A master of sounds epic and intimate, known for his work on Westworld and Game of Thrones, composer Ramin Djawadi long ago crafted distinctive sounds for each of these series, defining the broad strokes of their sonic palettes. After two seasons of the former series and seven of the latter, these early decisions remain important, though they don’t sum up the battle of the composer’s craft.
With GoT since Season 1 back in 2011, Djawadi’s journey with the series has been a process of forward motion, where expansion and innovation have existed side by side with reimagining and reinterpretation. “What I love with Game of Thrones is, every season, I get to continue to develop the existing themes; every season, I also get to write new themes,” the composer shares. For Season 7, the composer would have to hone in on new themes involving three major players battling for the future of Westeros.
At a different stage of its gestation, Westworld also demanded new themes in its second season, though geography’s impact on score was perhaps the primary concern. As the series expanded into new territory—with the introduction of Shogun World and The Raj—Djawadi would expand the show’s sonic palette, figuring out which global instruments could coalesce to do the visuals justice.
A four-time Emmy nominee bringing an epic sound to both of these series, befitting their epic stakes, Djawadi pulled off a rare feat this season, becoming the rare double nominee within a single category (Outstanding Music Composition) with his scores for these two blockbuster series.
As different as Game of Thrones and Westworld are, what do they have in common, in terms of your working process or the factors that drew you to them in the first place?
I love on both how character-driven they are. They both have a lot of characters, which is a little bit unusual. Many times you have just a couple of leads, but with these shows, there’s actually a lot of characters. Musically, that means that I have to really focus on who has the scenes, plot-wise—and how do we thematically, or musically, tell the story? I guess that’s what’s interesting on both of those shows. But I love how stylistically, they’re so completely different. It gives me a chance to creatively explore different areas, different instrumentation.
What was on your mind as you set out on the latest seasons of these series? Musically, what were the new themes?
With Season 7 [of Game of Thrones], one big, new theme was the Jon Snow and Daenerys theme, their love theme. Once they meet, we started using that theme, but not fully fleshed out in an emotional way—how we get it at the very end, in the last episode, in that big boat scene. The other one was a new White Walker theme, or a theme for the Night King. We established it very early on in Episode 1, when you see them walking through the snow towards the camera. But then it really played out in its full entirety at the very end, in the big finale, when the Wall comes down and all hell breaks loose.
In Westworld, I really got to explore new areas, stylistically. We had the Indian world, we had Shogun world, so I got to play with new instrumentation—and also, a lot of new themes. Dolores had a new theme, for example, with her character development. With Shogun world, there were some new characters where I was able to write some new thematic materials.
Game of Thrones’ latest season featured the addition of Dany’s dragons as major players in the storytelling. How did their presence influence the season’s music?
The dragons, to me, always represent great power. Over the seasons, they’ve gotten bigger and bigger. Musically, I always like to play them big and epic. Many times that involves even having choir with them when they’re in battle. With Season 7, the Night King has one of them now, so that dragon is actually turning over to the dark side, to the White Walker side. So there’s a power of the opposite side there now, too. Again, that musically requires big drums, big orchestra, big choir.
This year, Westworld seemed musically driven, on one level, by the rise of the machines and the imminent threat of annihilation at their hands.
The new Dolores theme is a big turning point. Like, now the tides have turned. Right now, the robots seem to be in control and fighting back, and there’s just this unstoppable power that seems to be moving forward. I think the music I had to do for that was just very strong and decisive, overruling all the humans in the park now.
Could you compare the sonic palettes of these series, and the primary instrumentation involved in each case?
With Game of Thrones, the most dominant instrument would definitely be the cello. That’s something I just felt really captured the mood of the show very well. Over the seasons, the music has grown a lot with bigger orchestration, with the use of more choir and big drums.
In Westworld, on the other hand, the dominant instrument would be the piano. Funnily enough, in Game of Thrones, we never have the piano, except for that one time in Season 6 with the “Light of the Seven” piece. So there, we don’t use the piano really at all. But Westworld is all based around the player piano, so the piano is really used a lot. To me, that piano is a great glue between the two worlds; one being the organic world, the Western world, and now also Shogun World, and all the electronics that I’m using for the robots. The piano really fits well in between those worlds.
What inspired the decision to incorporate choral elements into your Game of Thrones scores?
