When he got the gig of scoring The Mandalorian last year, Ludwig Göransson had the arguably impossible task of stepping into a vast musical universe created by a single god. Across nine films and more than 40 years, John Williams has been a central character in the Skywalker Saga, populating the galaxy with dozens of unforgettable themes—for the Force, for Darth Vader, for Yoda—in an elegant, neoclassical style. “So many people are so attached to Star Wars,” says Göransson. “It’s something holy.”
Even the many video games and animated TV series Williams didn’t score have been haunted by his Force ghost. When Michael Giacchino took on Rogue One in 2016, he did his best John Williams Star Wars impression. When John Powell scored Solo, he was given a new Williams theme for Han Solo and a mandate to chart a familiar course through the galaxy. (When I interviewed Powell in 2018, he joked that the process of entering this sacred ground was like “walking through a minefield in clown shoes.”)
But for The Mandalorian, Göransson—the Swedish guitar player, Grammy-winning hip-hop producer, Childish Gambino wingman, and Oscar-winning composer of Black Panther—was given, if not free rein, a free hand. Series creator Jon Favreau specifically wanted him to brave new worlds, to embrace the technological aspects of the series with the same modern production mentality that Göransson brought to Black Panther and to the musical heritage of Rocky in Creed, and to latch on to the lone-samurai and vintage Western genres homaged in the show. Somehow, Göransson found the perfect sweet spot: His Emmy-winning score for Season 1 had a kickass symphonic march for Mando that could sit proudly next to a John Williams original, but it also had the defining signature sound of a bass recorder (lending an ancient, Eastern vibe), with buzzy electric guitars that lent a spaghetti Western vibe, hip-hop beats, and a 21st-century electronic attitude—all glued together with an old-school orchestra.
Göransson visited the set just after principal photography wrapped to shoot a music video. It was the middle of March—we all know what happened soon after that. For months, recording a live ensemble of musicians was simply out of the question. “I was worried, because in the beginning it definitely felt like a restriction if I wasn’t going to be able to use any live players at all,” he says. “I was kind of depressed.” But by the grace of Baby Yoda, the score for Season 2 was one of the first recordings to take place on the Fox scoring stage in late July. Göransson—who, earlier in the summer, was forced to do some pickup work for his Tenet score with players recording in their homes—was able to gather a masked, socially distanced, 40-piece string ensemble for each episode. By the time he got to the season finale score in October, he was able to bring in the full orchestra.
For the second season, which premiered on Disney+ last Friday, the weight of a half-century of audience expectations was now off his shoulders. “Now people have lived with this music for a year, and they have an emotional attachment to it. So now you can really hit the audience in a different way—immediately give them what they want, or play the themes with different harmonies or different instrumentation, and people will instantly recognize it.” This time around, Mando and his musical theme aren’t suspected interlopers. Just like the lone protagonist and Baby Yoda, they’re now old friends.
When we rejoin the Mandalorian at the beginning of Season 2, he’s walking through darkly lit streets with “the Child” hovering at his side. “You see graffiti on the walls, you see these beasts, these eyes glowing in the dark,” Göransson says. “But what’s different here is that now the Mando and the baby are a team. They’ve got each other. The Mandalorian has the confidence and also an emotional attachment—it’s kind of like Mando 2.0. So what you hear in the intro is his theme, but instead of playing on the recorders, it’s played on electric guitars.”
In Season 1, Mando’s theme was often played on the bass recorder. “That’s him being on his lone man’s journey,” Göransson explains. “That’s just him going on his own path.” He featured the theme on guitar just a few times—most prominently in the emotional flashback to Mando’s childhood in the season finale when he was saved by Mandalorians. “I wanted to take those flashback moments,” Göransson says, “because now he knows who he is. He kind of earns the theme in that instrumentation.” Played on an amplified guitar, the theme is “a symbol of strength.” Göransson, whose musical soul was forged in the fires of Metallica when he was in elementary school, uses an Ibanez eight-string electric guitar that’s the signature model of Fredrik Thordendal of the Swedish metal band Meshuggah. “He’s one of my favorite guitar players,” says the composer, who, with his flowing blond hair, looks like he would fit in with the band. “What’s cool about this guitar is that [with] two lower strings, you can get these low frequencies. You can make it sound more like a brass instrument if you put distortion on it. You can manipulate it in ways where it doesn’t sound like a guitar.”
Göransson performs all of the guitar parts on the score himself, along with the recorders, piano, bass, and rock drums. He also uses two classic weapons of ’70s rock: a Mellotron and a Fender Rhodes. “John Williams uses celeste a lot; glockenspiel and celeste are a flavor he uses to kind of convey a nostalgic or storybook or magical feeling,” Göransson says. “I love using the Rhodes for that, because it does sound nostalgic, and sounds like bells.” The Mellotron—that groovy ’60s keyboard that triggers tape loops of real orchestra instruments, favored by bands like the Beatles and the Moody Blues—is the “real deal” too, and not some cop-out plug-in. “Visually, when you see it in a room and when you play it, you just feel it has a history to it, and you get inspiration from that—even if you don’t think about it. Or just the smell of it, you know?”
The score for Season 2 of The Mandalorian really leans into the rock ’n’ roll, heavy metal mood—for Mando himself, and in the first episode, for Timothy Olyphant’s marshal. That’s in the tradition of Ennio Morricone’s music for the Sergio Leone Westerns, which featured electric guitar and Fender Rhodes—but it’s also, in a way, not so far off from the world of John Williams. “The Star Wars universe that he created, it’s very much in song form,” Göransson says. “You know: intro, verse, bridge, chorus. I think maybe that’s also a little bit what you react to.”
Mando’s reintroduction in “Chapter 9” is also accompanied “by these kind of techno-y synth sounds—instead of a string pizzicato,” Göransson says, describing a way of plucking string instruments in a rhythmic way. “It’s these synth pizzicatos that kind of give you a taste of the gritty world he’s walking through right now.” That synth palette returns a few minutes later when Mando fights off Gamorreans and other would-be assassins in a very Star Wars–ian fight club, “but now it’s played with big percussion hits and in a faster tempo, that just really makes you feel like, oh, he can’t lose. You know, it just plays his confidence. Visually, it’s so fun to see him doing that. We’re just having fun with it, too, and giving the audience what they want.”
As in Season 1, each new episode will introduce a new world or set of characters, and the music follows suit. “The sound for The Mandalorian in general, I think, is something you can’t really put your finger on,” says Göransson. “We’re definitely continuing the tradition of the multiple genres and the multiple instruments, and kind of tailoring it to every episode, because every episode is still so different.”
The reason he wanted to get into film scoring in the first place was to be able to work in different genres. “It wasn’t until I started working with The Mandalorian, on Season 1, where I was able to put a lot of genres in one sound,” he says. Having broken free of John Williams’s long shadow, Göransson feels liberated. “Of course, there’s pressure that we need to live up to the success of the first season,” he admits. “But in terms of, I don’t want to say reinventing the wheel, but coming up with a new soundscape in a universe where that old music means so much to so many people—the pressure is a little bit off now, and I can have fun with it in new ways.”
Tim Greiving is a film music journalist in Los Angeles and a regular contributor to NPR, the Los Angeles Times, and The Washington Post. Find him at timgreiving.com.