Exclusive Interview with Game of Thrones’ Ramin Djawadi: the Music, the North American Tour and season 8!

Photo: Andres Jimenez

Photo: Andres Jimenez

Watchers on the Wall was lucky enough to score an exclusive interview with Ramin Djawadi, the composer of all seven (soon to be eight) seasons of Game of Thrones. During our chat, I asked Djawadi about his second and upcoming North American tour of the Game of Thrones Live Concert Experience which launches in September (complete tour info here!). He describes his composing process, how the tour has changed from year to year, what it’s like to write for different characters, and oh yeah- what he knows about season 8!

Hi Ramin, how are you?

Ramin: Good, thanks, how are you?

I write for WatchersontheWall.com and I was actually lucky enough to be able to see you in concert last year. I live in New York City, so I saw the performance at Madison Square Garden which was incredible.

Ramin: Awesome!

So, I’m very excited to hear that you’re all going out again in the fall and it looks really cool and I hope I can come see it again! First and foremost, one of the big things I was really curious [about] is, obviously last year was super successful, [and] looked really cool. Are there any major changes that you know of for this year or how is that process going?

Ramin: Yeah – we’ve done some major changes actually. We just came back from our European tour so we actually, just with all the logistics of bringing a stage over to Europe, we had to change some things so, obviously, it’s like remodeling a house, so, once you start – oh! Why’d we do the kitchen, we might as well do the bathroom, and so what happens is that we ended up completely redesigning the stage. This new concert now is a completely redesigned stage. We took a lot of the things from last year that we thought were really well received by the audience and we actually did even more fun things, like organic elements, for example, we added more pyro, people really love when we get the pyro going, so we have more of that, and we re-modified it. Without revealing too much, for example, there was the ‘Goodbye Brother’ piece, where our violinist is under the Weirwood Tree and this year we did something that I think is even cooler where our violinist becomes the Weirwood Tree and will actually go 35 feet up into the air and play our theme. It’s absolutely stunning. So, we did a lot of reworking, and now the big thing is, now that season 7 is behind us, I updated the show and added material from season 7, so it’s now current with the show itself and the storytelling we have.

How much does the change come from audience reaction vs. your favorite portions – you have seven seasons worth of work, so what’s that balance between you really want to do, trying out something different, vs. ‘the audience loved this – we should keep this.’

Ramin: Yeah, exactly, it’s a little bit of both. There are certain pieces that we definitely kept in the show, like ‘Light of the Seven,’ ‘Battle of the Bastards,’ these are definitely things that we didn’t wanna touch. Also, because I added season 7, there were definitely some things I had to move around or list, and it wasn’t easy, because if it was up to me, I would probably do a 6 hour concert. I have so much more I want to perform and I want to play and the show has just so many great moments and it’s just tough to condense it down to a 2 ½ hour show. But I guess what’s fun about it is we did one version last year and now automatically with updating the stage, and updating the music, it kind of has become business – there is a lot of familiar stuff from last year but there are a lot of new things in there, and I think it’s good.

That’s very good – I’m very excited to see it, and how it’s developed!

Ramin: I think if you’ve seen it last year, you will definitely be excited to see it the second time because it is so different, I mean the lighting, everything, is completely redesigned – the stage is actually not in the center anymore, it’s pushed to one side now. That enabled us to bring even more focus to the musicians. We still have a massive screen behind us where we show the montages and scenes from the show, but that was something I really wanted to change from last year to put even more emphasis on the musicians and the lighting – so, a lot of things have changed.

I don’t know if you’ve begun to score season 8 – Does any of that material go into the show or is that not at all a part of this?

Ramin: To be honest I haven’t even started yet. I don’t know when I will start. I don’t have a schedule for it yet, or anything. I haven’t seen anything yet, I don’t know anything, I’m just as excited and curious as everybody else.

You’re as in the dark as I am, then!

Ramin: Absolutely, I mean this being the last season, I’m dying to know what’s happening and what it needs from me musically, and what am I gonna write for this final season – I can’t wait.

I’m glad to hear you are as enthusiastic as we are! How much of the rough cut do you need to see in order to make the score as much your own as you can, as opposed to being given a storyboard?

Ramin: I generally like to see as much story as possible, so I can really get a good idea. Sometimes, in the past, I’ve started writing based on a conversation with David [Benioff] and Dan [Weiss]. But overall, I really like to see things in front of me and have a clear understanding of the full storyline. In this particular case, people keep asking me ‘How would you…?’ ‘Musically, what are you planning to do…?’ And it’s hard for me to say anything, especially, with Game of Thrones, it’s a show that’s known for its surprises and for things that happen, and for me musically, I just literally have to sit and wait and see what comes my way.

Hopefully you get a preview into that soon – we’re all really excited.

