When Game of Thrones Plays Sad Piano Music, It’s Time to Freak Out

Photo: HBO

If you’ve watched Game of Thronesunmistakable opening credits, you’ve seen Ramin Djawadi’s name listed as the composer of the show’s music. But considering how active a participant that music has been in the story unfolding onscreen, perhaps he should be listed among the actors instead. “We always treated the music as another character on the show,” Djawadi says.

And what a cast he’s assembled. There’s the rousing whirl of the theme music, one of the show’s initial points of entry into the brains of millions of viewers. The mournful and ominous Lannister theme “The Rains of Castamere” became infamous as the world’s worst wedding song. The piano-based “Light of the Seven” popped up out of nowhere, after years of music with nary a tickle of ivory, to accompany Cersei’s destruction of her enemies in King’s Landing. These pivotal pieces are just a few of the highlights from Djawadi’s eight seasons of work providing HBO’s epic fantasy with an equally epic score.

The Long Night,” the show’s most ambitious episode, was one of Djawadi’s most ambitious outings as well. It served as a culmination for the distinctive themes of countless characters, from Arya Stark to the Night King. Its unexpectedly upbeat ending marked a major (key) first for the show. And the return of that damned piano made our heroes’ plight seem even more hopeless — a fake-out Djawadi and the filmmakers knew would terrify us as thoroughly as any zombie legion or undead dragon ever could.

Carice Van Houten described “The Long Night” as a piece of orchestral music and said she was honored that Melisandre’s death was chosen to be the last note.
The last note — her last note — ends on a pure major chord. When I’m with David [Benioff] and Dan [Weiss] working on music for the show, we always joke about how most of it is in minor, because it’s such a dark show with a dark mood most of the time. But I felt after this long episode and this long arc, her last note has to end in major. I believe it’s the only episode to date that ends on a major chord like that. The whole time you’re holding your breath, and it’s just a giant exhale, you know?

For the final stretch of the episode, the ambient sound is muted and a piano melody kicks in. It immediately felt like a callback to “Light of the Seven,” one of your best-known pieces—so, you know, I got worried.
That was 100 percent intentional. When I talked to Miguel [Sapochnik], the director, and when David and Dan came to my studio and we started working on this episode, we all agreed that it had to be a piano piece again, just like “Light of the Seven.”

That was the first time we’d used piano in the show; it really meant something different. You realize Cersei’s up to something and it all blows up. By using it again, we wanted to have the reverse effect. The piano comes in and people go, “Uh-oh, here comes the piano again. Something’s unraveling!” There was little hope throughout the episode. They’ve fought and fought, but the Night King is just unstoppable. Then he comes walking in, and the piano itself represents, like, “This is really it! It’s over!” Then there’s that big twist in the end. It definitely misled the audience because of what they knew from “Light of the Seven,” back in season six. We always treated the music as another character in the show.

I can see that. When that piano came back at the end of “The Long Night,” it felt as much like the return of a recurring character as Melisandre riding up on that horse at the beginning.
That’s only something you can do when you have multiple seasons to establish things over time. If we’d brought in the piano in season one, people would have not even thought about it: “Okay, this is the score for this new show, and there’s a piano now.” But if for six seasons we don’t touch the piano and then it comes in? It has a really drastic impact.

When did you realize that Game of Thrones would allow you to write work with that kind of payoff and complexity?
When I watched the first episode. David and Dan joke about this, because at first I was hesitant to take the show on. I was pretty busy when they approached me, and I hadn’t read the books. But they showed me episode one and two from the first season, then we got together and they gave me a bit more of a story arc. Right away, I knew this was a tremendous task.

One of the big discussions we had in the very beginning, before I wrote anything, was how to even start. They said, “Look, we have so many characters and so much plot everywhere. It’s complex. Musically, how can we approach this?” We were careful not to put too many themes in right away so that it becomes confusing. We really carefully placed these themes so that it would help the storytelling.

The first music we hear in the pilot isn’t the opening theme, but those icy high notes that accompany the White Walkers. That’s a weird way to start a show.
You’re absolutely correct. Right away, we were faced with describing something that was really one long setup all the way to—well, now, to this past episode. For the longest time we didn’t see any White Walkers again, and it was treated more as a myth. But when [characters] talk about them, it has that glassy, icy, mysterious motif, so we already have that mood in our mind. It started with that mood.

Did you know you’d hit a home run with the theme song?
[Laughs.] No, not at all. I just wrote what I thought felt right. After I’d written the piece, I came home and picked up the guitar and played it for my wife. She listened to it—and started singing it back to me. It clicked for her right away, so I believed in it. The minute I played it for David and Dan, they loved it too. I was super-excited when the first episode aired and the next day these cover versions started popping up on YouTube.

Thrones is unique even among other big, sweeping genre shows because there was a complete story to tell going in, one with a beginning, middle, and end mapped out in advance.
I knew there was an end to it from the very beginning; I didn’t know what that ending was. I just knew the story would come to an end that was already known at the time. Now that we’ve come to the final season, it’s amazing to see how long that story took to tell.

Did knowing the end was coming add pressure as you were writing the music?
I mean, I put myself under pressure every season, trying to further develop the material I did the season before. I’d say, This is what I did last season with our existing themes. Where can I move them now? The other part, then, is, What are the new themes we want to introduce this season? A simple example is the dragons. In the beginning we just see the eggs, so it’s also like a myth: “Are dragons really gonna be hatching from these?” So their theme is really rather small and mysterious. I have to take that theme all the way to where we are now, where the dragons are big and powerful, and make it epic, with a big orchestra and big drums and a big choir.

My guidance has always been David and Dan. They always had a vision of what they wanted, and they always knew where to guide me. “The Rains of Castamere,” for example, is a song that’s in the book. After we finished season one, they said to me, “Here are the lyrics from the book. We need you to write a theme. We’ll establish it in season two, and by the time you get to season three, it’ll be used in this ‘Red Wedding’ scene,” which they’d explained to me already. With their description, I was able to write this melody and establish that theme way ahead. By the time you get to the Red Wedding, the audience is familiar with it. They know that when a Lannister theme is played at this wedding, something’s off.

Just hearing that song in that moment frightened viewers like something out of a horror movie.
Yeah, that’s really fun. Uh, “fun” is the wrong word. [Laughs.]

The music is often notable in its absence. On the few occasions where an episode has cut to the credits without music, like “Hardhome,” for instance, it’s a knockout punch. I still remember how awful that felt. I was like, “Give me some music! Tell me how to feel!” Is that part of your job as well?
That’s part of the discussions every single time. There’s a variation of the main titles that I wrote that gets used in the end credits every once in a while, but we realized, “Let’s even push it further and write different end-title music depending on what feeling we want the audience to be left with.” Sometimes there’s really nothing left to say, and no music is actually more powerful than writing anything.

To close things out, appropriately enough, I wanted to talk about Arya’s music. It adds a sense of mystery and magic to a story line that, until this most recent episode, is incredibly grim. This is a child conditioned into becoming a killer, but the music suggests there’s something still positive in what’s happening to her. That wound up coming to pass in such a huge way.
It’s interesting how her theme starts out, too. I use an instrument called a hammered dulcimer for her a lot. It has a kind of ping sound I thought was perfect for her little sword that she calls Needle. But it’s a theme that’s pretty much ascending all the time, so that gives it positivity, in a way. You could even say there’s something heroic in it, and as we heard in that episode, it can be played very powerfully. It’s almost innocent in how it starts out, and then it’s able to grow into something a lot bigger.

When GOT Plays Sad Piano Music, It’s Time to Freak Out