To me, it was just a personal choice. I feel choir just has a great sense of power when used with an orchestra, or even by itself. As I was expanding the themes, I was raising the epic-ness of [the sound to match] the visuals. Again, the dragons kept getting bigger, and the battles are just epic now. I just felt that the choir is very fitting in those kinds of scenes and moments.
With Westworld, you’ve continued to adapt a variety of contemporary songs, filtering them through the series’ stylistic prism. What originally inspired this musical motif, and how have these pieces come together?
I have to give credit to Jonah Nolan, our showrunner, who usually comes up with the songs and the places to put them. The original idea came through the player piano, as you see it visually in the show, in the saloon. The idea behind it always was that, rather than playing pieces of the period, playing some of these contemporary songs was a nice, subconscious reminder, telling people, “This is a theme park. This is not real. This is all set up.” You can almost see it like a jukebox, where the people running the park are picking their favorite songs and running it just because they can.
A good example is the use of “Paint It, Black.” Rather than having me write score, an action piece—especially in the first season, because the themes were all new, and therefore not known at the time—using a pre-existing, very well-known song also emphasized the fact that this is a reoccurring event that always happens. When Hector rolls into town [for the] robbery, it’s pre-programmed. So we thought that was quite fitting.
In Season 2, it was great to actually do the same, where not only is it reoccurring, but it’s actually reoccurring in other worlds, as well. We thought it was quite fitting to re-use the song [“Paint It, Black”] and then rearrange it with more ethnic instruments.
Were any of your Season 2 adaptations—like “Seven Nation Army” or “Heart-Shaped Box”—particularly challenging to realize?
They all have different challenges. I really enjoy the process of breaking them down and sometimes doing these reductions just to piano. Many times we just leave it on the piano. But then it’s incredibly fun to do, like with “Paint It, Black,” a big orchestral version of it. The Wu-Tang song was quite interesting to do just because it really was so minimal, and we used it for this dance. Interestingly enough, I did the arrangement first, so we were actually able to do the choreography to the piece. They played the piece back on set and could choreograph the dance to it.
You mentioned the new terrain you’ve entered into with Westworld. Could you expand on the challenges this presented, and the kinds of instruments you brought into the picture?
As a composer, I really enjoy exploring instruments from all over the world, so this was a great opportunity. With Shogun World, I used instruments like shakuhachi, taiko, shamisen, koto. I’m actually a big collector of all kinds of instruments from all over the world, so many of them I already had, or I’d then get them. I like to study them, and the same with the Indian instrumentation—getting a sitar and exploring the range of the instrument, and how can it be used.
It sometimes can be a bit challenging, especially doing these pop or rock songs, because different cultures have different tonalities and different scales of what’s actually playable on the instrument. To try to translate that into Western music sometimes can be tricky. But I think that’s the charm of it, and the fun of it, too, to actually try to make that work.
Does geography factor as concretely into the sound of your Game of Thrones score?
Definitely. But interestingly on Game of Thrones, it’s quite the opposite. Whenever we have a different geographic location, we always make sure that musically, we represent that. But we, on purpose, then go against what you’d think an instrument for that region might be. For example, if we’re south or north, a certain instrument that you might expect from a certain region, we don’t use. Because that [series] is really a fantasy world. Therefore, we really have no boundaries of which instruments can be used. There, the idea is really more to use different instrumentation to create our own world, and in that way then still represent certain locations.
Both of these series’ latest seasons ended on a more muted note. What was the thinking behind that?
I think both shows do an incredible job of leaving these cliffhangers for the next season, and sometimes that could be on a more somber note. In a thoughtful way, it’s leaving the audience reflecting on the past season, and what’s coming next. I think that’s why sometimes leaving it off on a softer note actually works quite well.
You’ve recently been on tour with your Game of Thrones Live Concert Experience. How has the experience been? What do you get out of that as a composer?
It’s been an incredible experience. The big thing for me was that, as a studio composer, I never get to see the reactions from the audience—how they react to the music when they see the show. Being on stage and having that immediate reaction and connection to the audience, that really is very inspirational for me. Just being in the room together and having the musicians perform it with you live, it’s very, very special.
Were there specific musical challenges in putting the tour together?
I guess the big challenge was condensing seven seasons down into a two-hour show. That was very difficult because there was so much material, and to try to have a nice story arc from Season 1 to 7, because that always was my intention. I rearranged a lot of the pieces, and I think that was actually exciting for the audience, too, because people got to hear new versions of the themes.