Emmys 2019: Why Ramin Djawadi’s Work on Game of Thrones is a Masterpiece of Music Composition
I’ve seen plenty of television series in my life and enjoyed many of them, but I have never encountered something quite like what composer Ramin Djawadi did on his 8 years working on “Game of Thrones”.
Written by Dvir Ben Asuli.
You don’t even need to be in the appropriate age to watch “Game of Thrones” to know it’s opening titles theme music by heart. It’s undoubtedly one of the most memorable music pieces to come out of a score album, and I’m sure plenty of people danced to some club remix of it in a party or enjoyed a simplistic version on a reception without even knowing they are listening to an opening music of a television series. I remember even being in a wedding once where the bride and groom walked down the aisle to a violinist playing this music. The score of “Game of Thrones” captured the audience attention from the very beginning of the first episode, but it was nothing compared to what the future will hold.
After 2 Grammy nominations and 6 Emmy nominations, including one win for “Game of Thrones” last year- it wasn’t much of a surprise to see Ramin Djawadi nominated once more on Emmy Nomination announcement day, for the episode “The Long Night” in the final season of “Game of Thrones”- especially if you remember that chilling “Night King” music that played during the final sequence and made some noise on social media the following weeks. On paper it seems like Djawadi is nominated for an Emmy for his work on “Game of Thrones” eighth season (or even more precisely, one episode from it), but since it’s the last season of the show and the last time we’d hear him composing the various motifs of Westeros’ great houses (unless he will be available to join the prequel series, fingers crossed!), I think the best way to look at this nomination is as an overall achievement for all the work he’s done on the show since 2011.
What stands out the most in the “Game of Thrones” soundtracks is the use of the old musical element of ‘leitmotifs’- constantly recurring musical phrases associated with a particular element of the story. While the most obvious form of leitmotifs are theme musics associated with certain characters, houses or even locations, if you listen closely you notice there are also theme keys associated with much more ambiguous ideas, such as a theme for the concept of honor or love and even conspiracy. Here lies the essence of what makes the “Game of Thrones” soundtracks so unique- the music compositions tell an entire story all by themselves. As the journey of the characters takes place on screen, the musics evolve in an 8 years journey to fit themselves to the state the characters find themselves at this moment in time. For example, Daenerys’ empowering theme, that started relatively simple (yet epic) now become a gigantic piece with an overwhelming climax, just as the character gained power throughout the seasons. Key elements in the music can be just as hinting (or even telling) as clues depicted on screen, and if you focus you can just listen to a track from the soundtrack albums, close your eyes and imagine the entire scene with all the characters involved plays out in your head.
If the storytelling aspect of the musics and the sheer grandiose style of compositions sounds familiar, it’s not by chance. After graduating summa cum laude from Berklee College of Music, Djawadi drew the attention of legendary film composer Hans Zimmer who recruited him to Remote Control Production and drew him to Hollywood under his wing. For those who don’t know, Zimmer is the composer responsible for many iconic soundtracks such as Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight Trilogy, “Pirates of the Caribbean”, “The Lion King” and my personal favorite, “Inception”. Djawadi, for example, was even namely credited for doing additional music in Nolan’s “Batman Begins”, where he initially met with Chris’ brother Jonathan that later took him as a composer for his show “Person of Interest”, and afterwards HBO’s juggernaut “Westworld”. While Djawadi generated a completely unique style for himself, you can definitely feel the Zimmer influences on his compositions. With both composers you sometimes find yourself watching the film and realizing you are paying much more attention to the music than to the footage itself. And at least in my case, revisiting the soundtrack albums outside of it constantly as if it was another album of your favorite singer, an experience that lets you relive your favorite moments from the show from a completely different angle. As someone that loves cinema and television from a young age, hearing compositions scored as a part of a soundtrack for a film have a different effect than if, for example, I’ll listen to a music composition by Bach. In my mind the visuals and the score are both inseparable parts of each other, and listening to a score track has a unique experience for me that ties directly to my love for watching the movie or TV show, or even more specifically my favorite scenes from it. That way, listening to a soundtrack album that identifies so strongly with specific scenes or aspects of the film makes me relive my favorite moments from my favorite movies and series in a way that is a little bit hard to describe, and among all the composers I know the two that do this effect to the largest extent are Hans Zimmer and, well, Ramin Djawadi.
