Warning: this article contains spoilers for the latest episode of ‘Game of Thrones’.
HBO masterpiece ‘Game of Thrones’ is lucky enough to possess one of the most iconic title themes in television today. Even those who don’t watch the show will recognise its majestic opening number which perfectly captures the heroics and darkness that drive the plot through its bombastic, melancholy cello melody.
Ramin Djwadi’ impresses with a distinct tone in the fantasy market. Historical fantasy is a hard genre to score. Communicating a non-existent medieval world through the sounds of the modern world poses challenges. Pre-existing associations with certain instruments or melodies risk confusing our perception. The organ, whilst a powerful instrument, has religious roots. Saxophone rarely feature in fantasy music due to its strong link to jazz and thus distinctly modern tone.
This challenge is exacerbated by the show’s character-driven narrative. ‘Game of Thrones’ is known for its complex but realistic heroes. Individuals like Jon Snow and Jaime Lannister undergo significant authentic development. The juxtaposition of a medieval fantasy world with the modern conceptions of humanity the audience would understand makes ‘Game of Thrones’ an even greater challenge.
Excellent choice of instrumentation allows Djawadi to tackle this challenge. Series creators Benioff and Weiss specifically gave Djawadi a ‘No flutes. No violins.’ policy, stating this timbre was overused in fantasy music.
As a result, the cello plays a central role in the soundtrack, be it in the main title or in the more emotional House Stark theme. The cello’s low melancholy sound combined with its history dating back to the fifteenth-century provides an amalgamation of emotive sounds and a distinctive fantasy tone.
Other instruments are used precisely because of their modern-day connotations and the way this intuitively informs the audience about the universe by playing on our preconceptions. The didgeridoo is used to represent the Wildlings, projecting the tribal image we possess of Australian aborigines onto the societies found Beyond the Wall.
Similarly, the Dothraki, a nomadic-horse-warrior people inspired by the central Asian steeps, are portrayed using an Armenian duduk. This instrument is essentially an ancient and ethnic version of an oboe, helping to reinforce the basic, arid nature of the Dothraki people.
The melodies also used to represent both peoples are typically minimalistic with heavy use of percussion in the accompaniment, creating a shared similarity of toughness between the two tribes.
On a more suspenseful note, the White-Walkers, ice-zombie-like monsters who are the main antagonist of the show, are represented by the glass harmonica in the earlier seasons due to its high, eerie and icy sound, playing on our understanding of horror music.
Arya Stark, an energetic and fiery young girl, is expressed by the hammered dulcimer. Djawadi ascribes this to the instrument’s “fun, plucky sound” which matches Arya’s personality. Djawadi utilises unique instruments and uses their timbre to create his own tone in the score by playing with our associations of them in the modern world.
This changed in the grand finale of Season 6 when a grand piano was used in the famous ‘Light of the Seven’ score. The piano is modern, invented during the eighteenth-century and noticeably detached from the medieval world Djawadi had previously aimed to portray.
An obvious reason exists: Djawadi wanted to signal to the audience that something is not quite right and build suspense. During the track’s airtime, we witness one of the most shocking events of the whole series: Cersei Lannister explodes the Sept of Baelor and murders all her political opponents, including many main characters, before crowning herself Queen of the Seven Kingdoms.
Djwadi emphasises the emotional gravity of the event and the new reality our cast must face. Similarly, during the finale of the Battle of Winterfell in last week’s episode, the piano took centre stage in ‘The Night King’. The audience’s experience with the piano two seasons ago alerts us that a major event will take place: the Night King and his White Walker army are defeated for good. A new age dawns with the piano as its carrier.
Djwadi’s score is an integral part of the universe of ‘Game of Thrones’. Through music, he conveys the unspoken and the unseen elements of the show. The fantasy world becomes more vivid and believable.