Ramin: I hope so too!

Since the show is so expansive, and any episode can have 5 minutes of one character, and 5 minutes of another character, I wonder, you know, the score for me has always been one of the things that ties the show together. So, what is your approach to character progression from one season to the next? A major character like Jon Snow or Daenerys has a very specific through line from season 1 through season 7, so how do their scenes develop as the show goes on? How do you approach that?

Ramin: Season 1 really paid close attention to that, and really taking it one step at a time, because there are so many characters and we spend so much time with them, so sometimes we’ve decided, let’s just stay with all the Starks – they just get the Stark theme – and then ok, [for example] Arya is going on her own, maybe she can get her own theme. Oh – now Jon Snow is doing something? See, we kind of take it season by season, and see where the character develops and it’s been really exciting for me to either take an existing theme or take the Stark theme, and – so, with Daenerys for example, I take her theme and combine it with the dragons theme as the dragons get more powerful. I get to expand that thematically, and then sometimes we get to a point where we go, you know what? We need a new theme, so for example last year, for Jon and Daenerys, we have that big ‘love’ scene, and then we establish a new theme, so it’s a little bit of both. It’s continuing existing themes and then adding new things on top. Same with the White Walkers last year. It was such a big part of it, so we actually created a new theme. For the Night King, with the whole Wall coming down, we just felt like there needed to be more there than the preexisting White Walker music.

That sort of goes into my next thought – When you get Jon and Daenerys come together, each of them has a very distinct theme or motif that’s always played alongside their storylines. When you’re merging them together, do you mix and match, do you create something new, do you pull bits and pieces of each of them? ‘Cause I’m sure with season 8 there will be a ton of characters we haven’t seen in the same scene together suddenly come together.

Ramin: It’s a big math game. For an example of a lot of themes coming together, at the end of season 6, when Daenerys is crossing the sea, and we have several characters coming together, there are 4 or 5 pieces that I combined. We have the main title theme, we have Daenerys’ theme, we have the Unsullied theme, we have the Greyjoy theme, so it’s, the only way I can explain it is it becomes a big math thing of trying to make the harmonies work and the scenes and how to overlay them and it gets quite complex.

You do a phenomenal job of it. Just incredible. One thing that I always find interesting – I’ve always been a champion of the season 4 finale ‘The Children,’ in no short part due to your work. One thing I absolutely love was Arya setting sail from Westeros, which, is the main theme, but it’s called ‘The Children,’ and you have kids suddenly singing, and I wonder if you create the themes first, and then want voices in the background? You have kids singing in the background of ‘Light of the Seven’ as well. What’s the inspiration behind that? Is it before you start? Or is it, afterwards, you add it in?

Ramin: It’s a little bit of both. Many times before I start writing, I have sort of an instrumentation already in mind, and in both of the examples you’ve mentioned, I definitely, for the finale of season 4, I knew I was going to have a children’s choir, and that I was going to have my Valyrian-inspired lyrics as I’d rather have lyrics than having them go ‘Ahhh-oooh.’ The same with ‘Light of the Seven.’ Just because in the scene we had these kids running around on the ground, I thought it would be quite eerie to have, not quite a choir, but actually less, so we just decided on two – so those are decisions I make before. I write, and there are 2 of them, and then sometimes, as I start to arrange, I’ll change directions, but generally, same with the decision of using the piano, we actively made that choice – I wanted to try the piano and actually write with it.

I remember you saying that the first time you used the piano [in Game of Thrones] was in ‘Light of the Seven.’

Ramin: Absolutely. Until then, it was not part of the language of the score. Maybe we had some piano ‘effects’ I can say we had, but not really part where the piano played an active, dominant role.

With that said, I know you don’t know anything about season 8 but is there an instrument you’ve not gotten to use that you’re hopeful to use before the series is over?

Ramin: (laughs) We have so many! We laugh every season, and we go ‘What instrument haven’t we used? I’m sure there’s still something.’ Nothing really comes to mind right now that I could specifically say I would really love to use ‘this or that’ but I’m sure there’s something if I could figure it out. I just have to wait, because maybe there’s nothing new to do, or maybe there’s lots of new things to do. In terms of instrumentation, I think, what it is is, because I love the show so much, and after having worked on this now for so long, I’m super excited about the finale, seeing how it’s all gonna end, but I’m at the same time I’m also sad because it’s been wonderful working with David and Dan and I just want to prolong this last season.

I can’t wait to see how the finale shakes out and how it all ties together, and I think it’s gonna just be incredible to watch and hear, and I can’t wait to see what you and your team do. Thank you so much, and I really appreciate the time that you took today.

Ramin: My pleasure! I hope I get to see you in New York!

I’ll tweet you!

The concert runs September 5th, 2018 – October 14th 2018 and you can buy tickets here!