Describing the process of composing each season, Djawadi stated that show-runners David Benioff and D. B. Weiss were highly involved in every step. They would often tell him certain things he needed to put extra emphasis on, that for example might play a bigger role in a later season, and also set with him watching raw filmed material guiding him about their vision. A good example for that is when they asked him to compose the love theme for Jon and Daenerys for season 7, while they know how this will end up on the next season yet without telling ‘spoilers’ to Djawadi; “They said, ‘OK, this needs to be a really romantic theme, but make sure that it’s a love theme that can imply complications’” Djawadi said. “That’s how they started me out. They said things turn differently and things go wrong.”
As I stated before, it is highly noticeable that there was a lot of thought behind the story the music will carry throughout the show. Firstly it was important for Ramin to avoid cliches normally affiliated with the genre, so right at the beginning he decided that the flute will not be incorporated in the score of the show at any point. Instead he chose to put the emphasis on String Instruments, and most notably the Cello- which in his opinion captured the atmosphere of the universe the show takes place in much more than the fantasy or medieval compositions we usually hear. The decision of using music to support the different characters and plots, while expressing the emotions and moods of each scene in an episode was made right at the beginning- though he realized that with the vast amount of characters, houses and locations that the show feature the audience might get confused or overblown by all the different key elements or themes. For this reason he decided to incorporate the themes patiently and not all at once, so the audience could easily keep track at what’s going on.
For example, the theme for House Stark was already present in the first episode while the theme of Daenerys Targaryen built slowly throughout the first season, until the big climax in the season’s closing scene. It was only in the second season that House Greyjoy got his own theme for example- when Theon departed from the Stark camp and went to Pyke to visit his family. The second season also slowly introduced House Lannister’s infamous theme, the Rains of Castamere, that started to appear more prominently in the third season, as a preparation for it’s big role during the Red Wedding at episode 9. Slowly as Arya got stronger and more prominent as a character, her character developed themes of her own, and so did the Dragons, the Army of the Dead and even Jon Snow after being raised from the dead- among many other characters as well. There were also many love themes specific to certain couples like “You Know Nothing” For Jon and Ygritte and the famous “Truth” for Jon and Daenerys (that in my opinion had enough in it alone to justify Ramin’s both Emmy and Grammy nominations that year), with the more general (and most beautiful, in my opinion) “I am Hers, She is Mine” love theme always looming in the background.
Let’s zoom in now on the soundtrack for the eighth and final season, that after a few comprehensive listens and dozens of repeats of selected tracks I’ve come to realize is the best culmination this 8 years long musical journey could have received. Just like everything else in the eighth season of Game of Thrones, the production took the music aspect to the maximum with the season 8 recording sessions spanning a 60-piece orchestra, a 40-voice mixed chorus and a 12-voice children’s choir. Storytelling-wise all the stories that from a plot perspective reached their climax in the final episodes did more so in the musics corresponding to them, who’ve dominantly led a lot of the scenes they have accompanied. For example I know a lot of people that found Jaime and Cersei’s death scene to be underwhelming, a claim I just can’t sympathize with- and mainly from that exact reason. Besides the fact I don’t agree with the basis of the claim, since I found it poetically beautiful that Jaime and Cersei died at each other’s arms while their empire literally collapses on top of them- the first thing that comes to mind while thinking about this scene, besides Lena Headey’s brilliant performance, was the music in the background. Despite who this character was, the music made it one of the most heartbreaking and sad moments in the entire series, and every time I revisit “For Cersei” in the soundtrack albums it’s like reliving this scene all over again, almost in a painful way. ״Master of War”, and specifically the moment Daenerys finally touches the Iron Throne, is able to send chills throughout my body every single time I’m listening to it, without even watching the scene- just to demonstrate how powerfully the compositions tie with what they are suppose to represent on screen.
