‘Game of Thrones’ composer Ramin Djawadi on storytelling through music

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Ramin Djawadi at KCRW. Credit: Amy Ta.

The final episode of “Game of Thrones” aired Sunday after eight seasons.  If you were among the millions of fans, you’d likely recognize the show’s main theme, “A Song of Ice and Fire.” It was the creation of Ramin Djawadi. He was born in Germany, grew up with classical music, then studied jazz and film composition at Boston’s Berklee College of Music.

“Funny enough, I try to forget the musical knowledge that I have, and just go straight from my gut or from the heart,” Djawadi told Press Play. “Most of the time, people that I work with have no musical training, so it's really just descriptions of story arcs or characters that then I turn around and try to put it into notes and music. I try not to think about any music theory or anything.”


“Ramin Djawadi performing "Game Of Thrones Main Title" Live on KCRW”

He said the melody was meant to capture the show’s overall mood: traveling, adventure, mystery, and political backstabbing.

His challenge was making music adequately big and dramatic without drawing too much attention away from what was happening on-screen.

“We always say dialogue is king. So you want to make sure you stay out of the way of dialogue, and then wait for the moments where you can go big with the music and open up. And that's part of the art of writing film music -- is shaping it to the visuals. And there's that connection between dialogue and sound effects, and everything has to be in its right place at the right time,” he said.

Djawadi also created themes around major characters and events, including “Truth” to represent the relationship between Jon Snow and Daenerys Targaryen.

“It's definitely very important to have reoccurring themes come back throughout the episodes, just because again it's part of the storytelling, or if you have a character theme and you want to stick with that character wherever they may travel to or whatever they are doing. And then I have to manipulate that theme into whatever that character is feeling at that time,” Djawadi said.

Djawadi said the Night King piece was one of his favorites. “It's one of the newer themes, and usually it's always the the last things I've written for the show that stick with me the most. So I'm definitely very proud of that piece.”

The piano made up most of this theme -- yet piano was used only twice during all eight seasons. “The piano was not part of the language of the scores… When just a different instrument comes, that in itself is part of the storytelling and gives you some sense of tension or foreboding.”

String instruments made up most of the show’s score, particularly the cello. There were no woodwinds (clarinets, oboes, or flutes). “Before I even wrote any music, the showrunners said we don't want any flutes, especially no ethnic flutes or Celtic medieval flutes because of the nature of the show being in the fantasy world, and swords, and dragons. They didn't want anything that would take us to medieval times,” said Djawadi.

During the final scene in the final episode, viewers heard “The Last of the Starks.”

“I have been putting myself under pressure every season because I always wanted to push myself forward and develop the existing themes further and write new themes. And this piece is a good example of how I fuse the main title melody with other existing themes,” Djawadi said.

“Game of Thrones” is done on TV now, but the soundtrack for season eight has become available digitally. Djawadi is also doing a concert series called The North American Amphitheater Tour. Even people who haven’t watched the show can get a 2.5 hour crash course on what it’s about. The concert is coming to LA’s Hollywood Bowl this fall.  

Djawadi’s next project is scoring HBO’s “Westworld.” Season three premieres next year.

--Written by Amy Ta, produced by Alex Tryggvadottir