The music for the fantasy TV series Game of Thrones is composed by Ramin Djawadi. The music is primarily non-diegetic and instrumental with occasional vocal performances, and is created to support musically the characters and plots of the show. It features various themes, the most prominent being the “main title theme” that accompanies the series’ title sequence. In every season, a soundtrack album was released. The music for the show has won a number of awards, including a Primetime Emmy Award for Outstanding Music Composition for a Series in 2018 and 2019.
A series of concerts which featured Game of Thrones music, Game of Thrones Live Concert Experience with composer Ramin Djawadi, took place in 2017–2018. First to be performed in Saint Paul, Minnesota, it then went on to tour across the United States, Canada and Europe. This is followed by a world tour starting May 2018 in Madrid.
The music of Game of Thrones has inspired many cover versions; the main title theme is particularly popular. There are also decidedly non-medieval renditions of songs from the series’s source novels by indie bands. These adaptations, according to Wired, create attention for the series in media that wouldn’t normally cover it, but are also notable for their musical merits independent of the series.
Initially a different composer, Stephen Warbeck, was hired for the pilot episode of Game of Thrones but he left the project. The music consultant for HBO and music supervisor of Game of Thrones Evyen Klean then suggested Ramin Djawadi to David Benioff and D. B. Weiss. Djawadi, although initially interested, declined the offer three days later as the schedule conflicted with a film project he was working on. However, after a few meetings, Djawadi was persuaded to take on the project. The showrunners Benioff and Weiss sent Djawadi the first two episodes of the series, which impressed Djawadi. He arranged a meeting with Benioff and Weiss to discuss the concept of the series, after which he began to compose the music for the series.
According to Djawadi, Benioff and Weiss were interested in using music to support the different characters and plots. They wanted the music to express the emotion and mood of each scene in the series, and that distinct themes should be created for the main characters. Benioff and Weiss also wanted a soundscape that is distinct from other productions in the fantasy genre, therefore flutes and solo vocals were initially avoided. Cello became a prominent feature of the music of Game of Thrones, notably in its title theme.
The process of composition is essentially the same throughout the series. Once the filming is nearly completed, episodes are sent to Djawadi either singly or in batches of multiple episodes as they were being edited together but often before any special effects added to the footage. Benioff and Weiss would also inform Djawadi in advance of the need to expand a theme or create new themes for characters. Djawadi wrote all the music in Santa Monica, California. Asked in an interview about the overall process of composing the music and how it is used in the series, Djawadi said: “I sit with David and Dan and we do what’s called a spotting session where we watch the entire episode and then discuss when music should start and stop. Everybody’s very involved with that. And it constantly gets played with. What I love about Game of Thrones is that the positioning of the music is so well done, because it’s not overdone. When the music cuts in, it really has something to say.”
The recordings of most of the soundtracks were conducted in Prague with The Czech Film Orchestra and Choir. Djawadi interacted with the orchestra over the internet and was present during the entire recording session, giving comments on the recordings via the internet.
According to Djawadi, the series creators wanted the main title theme that accompanies the Game of Thrones title sequence to be about a journey as there are many locations, characters in the series and involves much traveling. After Djawadi had seen the preliminary animated title sequence the visual effect artists were still working on, he was inspired to write the piece; which is inspired from a traditional Afghan Rubab melody. Djawadi said he intended to capture the overall impression of the series with the theme tune. The title theme is unusually long for a television series at nearly two minutes long, and cello was chosen as the main instrument for the music as he thought it has a “darker sound” that suited the series. The main title theme may also be incorporated into other music segments within the show, particularly at climactic moments.
Djawadi composed an individual leitmotif or theme for each of the major houses, as well as for some locations and some characters. These themes are often played in scenes involving them and they can be used to tell a story. Not all characters would have their own themes due to the large number of characters in the series. The theme for House Stark is the first theme to be composed and is played on a cello. Most of the Stark characters only have variations on the same theme on cello. Arya Stark is the first of the house to have her own theme, first heard when she started her lesson on swordplay in episode three of season one, with the music featuring a hammered dulcimer. A new theme for Jon Snow, previously using only the House Stark theme, was created in the sixth season and prominently featured in the episode “Battle of the Bastards“. It was first heard at the end of episode three when he said “My watch is ended”, signifying a shift in the character after he had been resurrected.
Due to the large number of themes, the introductions of different themes are also deliberately spaced over a longer period so as not to confuse the audience, for example, the theme for Theon Greyjoy or House Greyjoy was not introduced until the second season even though he first appeared in the first season. House Lannister has an associated song, “The Rains of Castamere“, which became their theme. The song was played at the Red Wedding, but first heard when Tyrion Lannister whistled a small part in the first episode of the second season. When a theme has become established, different versions that are darker or lighter are then introduced, and concepts such as honor and conspiracy are also represented in themes.
