Score Makes a Scene: Game of Thrones

It’s been a month since Game of Thrones’ divisive conclusion and the world has had time to stew on how the biggest TV show of all time ended. Personally, I liked almost everything that happened but I hated the way it was all crammed into six episodes when it could (and should) have been many, many more.

Anyway, there is one aspect of the show that fans can unanimously agree is perfect: the music. Without further ado, here are five times Ramin Djawadi’s score took scenes to another level in Game of Thrones.

Note: This is the first in my series of Score Makes a Scene articles, a new segment of the blog dedicated to celebrating those moments where the music steals the show in a film or TV show. Enjoy.

Another note: This post contains major spoilers for all eight seasons of Game of Thrones.

 

5. Daenerys departs for Westeros – S6, E10: The Winds of Winter

This is the only one I needed to think about because the other four are no-brainers. I’ve gone for this version of Daenerys’ theme from The Winds of Winter because it’s such an effective piece of music that’s used throughout the show whenever Daenerys does anything remotely cool. I actually think “Blood of my Blood” from the episode of the same name is a better version of the track but here, Daenerys’ theme is given the pomp and circumstance it deserves.

The beginning choral notes introduce the idea that this is a goodbye for Dany to the world she lived in since she was a child. It isn’t a sombre melody but it uses several aspects of score used in other scenes east of Westeros – a symbolic departure. As instrumental layers build, the overwhelming feeling is of optimism for Daenerys, not to mention a certain amount of “finally!” we felt as the audience. The theme is in a major key and while it does have minor variations, this version is absolutely meant to indicate a new chapter in the story. The theme is most recognisable for its long, soaring notes that I saw someone describe as “aaaaAAHHHs” on YouTube, which is the best possible way of putting it. Obviously, the introduction of these soaring notes in time with the first shots of Dany’s dragons soaring towards Westeros isn’t a coincidence. There’s also the steady but deliberate rhythm of the drums that signals that Dany and her crew are marching (or rather, sailing) to war.

This was such a huge moment in the show and the main emotion it invokes is hope – for Daenerys to save Kings Landing from a woman who’s just blown up the Sept (I know that’s ironic now) – and it’s thanks to Djawadi’s score that we the audience really feel that.

 

4. The King in the North – S1, E10: Fire and Blood

This seems a long time ago now but the choosing of Robb Stark to stand as the King in the North still gives me the chills. This was the first time I’d really taken note of Djawadi’s score and the Stark theme, which reaches its crescendo during the northerners shouts of “King in the North!” remains one of my favourites to this day.

This scene takes place the episode after Ned Stark is executed, so the emotions in the north are already intense, but the use of the Stark theme elates further the passion in the Northern cause. Unlike Daenerys’ theme, the Stark music is in a minor key which much better suits the grizzlier characters and locations in the north. It is also much slower and uses strings as the main melodic instruments. The cello, a notably darker sounding instrument than many in an orchestra, is prominent.

The scene is a moment of sadness for the north and it’s new leader, but it is also a moment of determination, rebellion, strength and pride – in the north and in Robb.

Though we know the northern rebellion ends badly, it’s a moment that gives viewers shocked by the death of Ned Stark unity with the rebels. This is partially achieved by Djawadi’s fantastic Stark theme which, by this point in the show, has come to be familiar. It’s short but stirring.

 

3. Arya Kills the Night King S8, E3: The Long Night

Arya killing the Night King was one of the most controversial and talked about moments in Game of Thrones TV history. What is undebatable though, is the brilliant score that accompanies it. I don’t necessarily like what happened in this episode but I did like how it happened and that’s because of how beautifully Ramin Djawadi’s score ties each moment together into one dramatic crescendo. Theon’s heroic death, Jon’s impending incineration by undead dragon, Jorah’s self-sacrifice for his queen, and finally, Arya’s sleight of hand putting an end to the show’s icy big bad – this score unifies them all.

Djawadi doesn’t use a lot of piano in his Game of Thrones scores, but when he does, it’s normally used to make you feel on edge and uneasy. Teamed up with a string section, this is the most cinematic piece of music from the whole of season 8 and it builds in time with the scene. Starting with a sobering melody and minor chords, the early stages of The Night King (as the composition is known) bring a resignation to what’s on screen. It looks like each of the main characters is about to die and, in cinematic style, sound is cut to silence, save for this funeral march. As the piece builds though, and as non-music sounds break through the piano and strings, the tension becomes almost unbearable to watch. We the audience know that there isn’t long left of the episode, and far too many of the main protagonists are in mortal peril to survive if something major doesn’t happen soon. The gradual layering of The Night King slowly informs us that something is about to go down and, because of the nature of the show, we’re prepared for the worst.

So when Arya Stark leaps down to assassinate the Night King, it comes as a shock. A huge shock. The music is misleadingly dark, yet dramatic enough to perfectly frame the huge moment on screen with few other sound effects in the mix.

It’s a hugely divisive moment, but it’s one that will be remembered forever because of the the drama of it. The score contributes a huge amount to building this drama and making you sit so far on the edge of your seat you might as well be perched on a washing line.