Another strong example is the scene in the last episode where Brienne of Tarth is writing Jaime’s deeds in the White Book after his death, with music incorporating key elements from “I Am Hers, She is Mine” that was originally featured in Rob Stark and Talisa’s wedding- almost as if Ramin married Jaime and Brienne all on his own. In it’s context, for me this scene might be the most emotionally impactful combination of music and visuals in the show’s entire run. “It just shows the power of music, right?” Ramin said when asked about this scene. “There were no words [in the scene] but by putting that in there your imagination goes [into] where this could have gone. It’s just a hint of what their relationship — if they had stayed together, if he was still alive — what it could have been. What they could have become. I was amazed some people picked up on it. I was hoping people would go, ‘Wait a minute, that’s from season two’. I wanted people to have that emotion, and have those thoughts. I’m glad it was picked up”.
The battle sequences took the more ‘epic’ motifs to a whole new level- with “The Last War” that took elements we already know and twisted them to sound like some bells of the apocalypse, and the last moments of the last episode incorporated pretty much everything of importance with “the Last of the Stark” that will give us a feeling of nostalgia for years to come, and ending with the track with the most fitting title “A Song of Ice and Fire”- a variation of the Opening Titles music itself, while the show is ending in the exact same spot it started in episode 1. “The thought was to really create a bookend to the whole show” He said describing this specific choice. “We have our main title song that really represents everybody and the entire series, and we thought there’s no better way to end the show than with our main title theme. But this time it was with a full choir. We have men and women and children actually singing it. We’ve heard that main title so many times at every beginning of the episode, so we wanted to leave the show with that — including the very last note on our small dulcimer. The main title ends when the title card goes to black and they have that little “dum dum ba ba bum bum” on the dulcimer, and those are the same last notes people will hear on the show”.
And of course, the recurring themes are not all there is to it. The season 8 soundtrack offers plenty of completely original compositions that doesn’t fall short from all the old ones we’re so familiar with. The best example could be “the Night King” that offers a beautiful climax to the most ambitious battle sequence ever filmed for TV. Almost a year later, personally I can’t stop listening to it again and again. “Jenny of Oldstones” (Ramin’s Cello theme that appears on the soundtrack album, not the Florence Welch version) is hauntingly beautiful and had it been composed at an earlier season for a more prominent house it could have easily been just as iconic as the “Rains of Castamere” Lannister theme. Another good example is “Farewell”, a heartbreaking piece for the aftermath of the Battle of Winterfell that totally caught me off-guard. Some battle sequence songs feature electronic instruments more heavily than ever before (kind of reminiscent of Zimmer’s ‘Dunkirk’ score) and “the Bells” for example is an ominous tension building music in a style we’ve never encountered before in the “Game of Thrones” soundtracks.
