John Cuneo

The arsenal of instruments Ramin Djawadi has used to score Game of Thrones includes mournful strings, mighty horns, and the Armenian double-reed woodwind known as a duduk. During the series’ first five seasons, however, he left one common weapon untouched: the piano. Early on, the showrunners, David Benioff and D. B. Weiss, decided that the ivories were too delicate for the show’s brutal realms, where even weddings tend to involve some stabbing. They also banned the flute, for fear that Thrones would sound like a Renaissance fair.

But when Djawadi sat down to soundtrack a pivotal sequence in Season 6—the slow reveal that the embattled royal mother, Cersei Lannister, was about to bomb her own kingdom’s cathedral, incinerating half a dozen regular characters in the process—none of the instruments he tried seemed right. “I played the whole scene with harp, and everyone was shaking heads,” he told me. “There’s a warmth to it that the colder piano doesn’t have.”

So Djawadi finally brought the piano to Westeros. As one of Cersei’s minions skulked through the sewers below the cathedral, lighting fuses, the score reverberated with haunting piano arpeggios. The heretofore unheard instrument suggested, however subtly, that one of the series’ signature plot twists was in the making. But the elegiac mood of the composition, called “Light of the Seven,” conveyed more: Cersei’s violent act wasn’t just a game-board-upending coup; it was a tragedy born of malice and desperation. “It doesn’t accompany the scene,” Benioff and Weiss told me via email. “It shapes the scene, as much if not more than any other creative element.”

When Thrones leaves the air this year, its cultural legacy will include—and has been enabled by—Djawadi’s richly textured music. The 44-year-old German Iranian composer cemented the series’ iconic status back in 2011 with a theme song whose relentless thrum of strings catchily embodied the roiling intrigue to come. Since then, he’s created a sprawling sonic landscape befitting the show’s apocalyptic refrain: Winter is coming. Even Djawadi’s most valiant melodies carry a whiff of the ominous.

I visited Djawadi in his Santa Monica studio recently, and he broke down for me how he’d written “Light of the Seven” to draw out the scene’s themes. He punctuated his piano chords with unsettling silence, employed a church organ to evoke Cersei’s torturous past with the religious cult she was attacking, and instructed two boys to sing together in such a way that they were “not out of tune, but you get that feeling of Something’s wrong.”

Thrones fans thrilled to the scene, and to its sound. Shortly after the episode aired, “Light of the Seven” landed at No. 1 on the Spotify Viral 50, displacing the soon-to-be-ubiquitous pop of Maggie Rogers’s “Alaska”—an impressive feat for a 10-minute instrumental, and evidence of one of the more surprising twists in the Thrones saga to date: It’s made a rock star of its composer.

Orchestral composition has long competed with another of Djawadi’s musical obsessions. As a teenager in Duisburg, Germany, he headbanged at Anthrax concerts, shredded guitars in bands with names like Antagonist, and worshipped Steve Vai and Yngwie Malmsteen, two of the most fire-fingered technicians to ever wear leather pants. Walking through his studio, I admired the lutes and djembes on display, but Djawadi was most excited to show off a seven-string electric guitar from Vai’s early-1990s line of instruments, patterned with psychedelic flames. “Good memories,” he said, holding it in a mildly heroic pose.

Growing up in the Rhineland, however, classical music was unavoidable. “In kindergarten, they teach you about canons,” Djawadi told me. “They put a Mozart piece in front of you and explain how the counterpoint is working.”

Fluency in the work of both Eddie Van Halen and Ludwig van Beethoven helped Djawadi develop a sound that is at once complex and crowd-pleasing. That unlikely combination is especially evident in his compositions for HBO’s other sexy-gory fantasia, Westworld, about artificially intelligent theme-park cowboys gaining consciousness. For that series, he regularly arranges contemporary-pop classics into saloon player-piano ditties that feel native to the show’s world. For the series premiere, Djawadi remade the Rolling Stones’ “Paint It Black” to resemble Rossini’s “William Tell Overture.” The stylish action scene that resulted was very Djawadi: emotionally large and sneakily intricate.

Djawadi honed his sensibility at Hans Zimmer’s Remote Control Productions, where he still rents a studio today. Zimmer, of course, is the visionary German composer responsible for an outsize number of the past three decades’ trends in film music, with breakthroughs like the all-synth score for 1989’s Driving Miss Daisy and the pulsating orchestration of Christopher Nolan’s 2000s oeuvre.

Back when Djawadi worked at the studio as an assistant, Zimmer and his team of composers were agonizing over 2003’s Pirates of the Caribbean. Specifically, they were stumped by Johnny Depp and Orlando Bloom’s first duel, which was, for some reason, spectated by a donkey.

