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The Strings of Winter: How One Man Defined the Sound of ‘Game of Thrones’

Composer Ramin Djawadi will gladly talk about how he wrote the HBO blockbuster’s theme and how music can help shape a character like Arya. Just don’t ask him for spoilers.

Elias Stein/HBO/Getty Images

Yes, Game of Thrones composer Ramin Djawadi knows exactly how it all ends. No, he won’t tell you. Even if you ask nicely, or try to get him drunk at a party, or attempt some other form of sub-Littlefinger subterfuge. It’s for your own protection. And, OK, also for his own protection, legally.

Let it be known that the non-disclosure agreement for those who worked on the HBO monolith’s eighth and final season is no more draconian or frightening than usual. “No,” Djawadi says evenly, “I think that all the NDAs, they’re all threatening.” We are chatting by phone several months after he concluded the 2018 run of the Game of Thrones Live Concert Experience (which packed arenas internationally) and a few months before the premiere of quite possibly the six most violently anticipated episodes of television ever. Season 8 premieres April 14. Please don’t try to trick him into screwing it up.

“I’m a true believer that people should find out about what happens in the show when the show is polished and done and final,” he says. “I don’t even understand why people would want to find out early.”

And yet. “I have had a lot of people, at dinner, you talk, and then all of the sudden they switch to, ‘So can you tell me what happens next?’” he marvels. “Everybody tries.” But spoiler fanatics don’t want what they think they want. “What a letdown, if at the dinner table, I told you what was going to happen,” Djawadi continues. “That’s why I have gotten really good—my face won’t even move. And I just say, ‘Well, I don’t even know. I can’t tell you.’ Again, it happens all the time.”

Many of those people might really believe that he doesn’t know what happens. A legit superstar in his own right since the iconic Game of Thrones theme song first aired in April 2011, Djawadi is as beloved as a prestige-TV composer can get, and as prolific too. (He’s also currently working on HBO’s sci-fi epic Westworld and Amazon Prime’s soulful-macho Jack Ryan, and boasts a filmography that stretches from the original 2008 Iron Man to 2018’s A Wrinkle in Time.) But just because he’s a borderline household name doesn’t mean that the average household understands how he does his job.

“When you are so into the work, you kind of just assume that everybody understands it, and the reality is that they actually don’t,” he says. “And why would they? Because it’s just such a specific type of work. When we were on tour, I connected a lot with people at these meet-and-greets, and they would ask me, ‘So how do you actually write the music? Do you see the script? Do you see the show?’ People were surprised that I actually got the episodes early. It was just crazy to see—they didn’t realize that I really write the music exactly for each and every episode, and each scene. I see the episodes early. I see them over and over and over again.”

So, too, do Game of Thrones’ biggest fans, for whom the Iranian German composer is just as crucial a presence, and just as vital a character, as any of the show’s actual characters. The bombastic melancholia of the theme song—driven by mournful cello, as showrunners David Benioff and D.B. Weiss instituted a No Flutes policy to keep the soundtrack from sounding too dated or stereotypically fantasy-oriented—is Djawadi’s most enduring contribution to the pop-culture canon, a mystical jock jam nonpareil. (Please enjoy this goofy Season 1 extra in which the frighteningly young-sounding actors who portray the Stark children—a.k.a. Maisie Williams, Sophie Turner, and Isaac Hempstead Wright—sing along to it.)

But Djawadi is a crucial presence on the show at all times, everywhere, for everyone, from the Dothraki (who get concussive tribal drums and an Armenian woodwind instrument called the duduk that quietly skirts the No Flutes policy) to the White Walkers (whose horror-movie ambiance and air of creeping martial dread is enhanced in part by a glass harmonica, which provides what he’s called that “really high, eerie, icy sound”). He also had to write the music for “The Rains of Castamere,” the wordy Lannister House anthem that devoted book readers knew and loved long before it had even a scrap of melody attached to it. (“I really had to nail that one,” Djawadi says now.) It’s a composer’s dream job, to soundtrack this vast universe of both world-building wonders and world-destroying nightmares, and Djawadi’s repertoire has deepened—and darkened—right alongside the show’s.

So you can know his work intimately but not know his name. You can know his name and yet barely understand his process. You might love Djawadi’s work but never encounter it outside the context of the show. Or you might be responsible, per his PR, for some of his 2.5 million monthly track streams on Spotify alone, driven mostly, though not entirely, by his season-by-season Thrones soundtracks. (Hell, maybe you prefer the creepy orchestral decay of his work on 2018’s Slender Man, full of moonlight sonatas worthy of the Night King.) On streaming services, Djawadi is the star attraction for once, with no sumptuous visuals to distract from the dirgelike grandiosity of, say, “The Army of the Dead,” what with its pulverizing drums and ghoulish choir and remarkably Primuslike aura of virtuosic impending doom. (That’s the mortifying Thrones tune that accompanies the White Walkers finally breaching the Wall, part of the Season 7 finale soundtrack that finally won him a long-deserved Emmy.)