32 responses

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    1. Ryan:
      I dont believe for a second he hasnt started yet. Hes too integral to the show. Hes a genius but he needs time too.

      I found that odd and alarming myself. Filming has been wrapped for nearly a month and not only hasn’t he started work he hasn’t seen anything at all or even heard from David and Dan about when he’s going to start? Shouldn’t he have been given a schedule by now especially since he’s booked all Fall with the North American tour?

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    2. Ryan,

      We don’t have any reference to suggest the time table of work he’s put into the previous seasons so it’s impossible to gauge how much time he’ll need. For a genius like himself thats been on the staff from the very beginning, I doubt it’ll take him much time to write out all of the music for the final six episodes.

      For all we know he could get the storyboards next week and be done by October or November.

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    3. Without revealing too much, for example, there was the ‘Goodbye Brother’ piece, where our violinist is under the Weirwood Tree and this year we did something that I think is even cooler where our violinist becomes the Weirwood Tree and will actually go 35 feet up into the air and play our theme.

      Calling it now..

      Bran becomes the Weirwood Tree.

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    4. I’m really hoping they can get him for the next series as well. In my opinion the music is an important, leading “character” of GoT. Imagine what the start of the S6 finale would have been like without “Light of the Seven” carrying us through it. If they want the show to feel like the same world that it will be, having similar musical themes with the same kind of depth is a major factor.

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    5. Thank you so much for this interview, David.

      I have the chance and honor to be one of the people who saw the show in Europe (Antwerp) and I can only recommend it to anyone who hasn’t seen it yet.

      It was AMAZING, Ramin is a sweeheart, the musicians / performers are fabulous as are the staging, the lighting, the costumes, everyone and everything is perfect.

      Literally the concert of a lifetime, it gave me the chills from beginning to end.

      I’ll definitely go back if it comes next to where I live again next year.

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    6. Clob:
      I’m really hoping they can get him for the next series as well.In my opinion the music is an important, leading “character” of GoT.Imagine what the start of the S6 finale would have been like without “Light of the Seven” carrying us through it.If they want the show to feel like the same world that it will be, having similar musical themes with the same kind of depth is a major factor.

      Wholeheartedly agree.

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    7. Ryan,

      Music is one of the last tasks to be done, you can’t know where all the beats are that you need to put into your score and the cue marks until the editing is complete and you have the visual information for mood etc, then there is the tonality the director and D&D are looking for.

      I’m sure he has plenty of ideas that he has developed for possible use though, both new and from existing themes; and these can be adapted for the finished product. Composers are always composing and recording ideas and motifs but I imagine most of it stays on the shelf for possible future projects and needs. He’ll have been occupied with Westworld too. But sure, he won’t be starting with a completely blank slate.

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    8. DaphNenya,

      Absolutely agree with you. I too have had the honour to see the concert in London and a 6 hour concert sounds good to me. Seeing the show on a big screen was phenomenal. I really hope he comes back to the UK next year with series 8 music. My only wish would have been to hear Truth as it is in the show, however I can understand why it wasn’t. Also if he comes back next year I am going all out and paying for top tickets so I can meet the man himself.🇬🇧👍🎼

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    9. Thank you David for that fabulous interview. And lucky you!
      I’m going in September, although it looks like because of her health I’ll be with the spouse rather than my sister as originally planned. Sigh. I would be surprised if Ramin doesn’t already know the main points of season 8. In S1 he actually gave Jon a hint of the Targ theme, so he had to know who his parents were.
      As a classical music and soundtrack buff, I have detected a lot of musical foreshadowing, both long and short term.
      By the way, in case anybody’s interested, there is a series of YouTube videos that explores how he uses music in the show, but they are by a real musician and not an amateur His name is Jordi Maqiavello. He is Spanish, so I don’t understand most of it. He is on several sites, and I’ve chatted with him. At one point he promised some English subtitles.

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    10. Clob:
      I’m really hoping they can get him for the next series as well.In my opinion the music is an important, leading “character” of GoT.Imagine what the start of the S6 finale would have been like without “Light of the Seven” carrying us through it.If they want the show to feel like the same world that it will be, having similar musical themes with the same kind of depth is a major factor.

      I liked what you wrote about the music being an integral character. A good example, for me at least, is the King in the North scene, S6e10 (link below). it starts off “quietly” at 2:14; drums blend in at 2:54; and starts swelling at 4:04 to the end, to match the build up to and crescendo of the dramatic event unfolding on the screen.

      https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=AXAnxAA73xM

      Watching this, I realized why the composer has to or should wait until the episodes are pretty much done before he can score them. How else can he match up the timing and emotion of the music to coincide with what’s happening on the screen?