“If you don’t get the sword fight with the donkey right, you might as well bury the movie,” Zimmer told me recently. “Very quietly, the guy who was making the coffee, who I didn’t think played a musical instrument, said, ‘When you go home tonight, do you mind if I have a go at it?’ ”

The guy was Djawadi, and the treatment he came up with was “staggeringly brilliant,” Zimmer said. “He made it look as if it was a ballet. As if the music had been written first. You could tell it wasn’t just a good musician at work, but a really good brain at work.”

Zimmer’s influence on his former protégé can be heard in the throb of the Thrones theme song (shades of Pirates) and the thunderous brass brammm of its battle scenes (Inception-esque). But Djawadi also cites his Iranian-born father as an inspiration, and suspects that the time signatures of the Game of Thrones and Westworld theme songs (6/8 and 12/8, respectively) were unconsciously derived from Middle Eastern music.

Compared with the work of scoring even a long feature film, serialized television demands massive volumes of composition. Consider: The eight Star Wars films that John Williams has overseen total more than 18 hours in running time. That’s not even as long as two seasons of Thrones.

Djawadi’s first hit TV show, Fox’s 2005 thriller Prison Break, ran up to 24 episodes a season. “I had to write 40 minutes in one week, which was insane,” he told me. “I learned how to write fast.” For Thrones, the seasons are shorter and the turnaround time cushier, ranging from weeks to months per episode. But the production process is far more elaborate. His Prison Break scores were made entirely on studio computers; for Thrones, with its cinematic ambitions, Djawadi writes the songs and then sends the notations to an orchestra in Prague.

It’s not just the quantity of the writing that makes TV a distinct challenge. Whereas a film has a clear beginning, middle, and end, a series unfolds over seasons and years, its direction not always clear even to its creators. On Thrones, George R. R. Martin’s unfinished book series provided a road map for the rambling story, but the showrunners had to invent new plot turns as the series began to outpace Martin’s writing. Djawadi needed to write a score capacious enough to evolve over seven seasons, pushing the conceit of “variations on a theme” to the limit. “He can think in large concepts and long arcs, which is really valuable,” Zimmer told me. “He’s thinking nine hours ahead about what is going to happen.”

Take the show’s iconic dragons. A high, whistled melody—like something out of Close Encounters of the Third Kind—played when Daenerys Targaryen’s baby beasts first showed up in Season 1. “I had to make sure the music can do that tiny little thing,” Djawadi said, playing an eerie jingle on his keyboard, “but also build to that”—a stentorian French-horn version that was heard during a recent battle involving the fire-breathers, who by Season 7 had grown as big as airliners.

As the show hurtles viewers from one intricate story line to another, Djawadi’s musical motifs also illuminate deeper transformations. In the most recent season, the lonely string line that accompanied scenes shared by wary allies Daenerys and Jon Snow got lovey-dovier with each passing week, foreshadowing—and helping to establish—a romance that didn’t blossom until the finale, in a candlelit liaison between the khaleesi and the king in the North.

Today, Djawadi is a jeans-and-T‑shirt-wearing father of 5-year-old twins. But his teen dreams of stage glory never quite went away—and now they’re coming true, if in a fashion the lead guitarist of Antagonist could never have envisioned. For the past three years, fans have flocked to see him in the touring Game of Thrones Live Concert Experience, an arena-scale pageant of fake snowfall, musicians in tunics, and the Iron Throne rotating onstage as if it were a potato in a microwave. Djawadi conducts, plays instruments, and emcees at the extravaganzas. “It’s completely different from recording in a studio,” he said. “I missed having that feeling in your stomach: What’s going to happen tonight?

I caught the show at the Boston Garden and found it to be a staggering testament to Thrones’s popularity and music’s role in it. An arena where people more frequently cheer for the Ariana Grandes of the world was instead packed with fans in various states of cosplay, rowdily participating in an instrumental-music concert. When huge screens broadcast Cersei Lannister’s walk of penance from Season 5, the crowd imagined they were her bitter subjects, shouting “Shame!” and “Whore!” Later, they hooted as Djawadi performed “Light of the Seven” on the piano and organ amid licks of green flames. (With his gleaming smile and dark curls, Djawadi has become something of a heartthrob—“The Hottest Person in Game of Thrones Is Not Jon Snow,” Refinery29 reported.) For an encore, Djawadi strapped on a guitar and grinningly jammed with other musicians in a rendition of a Westeros drinking song as screens overhead displayed the faces of all the characters who’d died in the series thus far.

Djawadi is an attentive front man, taking note of what the audience responds to each night and altering the spectacle to dazzle fans further. In general, he’s found, the crowd loves special effects. On the latest run of the tour, for example, a violinist gets hoisted 30 feet in the air and her draping dress becomes the trunk of a mystical Weirwood tree. Matter-of-factly, Djawadi mentioned another change he’d been working on: “We’ve gotta add more pyro.”


This article appears in the April 2019 print edition with the headline “Songs of Ice and Fire.”

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