 

2. The Red Wedding – S3, E9 – The Rains of Castamere

It needs no explanation really, and it’s only thanks to what I believe to be the single-best scored moment in TV history that this is only in second place. The Rains of Castamere is still probably to this day the most infamous episode of Game of Thrones and introduced a sizeable portion of the fanbase to the show.

The Rains of Castamere, a Lannister song, details the destruction of their rival house, Reyne. As the scene unfolds, the Starks suffer a similar treatment, losing Robb, Catelyn, Talisa, and Robb’s unborn heir, along with countless bannermen. It also marks the end of the war between houses Stark and Lannister and the northern rebellion.

Back to the score: the melody only actually plays until before the fighting starts, but in a rare instance of diegetic music (ie, music that the characters on screen know is there), Catelyn quickly realises that something isn’t right from the wedding band’s sudden outbreak into an infamous Lannister song. As this happens, the doors to the hall are locked and Catelyn and the audience become aware of the sudden change in tone.

The score itself is played initially by a cello which, yet again, successfully signals a darker turn to the scene. It’s a simple melody but it’s one that is so effective. The score turns the mood of the scene from light-hearted celebration to foreboding tension in a matter of seconds and that’s why this is so high on this list. The melody is used for Lannister scenes in several later episodes of the show, but here it provides a memorable and haunting soundtrack to one of the most disturbing moments in TV history.

 

1. Cersei destroys the Sept of BaelorS6, E10: The Winds of Winter

What needs to be said about this? After watching this iconic scene from the final episode of Season 6, I was in awe. I wanted to watch it again and again. It also made me slightly worried that I’d never see 15 minutes of TV that good ever again. What makes this scene so memorable is the slow realisation of what’s unfolding that you get as an audience member, with tension building to the point where you can barely breathe. As some other fans theorised (and as indicated by some subtle conversations between characters) I had an idea of what was going to happen – but it was a hope rather than an expectation. For those who were totally ignorant, this must have been insane to watch.

The screenplay is the basis for what makes this scene good. What makes it my favourite TV scene ever is the music.

Ramin Djawadi’s The Light of the Seven (the score present for the whole scene) lets you know, just seconds in, that this is an episode unlike any other. Stripping the orchestra down to just strings and adding piano and later organ, Djawadi’s score begins as a stark, barren piano melody. As the intensity of the screenplay ramps up – Lancel and the other Faith nutjobs being asked to summon Cersei, Pycelle being murdered by Qyburn’s whisperers, Lancel being stabbed – cello, violin, organ and a small female choir all begin to creep to a crescendo. There’s also the motif of the show’s main theme layered in on the organ. The audience tension is at a peak just as the score crescendos with Pycelle’s murder.

Then, everything drops out but the piano. The intensity resets to relative calm and we’re given a moment to think about what’s going on. The drama is given time to breathe before coming back for a second round. Then Lancel spots the wildfire. The cello comes back in, more determined this time as we see him desperately crawling to try and stop the disaster we realise might happen. We’ve pieced it all together at this point, and now all we can do is watch as Margaery tries in vain to evacuate the sept. As the violins come back in to accompany the cellos, the music reaches fever pitch again and the urgency of it makes you feel like you’re there in the sept, trying to get out. As we see Lancel try and fail to stop the candle lighting the wildfire, we’re resigned to what’s about to happen – and then it does, and suddenly no music is needed.

This scene wouldn’t be anywhere near as intense as it is without it’s score. Imagine for a second you’re watching those events unfold without any music, or with score that doesn’t rise and fall like The Light of the Seven does. It is ten minutes of scene-enhancing perfection that frames every on-screen moment, delivering mystery then anxiety, exasperation and distress then disbelief.

This is Djawadi’s best composition in the whole of Game of Thrones, and a marker for how successful it was is that he used the exact same formula for the end of The Long Night from Season 8. If it ain’t broke.

 

Honourable mentions:

  • Waiting for the bellsS8, E5: The Bells. I was close to including this for the sheer tension generated by the divebombing cello before the bells of Kings Landing sound. So simple yet so effective.
  • The Loot Train Attack – S7, E4: The Spoils of War. The visuals of the attack by Daenerys on Jaime and the Lannister forces are incredible but the music is fantastic too. What’s clever is the way Dany’s main theme is altered very slightly to make it sound minor and dissonant, changing the epic and grand score to something familar but ultimately not quite right. The cascading violins play something way more sinister and aggressive than in other versions. In this particular attack, Daenerys is portrayed as the antagonist for the first time and the change in her musical theme reflects this perfectly.
  • The Citadel; – S6, E10: The Winds of Winter. Although “Maester” doesn’t appear very often in Game of Thrones, it makes a huge impact when it does, inspiring wonder and awe at the vast resource that is The Citadel and following Samwell Tarly. Long sweeping notes accompany a gently cascading harp motif to make your hairs stand on end. A really underrated piece of music.

And that’s it. Do you agree with my choices? Did I forget anything? Isn’t Lancel Lannister a stupid name? Let me know.

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