In short, if Game of Thrones is at all a meaningful part of your life—and the odds favor it—then so is Ramin Djawadi, whether you know it or not, or fully appreciate it or not. In the past eight years, the show helped turn him into a big-shot composer and a legit rock star in his own right. There is some precedent for this, maybe. But never at this scale, for one project that has been so dominant for so long. It’s understandable if you’re tempted to ask him who ultimately “wins” the show. But his refusal to spoil it for you is rooted in modesty. Because you already know.

The precedent for any of this, by the way, goes by the name of Hans Zimmer. He of the 1995 Best Original Score Oscar for The Lion King. He of the Hollywood canonization spurred in part by long associations with both Ridley Scott and Christopher Nolan. He of the Inception button, a peak-internet joke that is also, in its way, a loving tribute to a composer who knows when to get out of a movie’s way, but also when to get right in your face, to the point where total dominance constitutes its own sort of grace. He of the Coachella gig. His creedo: Don’t be afraid to wild out and kick some ass, elegantly but thoroughly.

Zimmer gave Djawadi, then a fresh-faced Berklee College of Music graduate, his start in the industry, earning him early credits on humble little projects like 2003’s Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl and 2005’s Batman Begins. “Hans has been a huge influence on me,” Djawadi says. “I’ve learned so much from him. The music aside, also just his general work ethic is absolutely incredible, just the way he structures his projects, the way he approaches big projects. The organization of how to keep track of all the music he has to write. He has the overview of the story, but what do you want to achieve? There’s all these other things, aside from music, that I had the pleasure of—to learn from it, and see how he does it.”

The Game of Thrones score is the next evolutionary step in Zimmer’s program of prestige enormity and super-macho delicacy, the soaring soulfulness of peak John Williams married to the thunderous menace of Djawadi’s beloved Metallica. The main difference is a matter of sheer length. When it’s all over, Djawadi will have powered eight seasons of television and sonically populated one of the most sprawling and varied and ambitious fictional universes of our age or any other, from House Martell to the Iron Islands, from the Lannisters to the wildlings. And any one piece of the score might change dramatically on its own, just as the character associated with it does.

Take the fraught evolution of Arya Stark: Just as Maisie Williams’s character has developed onscreen from a teenaged naif to an eye-gouging, throat-slitting assassin, her musical theme has mutated as well. Djawadi’s track “Needle” is perhaps as close as he’s gotten to giving someone a full-blown theme song. But the gentle hammered-dulcimer melody that soundtracked Arya’s swordfighting lesson in Season 1—that dulcimer chosen, Djawadi once said, for its “fun, plucky sound”—has given way to a buried “Needle” ostinato with far more action-heroine menace as she’s gone on to execute Meryn Trant and annihilate the Freys and spar with Brienne of Tarth. She has lost a crucial, childlike part of herself.

Djawadi builds all his themes to be that flexible, but depends on Benioff and Weiss for as much advance character-development notice as they can spare. “I only know so many plotlines ahead of time,” he tells me. “I don’t know everything. But they do, obviously.” And those twists, and attendant challenges, kept coming in Season 7. “One of the latest that comes to mind, actually, was last year’s Jon and Dany love scene,” he says. “That actually took me a while to crack. The reason why was that their relationship developed over the season, so I had to write a melody that didn’t scream ‘love’ right away. So I had to write a melody that I was able to manipulate in a way that can be played when they’re together in the beginning of the season that doesn’t really give it away right away. That took me a little bit to figure out.”

Djawadi’s other high-profile HBO gig—he’s done two seasons and counting of the bonkers cowboy-robot soap opera Westworld, overseen by Jonathan Nolan and Lisa Joy—offers its composer challenges both intimately familiar and themselves unprecedented. It’s a sweeping, highest-possible-concept dark-fantasy epic, which he must find comforting; it also involves robots who think they’re human and (eventually, probably) vice versa, and somewhat controversially incorporates real-world pop hits from the likes of Radiohead, the Rolling Stones, and the Wu-Tang Clan.

All of that input gets awfully convoluted, but Djawadi makes it all make sense. Westworld’s title theme is a small marvel all its own, frail and understated for a show often hellbent on doing The Most at all times. Composing Westworld’s eerie title sequence, he had to use his imagination: “Jonah just showed me some storyboards, actually, of what they had in mind for the piano hands playing,” Djawadi says. “We talked about what we wanted to achieve, and his idea was that he wanted a sense of construction, like something being built, like a robot being built. We wanted to be able to build as the scenes went on.”

