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How Game of Thrones and Westworld composer Ramin Djawadi makes you cry

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May 11, 2018, 9:27 PM EDT (Updated)

This month, SYFY WIRE is interviewing some of the best composers in TV and film to get insight on the theme songs and scores that stick in our heads long after the credits roll.

Composer Ramin Djawadi has been providing the soundtracks to your tear-soaked watch parties for years. The soundscape for Game of Thrones' Red Wedding? That was him. What about the player piano tunes that flutter over scenes questioning humanity and reality in Westworld? Also Djawadi.

As the composer for HBO's two most viscerally popular drama series, Game of Thrones and Westworld, Djawadi's tunes have most likely bounced around your head at one point or another. Even if you've never watched an episode of Game of Thrones, there's a good chance you've heard the theme — a host of melodic string instruments warring over a thumping drumbeat.

"I love them both equally," Djawadi told SYFY WIRE when asked if he prefers composing for one HBO epic over the other. "While one has been shooting, the other one is on break, so I can work on one show and then it gets me excited to switch back to the other show. I feel very fortunate to be working with these amazing, creative people on these amazing shows. I have to say it's really tied."

Over the course of seven seasons, Djawadi has helped Game of Thrones showrunners David Benioff and D.B. Weiss build an empire, a sprawling land inhabited by dragons, deceit, and more than enough complicated family dynamics to overwhelm the Seven Kingdoms. His work on the series has proven so popular that Djawadi will spend May through October of 2018 traveling across Europe, the United States, and Canada with a full orchestra and choir for the 45-city Game of Thrones Live Concert Experience. The concert, conducted by Djawadi, will feature new music and footage from Game of Thrones Season 7, as well as music and visuals that span the entirety of the series.

Djawadi spoke with SYFY WIRE as part of our Conversations With Composers series before heading out for the European leg of the Game of Thrones Experience. We talked about magic and reality, the importance of collaboration (something the characters in both shows could really use), and cats.

Could you take me back to when you were first developing the theme for Game of Thrones? What was the base for it?

It's been so long ago. I actually had started already writing on the show, and then the showrunners David [Benioff] and Dan [Weiss], they were like, "Oh, there's a main title coming that we would like for you to have a look at."

They took me over to the effects house and showed me where they were creating the [opening credits]. The visuals were pretty close to being done, so I saw what it is now, the cities popping up and everything. It was just super inspiring. Then we just started talking about what this theme should capture, creating the overall mood for the show.

One key word that they said to me was to make it a "journey." The characters, they travel around this world, so the main theme should really feel like a journey.

Then based on that, that's when I started writing the theme... To be honest, the melody was kind of forming in my head when I was leaving the effects house. I guess I was driving back. Many times, the way I write my themes or melodies is that I hear it and then I sing into my phone or something, or I'll scribble down on a piece of paper. For me, always, the big inspiration really comes from talking with my creators, my showrunners and my producers, and seeing what is their vision for their project.

Is that idea of the show being a journey something you keep in mind when composing for specific episodes?

Yeah, definitely. Again, a lot of the characters, they travel, the families split, and there's just a lot of movement. That's what the show is all about. It's a lot of adventure and exploring and discovery. That's part of the mood it's supposed to capture.

Do you have a favorite character to compose for?

I don't know that I have an actual favorite... That's always a tough one. I'll say, "I really like Daenerys" and then I go, "Wait, but I like the Stark theme too, and I like the Lannister theme." I keep jumping around. But I think that's kind of the beauty of Game of Thrones, that there's so many different ones and they're all kind of different and they do different things. I like jumping around.

Seven seasons in, people associate the music so strongly with the series. You turn on Game of Thrones and people immediately start humming along. What's it like to have people react this strongly to your music?

It's a beautiful thing. It's something that I never really think about. I never expected it, but I'll never forget when the first episode aired and the next day David and Dan sent me a link of somebody doing a rock version of the theme. I was just blown away. Then all of a sudden another one pops up, and then the next one. People have been really creative with doing these covers. It's absolutely amazing to see it. The audience response is so positive. It really makes me very happy.

Do you have a favorite of those covers?

This original rock version is still one of my favorites, maybe because that's the first one I heard. I was impressed — he played every instrument! He played the guitar, he played the drums, he played the bass. There's a western one that I really liked, actually.

Then there are some crazy ones. There's one with cats, where there's cat meowing the theme. I've seen one where somebody took digital hard drives and made them kind of go: Bah-bah, bah-bah-bah-bah... like that. I mean, it's just incredible. How creative. It's something that I would have never thought of. It's amazing.

Speaking of covers, I want to talk about all of the covers that you've gotten the chance to do for Westworld. What makes you pick the songs you cover for the show?

It's actually the showrunners that pick them, so it's Jonathan Nolan who actually comes to me and says, "You know, Ramin, how about we do this song for that?" Then I sit down and come up with the arrangement.

He's super creative when it comes to music. Fortunately, we have the same taste in music, so every time he comes to me with a song I always go, "Awesome! I would love to do a cover of this song." It's a collaboration with him. We tweak it together. I love working with him.

Unlike Game of Thrones, Westworld is a bit more grounded in our own world; it's less mystical and magical and more driven by science and reality. Was that something you were thinking about when composing for the series, or do you see it as being similar to Game of Thrones?

Yeah, it's a bit of both. Right? It's out there in its own way. On the one hand, you have this traditional Western sound, but then on the other hand, you have the full robotic universe and sci-fi elements. There's really no boundaries. A lot of it is even borderline sound design of what I do with the score. To blend the two together, it's just really exciting and creative. The player piano kind of sits in the middle of that [and] kind of ties everything together nicely.

Why focus so heavily on the player piano?

It's just because it's visually in the show, in the saloon, you see the piano. It felt natural to kind of try to tie that into the score and into the songs. We've done things where a song will start out on the player piano itself, and then as it kind of cuts outside and you see more of the landscape, then it actually switches to more of a classical grand piano. We actually toy with the idea of placement of sound as well. Within the same piece of music, we might switch the actual piano style so it kind of visually ties together, too.

Same question as Game of Thrones: For Westworld, do you have a favorite character or type of scene to compose for?

I guess same answer, too. It's always so hard to pick a favorite. Ford's scenes, for example, are so emotional and then mysterious, and then the Man in Black is badass. I don't know. There's this great contrast in music between the two characters. But, again, I don't know if I can pick a favorite.

Outside of Westworld and Game of Thrones, you've also composed for film, including Pacific Rim (2013), The Great Wall (2016), and A Wrinkle in Time (2018). I first knew you from your work on Iron Man (2008). Is there a difference between composing for television and film?

Not really. To me, it's the same approach, talking to my director or producers about what is musically and thematically required. Back in the day, TV had a faster turnaround. But that is not the case anymore, because on shows like Game of Thrones or Westworld, the post-production schedule is really stretched out. I get time to really get into the episode. I just look at them as 10-hour movies. If there's 10 episodes, it's a 10-hour movie.

Do you ever get a little bit worn out by the length of that? A 10-hour movie is hard to sit through, let alone create something original for.

It's always hard. All these projects are always under tight deadlines, so that's just part of the job. I think, on the other hand, also, it's kind of what keeps the creativity going. [I'm] a typical artist; if you don't give me a deadline, I'll just procrastinate. I'll be like, "Oh, yeah, I'll work on this piece next week," and "Maybe I'll finish it the week after." Having these deadlines really make you sit down and go, "Okay, I'm going to write this now and it will be done."