sense that this is over, and this is the end of everybody. I really hope everyone was holding their breath. That was certainly the intention.

Let's get into the series finale, but before we even get into the music of the episode, let's talk about the fact that it takes quite a while before we even hear any score. The first few minutes are completely without music, as Tyrion and the others survey the wreckage of King's Landing. What were your conversations with David and Dan like about that choice?

Every choice of music is determined with David and Dan. It's not just this example, it's also including every single choice we've already talked about, like the use of piano in "The Night King" piece. Every choice was discussed with David and Dan. For us, it was definitely an active choice for everyone: "No need for music here. Let's just have the aftermath, look at everything that's happened and take it all in. There's no music necessary to enhance the emotion of what everyone is feeling." It's funny when you say that as a composer, because maybe it makes you sound lazy: "Oh, we don't want to write any music here!" (Laughs.) But it can be so much more powerful to not have any music than to try to put in some music when the visuals and acting and everything on screen is so much more powerful. You don't need to underscore that at all. We decided there's no music necessary until Tyrion sees Jaime and Cersei.

Silence can be an instrument, right? Knowing when to withhold music is absolutely part of your arsenal. 

Exactly. There's no need to underscore any of the horror and emotion at all. In those cases, it was just better left alone. You want to hear the crackling of the sound effects, which tell a big part of the story as well. You're hearing crackling and bricks falling, all these things that become so much more real when there's no more music with it. It becomes so much more intense.

In the spirit of intense, the first glimpse of Daenerys in the episode comes in the form of her speech before her army. Tell us about crafting this piece, "Master of War."

It certainly underplays the scene. As we talked about earlier where there's no music necessary, here, we felt the visuals and her speech are so powerful that we didn't need to have a massive score enhancing it. The dragon's screams, the army, all of it speaks for itself. The music comes in, and it's almost you're subconsciously picking up on a mood. Her theme is definitely in the piece, but it's much more subtle. You have your full attention to her speech, and the power she conveys to her army, and how convinced she is that she's doing all the right things and she wants to keep fighting, and all the things she says. Musically, subconsciously, it portrays a darkness there. But it doesn't need to overstate that this is the Mad Queen.

You have scored moments of triumph for Daenerys before, and certainly, in her mind, this is a moment of triumph. But it's not for us. We can't share in the victory the way we did in "Mhysa," for example. Was that important to convey with a lower-key score?

Exactly. In a moment like the one you mention, Daenerys is celebrating, everyone is celebrating her. In the scene in the finale, she's being celebrated by her people and she feels like she's done the right thing, but Jon Snow and Tyrion and Arya are all looking on and they're all thinking very differently already. They are all questioning what she's done. "Is this right?" The music is more portraying how they feel and how conflicted the emotions are in the scene. Not everybody is on the same page here. It's why she's not being celebrated. We're playing it more from their perspective than Dany's perspective.

Turning toward Daenerys coming into the throne room and touching the Iron Throne for the first and last time… it's incredibly haunting.

On the soundtrack, that's the second part of "Master of War." That music plays dreamily, because even in her dialogue, she talks about how "When I was young, I couldn't even count to 20." She's very much in her head. As she walks toward the throne, there's a beautiful solo voice that rings out. It's haunting and mysterious, but there's also a sense of beauty for her. Unlike the [House of the Undying vision] in season two, here, she actually touches the throne. The score builds up, because she feels that sense of completion and power, just by even putting her hand on it. She feels she has arrived and she feels that central power.

It leads us into "Be With Me," the piece that plays as Jon Snow kills Daenerys — a critical scene for the series, let alone the finale.

The intention with the piece is that it's more from her perspective. Jon comes in, and Daenerys tries to convince him. The music playing is pretty much their love theme, or at least starts that way. It's trying to go full steam with the love theme: "Be with me, we can do this together." Jon starts questioning it. But the music plays as though she's convincing Jon. We don't know his decision at the moment. The music plays as though they are a couple and they are in love, and their love overrules everything. As we hear the piece, it gets interrupted halfway into the phrase. It never finishes out the theme, because he stabs her. It just stops.

Is that an editing choice in the episode, or is that how the piece ends as you wrote it?

That's how I actively wrote it. We definitely spent some time getting it just right. It's interesting how the phrasing works. If you land on a different chord during the stab, you can almost anticipate it. We really made sure it's written in a way that ends just during the phrase. It comes out of nowhere. You don't expect it at all. When they kiss, you want to feel their love is stronger than anything else. You don't want to anticipate that he's going to kill her. That's why I actively wrote it the way it is now. It stops mid-phrase.

Enter: "The Iron Throne," title of the episode, title of the piece you wrote, which scores one of the biggest moments in the series: the Iron Throne's death by dragon fire.

It comes out of "Be With Me." It starts with a solo violin, and leans on Jon and Daenerys' love theme, "Truth." It starts to play again, but it plays very fractured, and it has that same feeling from Jon where he can't quite grasp what he has done. He's holding his love in his arms. That's why the theme plays from the solo violin, very sparse. Then the dragon comes in and the piece starts to pick up. It becomes more and more powerful. It builds to what you think is going to happen next: the dragon killing Jon. But he melts the throne. Then the music shifts into a very powerful piece with the main title's melody in it. Clearly, the real intention is the dragon understands the reason why Daenerys is dead is the urge for power and the throne. I don't want to say the throne was "useless," but there are bad things that come out of the urge to get to power. At the same time, Drogon is crying because his mom is dead in front of him. The piece ends with a segment from "Breaker of Chains," when Daenerys chained her dragons and locked them up [in season four]. There's a callback to that when he comes in and picks her up and flies away. It's a very emotional moment. It goes from this powerful, overall message of what is the purpose of the throne and all the death that the throne has brought us, and then it goes small, to the mother and son relationship. I loved writing that scene. I was crying when I wrote it. It was so emotional.

You end the finale and therefore the series on "A Song of Ice and Fire," which is also the name of George R.R. Martin's series on which Game of Thrones is based.

I always wanted to hold that name for the very end. It had to be the main title theme. It felt like the right bookend. We've heard the main title in the opening of each episode. I just felt like it was going to be the right way to end the show and leave us all with that melody. In this case, it's a celebration. It's a full choir. Everyone's singing the melody. I thought there was nothing more powerful than to turn the theme into a song — the song of ice and fire.

This is the end of Game of Thrones as we know it. You will continue to live in Westeros with your concert series picking back up soon, but it's still an ending. What has it meant to you to be embedded in Westeros for roughly a decade?

It still hasn't quite set in. I'm still in denial. (Laughs.) It's been such a big part of my life. Every season when we end, we'd hug and talk about the season, and I'd go, "Okay! I'll see you next year." To now not have that? It's going to take me a little bit to realize that it's not coming back. But I'm very excited for the concert series. I'm going to rework the concert now with season eight, so now we will have a complete show from beginning to end. It'll keep things alive for me, and hopefully for the fans as well. If anyone wants to get their Game of Thrones fix, they can come see the concert. We have all the highlights from the series. It will certainly send me back to the world of Westeros, which I don't think I'm ever going to be able to let go. Definitely not.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

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