Djawadi chose distinctive sounds and instruments for different leitmotifs and themes, for example, didgeridoos are used for the wildlings, while the Armenian duduk flute is used for the Dothrakis. The duduk flute has a different sound from other flutes, which were deliberately avoided as they are frequently used in other fantasy films. The themes for the White Walkers and the Night King are more of sound designs rather than regular themes; the White Walker theme initially employed a glass harmonica for a “really high, eerie, icy sound”, but became fully orchestral when the army of the dead was revealed in the season two finale. The theme for the White Walkers extended over time into the music of the Army of the Dead, representing the gathering strength of Army of the Dead, which was only introduced in full in the finale of the seventh season when the Wall fell.
The themes may evolve over time in the series. The theme for Daenerys Targaryen started small, but became grander as she became more powerful. Her theme was initially played with a single instrument such as a processed cello, but later began incorporating more instruments, including Japanese taiko-inspired drums, Indonesian bedug drums, and an Armenian duduk flute. Syllables and words in Valyrian, a fictional language of Game of Thrones, are also used in her theme music, although not as whole sentences. The instrumentation for her theme are also used for dragon attacks. For the dragons, the theme was first heard when they hatched at the end of season one as a quiet high-pitched melody, but developed into something more powerful by the time they became fully grown, for example it was played with French horns in the loot train attack scene in the seventh season.
Different themes may also be combined in some themes and scenes. For example, in Season 5, the music for House of Black and White is an extension from the themes for Arya and Jaqen H’ghar. During the first scene of the fourth season, as Ice, the Stark sword, is reforged by Tywin Lannister, the Starks’ and Lannisters’ themes are clearly played simultaneously, to finally end with the Lannister theme only. In the finale of Season 6 with the shot of the armada at the end, at least five themes were combined – themes for Daenerys, Theon, the Unsullied, the dragons, and the main title.
Various pieces of music are also composed for particular plot lines in the series. A notable piece is the “Light of the Seven“, which is played at the beginning of the final episode of season 6, “The Winds of Winter“. This piece, which is over nine minutes long, is unusual in its choice of piano as that instrument had not been used before on the series. Additionally, such long pieces are seldom used, although in season 6 soundtracks cover a 10-minute section in the Hodor scenes in “The Door” episode and a 22-minute sequence in the “Battle of the Bastards” episode.
Djawadi composed a number of songs for the show using lyrics from the books A Song of Ice and Fire, the most prominent of which is “The Rains of Castamere“. The National recorded the song in the season 2, and Sigur Rós recorded it in season 4 for a cameo appearance. In season 3, Gary Lightbody appeared in a cameo amongst other captors of Brienne of Tarth and Jamie Lannister in season 3 episode 4 to sing “The Bear and the Maiden Fair“, and a recording of the song performed by The Hold Steady was played over that episode’s closing credits. The same season Kerry Ingram, who played the character Shireen Baratheon, sang “It’s Always Summer Under the Sea”. The character Bronn, played by Jerome Flynn, sang “The Dornishman’s Wife” in season 5, and Ed Sheeran appeared in a cameo to perform “Hands of Gold” composed by Ramin Djawadi in season 7. However, neither of the latter two songs was used in the soundtrack albums.
In season 8, Daniel Portman who played the character Podrick Payne sang “Jenny of Oldstones” a song from the book A Storm of Swords but with additional lyrics by David Benioff and Dan Weiss and composer Ramin Djawadi providing the music. The full version of the song titled “Jenny of Oldstones” was sung by Florence Welch, and played over the closing credits of the second episode “A Knight of the Seven Kingdoms“. It was released as a single of Florence + the Machine.
In every season, a soundtrack album of the music used in that season was released toward the end of the season. The first two were released by Varèse Sarabande, while all subsequent releases were by WaterTower Music. Mixtapes were also released in 2014 and 2015 before the start of the fourth and fifth season respectively and they were available as free downloads to promote the season.
A companion album, For the Throne: Music Inspired by the HBO Series Game of Thrones, comprising songs that are inspired by the show but not featured in it. A single, “Power Is Power” by SZA, The Weeknd and Travis Scott, was released as the lead single from the album. The title of the song quotes a line spoken by Cersei.
A concert tour featuring the music of Game of Thrones was produced in 2017. The tour involved an 80-piece orchestra, a choir, and seven custom 360-degree stages. Instruments were specially created for the tour, such as a 12-foot Wildling horn played during the Wildling attack on the Wall section. A world tour was also arranged for cities in Europe and North America in 2018, with new music from season 7 added.