Ramin has gone through a vast range of musical instruments throughout the show, as he said several times that he persisted on always trying new things and incorporate new sounds. Some of the instruments used in his compositions could be identified by name only by real music fiends, while perhaps the most recognizable of all instruments, the piano, only made its first appearance in the ending of the sixth season, in the highly acclaimed “Light of the Seven” composition. That example shows that Ramin indeed gives credit to his listeners to notice the importance of the music and draw conclusions from it, as he stated several times that the use of the piano for the first time in the show in that moment was made deliberately so people will feel something is not quite right, and be hinted that something big and wicked is coming along. This music, and probably the entire work on the “Winds of Winter” episode, gave Djawadi a huge boost in his recognition among the audience, exactly in the right time for him to launch a nation wide live orchestra tour across America centered solely on Game of Thrones, a quite rare thing when it comes to a television production. Not only that but the tour was a grand success, showing how much the audience connected with the score, that the following year the tour expanded and went outside of America to visit Europe as well, while another tour is taking place in America right now. Going back to “The Night King” from season 8, Ramin described why they chose to bring back the piano in it’s original role once more for that pivotal moment:
“That was the one piece of information we all knew when we looked at the scene. We said it’s time again to use the piano, because it was the perfect callback to ‘The Light of the Seven.’ It had the reverse effect because when you played the piano, people were kind of drawn in by that: ‘Here’s the piano. Something’s blowing up. This is the end!’” He said. “Because of what we had set up in Season 6, we were able to do it with this piece here. It just builds and builds and builds, And we were really able to create some tension with that. I needed to have something that has the same impact at this particular moment on the show and call back to ‘Light of the Seven,’ but it can’t be the same piece. If I had done an arrangement of “Light of the Seven” again it wouldn’t have made any sense. Cersei was nowhere to be seen, and that piece belongs to Cersei. But it was a very long scene, just like ‘Light of the Seven’. There were a lot of similarities, so I definitely made a connection [between them]. For example, I end up in the same key and tempo as the ‘Light of the Seven’ by the end of ‘The Night King’. We really wanted the audience to just hold their breath the whole time. We just had 50 minutes of action music and battle and they tried and tried, and they just can’t do it. It was supposed to feel like a finale and that they were all going to die. And then of course the big surprise happens at the end.” Several times Ramin described his work on “The Night King” as the most challenging task he had to do for the eighth season, mainly because what a huge role this scene plays in the story and the big effect he wanted it to have on the viewers. For those of us who watched the table read of the season on HBO’s documentary “The Last Watch”, when they read this specific scene it’s amazing to see how big of a role the music played when transforming this scene from a written format to an actual moment of the show.
In the bottom line, Ramin described his effort on working on this specific score just as we’d expect- in a manner where the music has an important role in storytelling just as much as the visuals; “I always try to imagine what if we just turn the picture off? Will the music tell the story — tell us how to feel for these characters? There’s an emotional connection to the story and the characters. Maybe that’s why it resonates”. And as we’d expect, the show coming to an end can be harsh not only to us, the fans, but also for the people who invested 9 years of their lives working on it. “I think it still hasn’t caught up with me fully that [it’s over]. The live concert tour is helping me with it, because I just don’t want to let go, just how many fans probably don’t want to let go of the show. It helps me to still be working on the music and just stay in that world longer. And yes, looking back it’s crazy when I think of how this all started out in 2011. And now with the concert tour, all this music that I’ve written and just going through it, I feel very lucky that I’ve been part of this. It’s been unbelievable”.
The season 8 soundtrack is 2 hours long, so I couldn’t possibly talk about all of the tracks, though I’d probably have something to say about each and every one. I’d highly recommend going through this album, with an emphasis of anything that came out of the last episode- just to see how masterfully everything wraps up. Thankfully for us, we can still hear Ramin Djawadi here on HBO in the Nolan couple’s “Westworld”, a brilliant project in its very own ways. And for now we can only be optimistic about maybe seeing Ramin’s name pop up in the Game of Thrones prequel series, as no announcement on the matter was made yet. But as “Game of Thrones” is less of a seasonal show and more of a 73-episodes-long story, the complete works of Ramin Djawadi for Game of Thrones could be seen as a 10-hours-long soundtrack album, that accompanies said story from start to finish- while telling a whole story on it’s very own. I don’t remember encountering a serialized soundtrack score in that scope ever before, and I think it should be considered a masterclass for everyone who wishes to compose in this absolutely amazing scoring style, especially if it’s in the TV medium. The way I see it, Ramin shattered all known conventions as far as medieval Fantasy scores go and made his very own magnum opus, and just as I believe the series will retain it’s ‘classic’ status in pop culture, I believe Ramin’s iconic music, which is an inseparable part of the show, will keep echoing in our heads for years to come.
For further listening, check out my Apple Music playlist with personal essential picks from Ramin Djawadi’s work on “Game of Thrones”.
Note: this article was originally published on HBOWatch in September 2019. Later on Ramin indeed won his 2nd consecutive Emmy, for the final season of “Game of Thrones”. He was also later nominated for a Grammy Award for said season, yet het didn’t win that one.