For the fiercely beloved Thrones theme—at a typical stop on the concert tour, it feels as though his orchestra plays it 10,000 times in two hours, and yet somehow the crowd never tires of it—Djawadi had a little more to work with, even if the actual composing process turned out to be fantastically mundane: “When I saw the visuals and I drove back to my studio in the car,” he recalls, “that’s when that melody came to me.” He credits Benioff and Weiss for giving him plenty of direction and advice, but a crucial amount of leeway too: “From Day 1, when we sat together, before I even started writing, we sat together, we talked about the show,” he says. “I listened to what they had in mind, and they said to me, ‘What do you think? What do you think about the scenes? What do you want to do? What communication do you need from us?’” Djawadi doesn’t necessarily have more power in Season 8 than he did in Season 1, but that’s a testament to how much power he started with.

It is safe to say that broadly speaking, as Djawadi’s challenges on Thrones have gotten thornier, his scores themselves have gotten … louder. “Definitely, if you look back to Season 1, there weren’t really any action scenes,” he says. “If there were action scenes, they would be one-on-one battles.” But soon enough he found himself dealing with Hardhome and (deep sigh) the Loot Train Attack and the Battle of the Bastards. Asking him whether Season 8 will be the loudest one yet is, perhaps, a leading question, and inspires a dutifully vague answer: “These battles have gotten more and more epic, and yeah, this final season definitely will not disappoint. It’s going to be sensational.”

Fair enough! But it’s worth noting that Djawadi’s finest hour on the show thus far—or his finest nine minutes, anyway—doubles as quite possibly his quietest.

“Light of the Seven,” which soundtracked the extended opening scene of the Season 6 finale that ended with the Sept of Baelor engulfed in wildfire and Cersei Lannister once again triumphant, is Djawadi’s other big “hit” in the real world, with nearly 60 million plays on Spotify alone. It’s the single most ambitious and elegant moment in the show’s history, a slow burn with a gargantuan payoff that nonetheless doesn’t hit as hard as the terse and gorgeous piano arpeggios that drive the buildup. It’s a relatively unadorned approach for a show that loves its hammered dulcimers and duduks and glass harmonicas. The scene’s moments of total silence pack the narrative jolt of 1,000 Inception buttons; the score itself is just about as close as a modern classical-music piece can get to mainstream ubiquity. Which is to say that Djawadi has spent the past few years playing it in sports arenas, an absurdity that doubles as an inevitability.

The Game of Thrones Live Concert Experience, first launched in February 2017, was his idea. “As a teenager, I played a lot of rock music, and my dream was always to be in a band that toured the world and be a rock star,” Djawadi says. “So that was the initial dream before, then becoming a film composer later. So it’s funny that now it’s actually in reverse.” The tour features a full orchestra and choir, copious Game of Thrones footage on the Jumbotrons, and all the smoke and fire and costumed pageantry the arena-rock experience demands. “We really wanted it to be a crossover concert,” he says. “In a classical concert you usually are in a classical hall, so there are perfect acoustics, and everybody is quiet. You are trying not even to clap. You wait not even for the segment to be over, but you wait for the entire symphony to be over, then you clap. That’s not what I wanted.”

Consequently, these gigs are designed to be both louder and rowdier. “We wanted it to be a rock show that has pyro, and I wanted people not only to clap in between pieces, but when you started a piece,” he continues. “That’s one of my favorite things that comes to mind is when we play Cersei’s Walk of Shame, when everybody starts screaming, ‘Shame!’ All the musicians, including myself, we get a kick out of that. The Battle of the Bastards: ‘Run zig-zag, zig-zag!’ That’s what really makes it fun. That’s what I was hoping would happen, and it did happen. It’s incredible.”

The show did 24 North American tour dates in early 2017, and nearly double that in 2018 with the addition of a European leg. Djawadi could probably expand yet again for a third round once Game of Thrones is fully over, in a modest attempt to fill the vacuum left by the last peak TV show that seemingly everyone agrees on. No matter how many Thrones spinoffs and ripoffs materialize to fill that void, it’s possible that the only way to honor the show’s legacy and sate the show’s innumerable superfans is to launch a massive, endless touring production that can fill stadium seats by playing the hits just as capably as, say, Metallica can.

In the theoretical tours to come, Djawadi could also add whatever composition he whips up for the last scene in the series finale, which will doubtless trigger the same intense analysis HBO subscribers once lavished upon “Don’t Stop Believin’.” He can’t give you any specifics on that final scene right now, of course. Nor do you want them.

“On the one hand, I’m sad because I have to leave all these melodies behind that have become very close to me,” he says. “And the thought of not being able to write something with [he hums the theme melody] bum-bah bum-bum-bum-bah. But at the same time, I think it’s time to find closure and move on to other things and see what’s next.” Arya and Cersei and Jon and Dany and the Dothraki, he will miss. The NDAs that accompany them, less so. Though he never minded those as much as his fellow dinner-party guests did.

Disclosure: HBO is an initial investor in The Ringer.

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