Game of Thrones loves to play with music — especially when it comes to rap, rock, and metal bands. But this season, it was a classical music–inspired piano piece that got everyone’s attention, because, not the least of which, it set the stage for a massive explosion in King’s Landing. Composer Ramin Djawadi is stunned by the response his music is getting. “I never would have thought that would happen,” he told Vulture. “It’s so exciting because it’s such a special finale.” Before he tries to figure out a way to top himself in season seven, Djawadi took a look back at some of the key musical elements of the show’s adaptation of George R.R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire series.
Winter Is Coming
We first glimpse the White Walkers (before we even know what they are) in season one, episode one, and they’re accompanied by some strange sounds. Djawadi wanted the music to set the mood: “Is this real? Are they a myth? Do they really exist?” Djawadi discussed with showrunners David Benioff and Dan Weiss how the White Walkers should sound like ice breaking, and so their theme is sometimes more “borderline sound design” than music per se. In the beginning, Djawadi used a glass harmonica for a “really high, eerie, icy sound” — and when as it’s revealed that they have an army of the dead in the season-two finale, the orchestra kicks in.
The Night’s King’s theme is also more sound design than a regular theme. “It’s not as melodic as the White Walker theme,” Djawadi said. “It’s more of a signature sound.” Jon Snow doesn’t quite have a signature sound, but he did finally get his own theme this season when he was resurrected.
Most of the Starks only get variations on the Stark theme on cello (Sansa’s gets darker as she matures). Jon’s big finale moment in season five was smaller, in terms of music composition, than the other finales. “It was a toned down, slower version of the main title,” Djawadi said. “And then it went to silence. Silence can be a very powerful tool. Sometimes it’s more powerful to leave you with nothing.”
Arya was the first Stark to get her own theme, as well as to have a triumphant finale moment. When she started her sword lessons with Needle, her signature sound kicks in, an ascending dulcimer theme that is meant to be uplifting. The moment Arya sets sail for Braavos in the season-four finale, her ascending theme combines with a children’s choir singing Valyrian-inspired lyrics, as well as the main title theme. By the time she gets to the House of Black and White, her theme mutates, now becoming a descending line as her sounds combine with Jaqen H’ghar’s.
In seasons one, three, and six, Dany took center stage during the finales, each with a moment of triumph. In season one, she emerged from the pyre with her baby dragons. In season three, she crowd-surfed among the freed slaves who called her “Mhysa.” And in season six, she finally set sail for Westeros, ready to conquer. And as Dany and her dragons have grown in size and power, so has her theme.
“I remember when I first started writing back in season one, and [showrunners] David [Benioff] and Dan [Weiss] said to me, ‘Oh, we need a theme for Daenerys,’” Djawadi said. “I hadn’t read the books, so they talked me through the arcs of the characters, and I had no idea how powerful she would get. They said, ‘We need a theme to play for when she does become powerful.’ It starts off small, and it’s planted in the first few episodes of the series, and then it becomes big and epic in time for that first finale.”
Dany’s theme can be played on a single instrument — usually a processed cello that almost sounds like a flute — but as she asserts herself, her theme becomes more pronounced and gains more instrumentation, sometimes in a way that’s hard to place. Djawadi combined sounds — from Japanese Takio-inspired drums, an Indonesian hanging drum called the bedug, an Armenian woodwind instrument called the duduk — “so you can’t place it.”
By the time she frees the slaves in season three, her theme gets lyrics — three choirs of men, women, and children singing together, to represent the people Dany’s emancipated and make it feel more epic. “The lyrics don’t really mean anything,” Djawadi said. “They’re inspired by Valyrian, but it’s more modified by the context, and it’s supposed to feel more mythic.”
The full male and female choirs return for the season-six armada finale, but with one big distinction: This time, many themes are being combined at once — at least five, the most Game of Thrones has done so far. (You might be able to detect Theon’s theme, the Unsulled theme, Dany’s theme, the dragon’s theme, and the main title.)
“We tried to combine as many themes as possible,” Djawadi said. “It’s at max power, in terms of instrumentation. And at some point, it becomes too much, so right now, it’s just enough to keep the clarity.”
Light of the Seven
Fans and critics alike noticed the connection between the opening sequence of the Game of Thrones finale and the baptism scene from The Godfather, an influence director Miguel Sapochnik acknowledges — people getting ready for their day, a scene in a religious setting, and someone who has set everything in motion to wipe out all her enemies in quick succession. But there is another connection between Game of Thrones and that scene from The Godfather in the music.
Listen closely to the church organ playing in The Godfather and you’ll hear an arrangement of a passacaglia. As it turns out, when Djawadi was composing “Light of the Seven,” he originally thought about making it a passacaglia. One of his favorites is the Passacaglia and Fugue in C Minor by Bach, for the organ, but you can also hear examples in other classical music, such as Ravel, Barber, and Handel, as well as film and television scores, such as Battlestar Galactica. The idea was to feature a series of variations over a repeating bass theme, so he could feature a counterpoint melody and build up to a climax.
“That was the big guidance for me, in how I wanted to build this piece,” Djawadi said. “It’s a different instrument, and I put it in an upper register, but the idea is that it’s building something that stays the same but changes over time. Of course, now that I say that, people might be like, ‘No, it’s not really that.’ And it’s not staying true to the form. Obviously the picture is guiding me, so I have to pull back and break away from it. I couldn’t keep it as a passacaglia all the way through. But there are definitely moments where it defaults to that.”
Djawadi used piano for the piece (the first time piano was introduced as part of the musical language of Game of Thrones), and an organ because it had already been introduced during Cersei’s imprisonment and walk of atonement, strings, and two boy soloists, to evoke Qyburn’s “little birds.” “I felt that two of them were more haunting than using a full choir, because it’s a smaller environment, when they’re running around in the catacombs. So creepy,” he laughed.