Musical Moments of Game of Thrones, Season 8
How Ramin Djawadi’s musical metaphors left my ears tingling.
Game of Thrones Season 8, Episode 1 had quite the opening sequence. An unidentified boy hurries through the woods toward winter town, located outside Winterfell. No music. As he enters the town, a musical theme begins to play on strings, softly at first, but slowly crescendoes. At the same time, the rhythm of marching feet emerges, quick steps rhythmically in time with the music. The boy makes his way through the town to the gathered crowd on the main road and spots the spear tips of the Unsullied just beyond the line of town folk. The theme continues to grow louder, and now, having climbed a tree, the boy gets a full view of the action, as do we — a long line of thousands of Unsullied march toward Winterfell. We leave the boy behind, and see the Unsullied marching toward us. The music continues to build, and brass starts to play as Queen Daenerys and Lord Jon Snow make their first appearance.
A casual watcher of Game of Thrones would take in this scene, and Jon Snow’s subsequent presentation of Daenerys to the Stark family, as is. A more astute observer might note the visual parallels to Season 1 Episode 1; the unidentified boy climbing to get a view of the outsiders’ arrival in Season 8 mirrors Bran Stark climbing the walls of Winterfell to catch a glimpse of King Robert Baratheon, the Lannisters (and then-secret Lannisters presumed Baratheon), and Lannister bannermen, arriving from Kings Landing to meet the Ned Stark and his family.
But I am obsessed with Game of Thrones and a lover of the music of its composer Ramin Djawadi. And I catalog recurring musical themes of the seasons’ soundtracks in Spotify playlists. As such, my ears were tingling with musical metaphor from this scene. These posts serve to pay homage to the music of Game of Thrones and to give you, the reader, some of the auditory excitement I felt from the use of Ramin Djawadi’s use and reuse of musical elements for musical storytelling in the final season of Game of Thrones.
We’re gonna talk a lot about Leitmotif…
So let’s just get that term “leitmotif” out of the way for those of you who aren’t familiar. Basically, it’s a recurring musical element that accompanies a character, place, or idea, in a story. Darth Vader in Star Wars has one of the most-recognizable leitmotifs in modern culture, and the franchise has a number of other notable examples. In Game of Thrones, Ramin Djawadi creates ample leitmotifs to add context to scenes, and to round out the storytelling. There’s so many that I’ll just highlight some I won’t discuss in these posts, titled for the person/context, with links to a notable use in the discography: The Many-Faced God, the Starks, Jaime Lannister, The White Walkers, Daenerys Targaryen, The Lord of Light, and The Mountain.
Back to Season 8, Episode 1: Baratheon and Daenerys Leitmotifs
The music that plays in the scene described at the start of this post comes primarily from the Baratheon Theme, which is aptly described by podcast A Cast of Kings as befitting a Renaissance fair. The initial use of the leitmotif is “The King’s Arrival”, a song that plays as King Robert Baratheon enters Winterfell with his family, and Bran Stark climbs for a better vantage point of what’s taking place. Just as the visuals in episodes 1 of Seasons 1 and 8 parallel each other, Djawadi’s music does the same. Compare the following track from Season 1:
With the entrance music for the parallel entrance sequence in Season 8:
Ramin Djawadi is repurposing the leitmotif in a new context. Up to this moment, the Baratheon Theme had, naturally, only been paired with Baratheons: Robert, Stannis, Renly, Tommen, (but never Joffrey). With these Baratheons and legal Baratheons dead, and Gendry, the last Baratheon in the show, not present in this moment, the idea is to emotionally connect the viewer to the analogous scene in Season 1.
In the Season 8 variant, we also hear a minor third ending on a glissando overlaid on repurposed Baratheon Theme. Where have we heard that before? In Game of Thrones, this simple two-note leitmotif tends to accompany one or both of either of Dany’s dragons or The Unsullied, and first appears in Season 4, Episode 3. In the scene, set in Astapor, Dany exchanges one of her dragons for The Unsullied, only to reveal that she speaks Valyrian. In so doing, she reveals she’d pulled one over on Kraznys mo Nakloz, who had been insulting her in Valyrian while they negotiated the exchange.
The theme continues to play as she orders The Unsullied to kill all the masters, leave children unharmed, and unchain all slaves in Astapor. Check out the song, titled “Dracarys” below.
The reuse of Daenerys’ dragon/Unsullied leitmotif in Season 8 Episode 1 is a bit more straightforward than that of the Baratheon Theme, since she and The Unsullied are both in the scene.
Season 8, Episode 3: An Instrumentation Parallel
In the final nine minutes of The Battle of Winterfell, as all seems lost, a piano begins playing softly and frequently pauses to let the notes fade out. As the song continues, violins enter, the song crescendos, and the Game of Thrones theme is weaved in. The violins overtake the piano, and the violins play faster at the very end as Arya jumps into view and kills the Night’s King right before he kills a defenseless Bran Stark. The song, called “The Night King”, helped keep us captive in this scene, in part because of the instrumentals parallel a scene that ends much more tragically.
Every musical element I described above could be found in “Light of the Seven” which plays as the nobility gather for the trial of Cersei Lannister in the Sept of Baelor. The scene is incredibly tense and ends with a tragic and visually-stunning conclusion. The end of the scene, with the destruction of the Sept, and all the important characters in it, seared the music into our brains; however, the quintessential element that distinguished “Light of the Seven” was instrumentation. At no other point in the show’s score, in spite of its array of common and obscure instruments, had a piano played, much less unaccompanied to start a song. Ramin Djawadi intentionally concluded the Battle of Winterfell with a piano-centered song as an intentional reference to Cersei’s destruction of the Sept in Season 6. As Ramin Djawadi says in an interview with Vulture:
That was 100 percent intentional. When I talked to Miguel [Sapochnik], the director, and when David and Dan came to my studio and we started working on this episode, we all agreed that it had to be a piano piece again, just like “Light of the Seven.”
That was the first time we’d used piano in the show; it really meant something different. You realize Cersei’s up to something and it all blows up. By using it again, we wanted to have the reverse effect. The piano comes in and people go, “Uh-oh, here comes the piano again. Something’s unraveling!” There was little hope throughout the episode. They’ve fought and fought, but the Night King is just unstoppable. Then he comes walking in, and the piano itself represents, like, “This is really it! It’s over!”
Then there’s that big twist in the end. It definitely misled the audience because of what they knew from “Light of the Seven,” back in season six. We always treated the music as another character in the show.
Notably, “The Night King” is the only song that has been released as a single ahead of the season’s discography. Listen below:
There is so much to say about Season 8 Episode 5, and then the finale, but I will leave things here for now.
— Akpanoluo U Etteh II
Akpanoluo Etteh is a singer, beatboxer, sound imitator, data engineer, music curator, and founder of The Soundshop.