      Hypothetically… 👸🏻🚂⚠️ …

      If there’s a 5 1/2 minute long scene in S8 of Dany abdicating the throne and Jon/Aegon renouncing any claim, followed by the spontaneous, unanimous proclamation of Queen Arya, who begrudgingly accepts the crown for the good of the realm (“alright, but do NOT call me ‘Your Grace’!”), Ramin Djawadi would have to know which character “themes” to intersperse and how long each section should be. He might also be inspired to compose brand new music, depending on what he sees. I’m not so sure storyboards would suffice.

      Then again, what do I know?

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    11. Stark Raven’ Rad,

      Hey, nice to see a fellow musician/classical music lover here. (In case it wasn’t clear by my avatar, Ludvig von Koopa. But like him, my “days of composing evil Koopa symphonies are over”). I remember watching a video analyzing the music in the show, but I can’t remember if it was the ones you’re referring to. I’ll see if I can find it again and post the link for anyone interested.

      One little detail I really like in the main theme is the “conflict” between minor/major that occurs right away in the opening bars. It starts with an ostinato (repeating pattern) in C minor, then briefly shifts into C major before returning to minor again. Neat bit of symbolism of all the conflict in the story. At least that’s my interpretation of it. 🙂

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    12. Great interview, thank you David!

      It is a bit strange that Ramin hasn’t started on S8 – for the last season, wasn’t there footage of him on set, watching a scene and taking it in for inspiration? Might be as simple as his schedule didn’t allow him to do this this time round, but come on D&D – send the man some clips! 😀

      Regardless, can’t wait to hear what’s to come. The music’s definitely one of my favourite part of GOT.

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    13. Like the vast majority of GoT viewers, the only music from the show I could name when I heard it would be ‘Light of the Seven’. I did like the way they added elements from the show into the concert, though. Very dramatic.

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    14. Grayven Reyne,

      As a massive fan of the music I could name them all and where they appeared in relation to the show at which point I became an embarrassing, boring mother explaining to my son at half time as well as being the only one to cheer and clap when Jon Snow opens his eyes. I would have liked a programme of the music though as a keepsake of such a wonderful night, oh and btw Issac Hempstead Wright made a surprise appearance. 👏😃

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    15. Grayven Reyne:
      Like the vast majority of GoT viewers, the only music from the show I could name when I heard it would be ‘Light of the Seven’.I did like the way they added elements from the show into the concert, though.Very dramatic.

      I think you underestimate a great many fans, including yourself.

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    16. Thanks so much for the interview David!

      I loved loved loved the fact that you asked the question about the S4 finale and the score « The Children » that I love so much as well.

      Fascinating interview

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    17. I also saw the concert in London and it was absolutely amazing. The violinist in the weirwood piece was riveting and I so loved watching Ramin perform the piano part for Light of the Seven.

      I think one of my new favourite things about the fandom of this show being what it is is that it allows a group of “classical” type musicians tour around selling out stadiums like rockstars and clearly loving every second of it. Such fun to watch them all!

      Also emotionally draining… All the most dramatic moments of the show back to back with live music? I was firmly in the “All (wo)men must weep uncontrollably” camp 😛

      If anyone has a chance to see one of these concerts I cannot recommend it highly enough!

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    18. Ten Bears: I liked what you wrote about the music being an integral character. A good example, for me at least, is the King in the North scene, S6e10

      I was an emotional mess when Jon’s face popped up at the beginning of that scene the first… few… dozen times I watched the episode. Even with that series of scenes, if there was no music or even some soft background music it wouldn’t have hit so hard. Having the sad-Stark music crescendo for the baby-to-Jon reveal then to the thumping GoT theme for “KitN” to end this scene just reverberated inside and raised the goosebumps!

      Ten Bears: the composer has to or should wait until the episodes are pretty much done before he can score them.

      Yep, they pretty much have to be really. This is the process written on wiki about film score:

      The composer usually enters the creative process towards the end of filming, at around the same time as the film is being edited, although on some occasions the composer is on hand during the entire film shoot, especially when actors are required to perform with or be aware of original diegetic music. The composer is shown an unpolished “rough cut” of the film, before the editing is completed, and talks to the director or producer about what sort of music is required for the film in terms of style and tone. The director and composer will watch the entire film, taking note of which scenes require original music. During this process, the composer will take precise timing notes so that he or she knows how long each cue needs to last, where it begins, where it ends, and of particular moments during a scene with which the music may need to coincide in a specific way. This process is known as “spotting”

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    19. Really interesting and insightful read. Clearly so much goes into the music of this show and Ramin does such a fantastic job.

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    20. Jennyemelie,

      Wasn’t that a fantastic night? Light of the Seven is a wonderful piece of music but played live it was out of this world and listening to Goodbye Brother brought a lump to my throat. It could have gone on all night for me 👍👏🎼

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