The Music of Game of Thrones

The Emmys are over, and GAME OF THRONES won a few. Best score wasn’t one of them. Why? It isn’t because Ramin Djawadi isn’t a great composer. He is. Fundamentally, he didn’t nominate himself. (see “Why Game of Thrones’ Composer Isn’t Nominated for an Emmy) Pity that the fans can’t do it--then vote. He would win in a landslide.

Music is enormously important to movies or TV. Think about it. Would JAWS be as scary without John Williams’s score, especially the opening, title music? Would STAR WARS be the same without its score? (Yes, I get it--he ripped off Holst. Still, I destroyed my vinyl recording of STAR WARS.) What about those spaghetti westerns, scored by Ennio Morricone? (I was delighted he picked up the Oscar for THE HATEFUL EIGHT, first Western he’s scored in 40 years.)

If Morricone didn’t musically define the Western, and the West by extension, then surely it was Elmer Bernstein? THE MAGNIFICENT SEVEN and THE HALLELUJAH TRAIL. Bernstein is one of my all-time favorite composers, giving some of my favorite scores and songs, including THE GREAT ESCAPE, ELLERY QUEEN (TV series), HOODLUM, TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD, and HAWAII. I love Bernstein’s scores even above those of Henry Mancini who gave us scores for TOUCH OF EVIL, PETER GUNN (TV series), CHARADE, EXPERIMENT IN TERROR, and THE PINK PANTHER. (Dead ant, dead ant, dead ant . . . you know the rest.)

Iconic composers, the lot of them. Ramin Djawadi is going in that direction. He doesn’t compose just for GoT, tho’ I don’t doubt that’s what he’s far and away best known for--and rightly so. The main theme from GoT has already excited many musicians to cover it. Cellos (Break of Reality), violins (Taylor Davis), Celtic harps (the Harp Twins), electric guitar in the tradition of Ennio Morricone (BenDanProductions). The pipe organ edition sounds pretty menacing. “The Rains of Castamere” is right behind the main theme, including a good metal version from Srod Almenara. The harpsichord version, however, has a creepy, “Squire of Gothos” feel.

(Go check out for this stuff. It’s pretty wild.)

I think only “Peter Gunn” has been more covered. Every jazz musician and/or group has taken a shot at it--Trombone Shorty, Clarence Clemons, Art of Noize to name a few. Talk about a song that’s SO outlived its source material. A lot of Henry Manicini’s title songs did that. Who’s seen DAYS OF WINE AND ROSES or HATARI! (“Baby Elephant Walk”) lately?

Why am I so hot to trot about the music in GAME OF THRONES? The principal instrument is the cello. My favorite instrument. Some say the violin comes the closest to replicating the human voice. Maybe if you like sopranos. For me, it’s the cello. I’ve always preferred a baritone.

In an interview in Conde Nast Presents THE SAGA OF ICE AND FIRE, Djawadi said he asked the showrunners what instrument they didn’t want featured. They said the flute. No reason was given, but I suspect that the showrunners didn’t want anything that sounded “Elven”. Fair enough. Djawadi went with the cello “because it is so moody”. It certainly does well with heartbreak, of which there is plenty in the show.

Djawadi has done really well with the themes for the Houses, reworking them for both recognition and transformation. Take the Lannisters, the Starks, and the Targaryens. The cello is good at tragedy, especially in the minor key--the Lannisters with their pride and wealthy and hubris (“The Lannisters Always Pay Their Debts”) and the Starks with their honor and their naivèté. (In “The King in the North” and “Winterfell”, the violin supports the Stark tragedy, giving a strong sense of keening.) The Targaryen theme--Daenerys’s really--conveys such a strong flap of dragon wings (skilled, expressive drumming) and righteous anger that I see Drogon more than I see Daenerys, tho’ in “Mhysa”, the vocal component gives the sense of her awed followers.

He also uses unusual instruments. In “Fire and Blood”, I think it’s the didgeridoo that stands out, giving it the alien, otherworldly sound. 

Overall, the music on GoT is fabulous, but the seasons are not all equal. I think Season 6 is the best. This season also featured the piano, Djawadi’s personal instrument, in “Light of the Seven”, which is the greatest selection of the season. It’s not attached to any House theme; it gives a sense of cold rain, of a calculated revenge that goes full bore when the pipe organ and chorus enter. “My Watch Has Ended” is another mournful piece, for Jon Snow’s never the same again. 

In order for the rest of the seasons, it is Season 3 with “A Lannister Always Pays His Debts”, “I Paid the Iron Price”, “Dark Words, Dark Wings”, and “Mhysa”. Seasons 1 and 2 are tied for third place, with Season 2 coming to edge Season 1. “The Throne Is Mine” is so Joffrey. (It could also speak for Stannis.) Seasons 4--my favorites here are “You Are No Son of Mine” and “The Children”--and 5 are okay, with Season 5 reflecting the power vacuum created by Tywin Lannister’s death. “Atonement”, however, is bleak, standing out indeed.

And there you have it. Ramin Djawadi is the new king of TV music. Long may he reign.

Copyright KG Whitehurst