Whether you’re a Game Of Thrones aficionado or not, chances are you’ve heard the rousing strings and galloping drums of composer Ramin Djawadi’s iconic series theme. Throughout his career, Djawadi has soundtracked a wide array of major titles, from Westworld to Pirates Of The Caribbean: The Curse Of The Black Pearl to the video game Medal Of Honor. But he’s best known for the instrumental pieces that brought vibrance and drama to a Lannister-ruled King’s Landing. Now, Djawadi has been tasked with capturing lightning in a bottle again for HBO’s House Of The Dragon, a prequel that chronicles the Targaryen family at the peak of their powers, 172 years before Game Of Thrones.
Ahead of a mid-season time jump in House Of The Dragon, Djawadi caught up with The A.V. Club and discussed learning from Hans Zimmer, loving Post Malone, and how the landscape of Targaryen rule strikes a different chord in Westeros.
The A.V. Club: What different approaches do you take when scoring a film, versus a series, versus a video game?
Ramin Djawadi: I mean, overall they’re pretty much always the same. I always like to sit down with my creators and just get ideas about style and instrumentation before I even write anything. With Game Of Thrones, it was so funny. When I talked with [showrunners] David [Benioff] and Dan [Weiss] I said, “So what do you hear? What do you guys think?” they said, “Well, we’re very open, but we know we don’t want any Celtic flutes. No flutes.” So I was like, “Ok, I know not to go there.”
Then, I start writing theme ideas and pieces of music. A lot of times, the picture hasn’t come out yet, the cut is not locked, or the digital effects are not done. But it kind of gets its going, and you’re able to play things—then, when the picture comes, you can plug things in and say, “Oh, that works really well here!” and refine things a lot more to picture.
With video games, the big difference is that a lot of it is not to picture because, obviously, you cannot lock the in-game music to picture, because you don’t know how long the player will hang out in this room. Whatever the game is, you just create these whatever-long pieces of a mood, of an action piece, or a tension, or an emotional piece. But otherwise, it’s all pretty much similar.
AVC: How did you go about conceptualizing the new House Of The Dragon theme and why did you decide to adhere so closely to the original Game Of Thrones theme?
RD: We decided to stick with that theme because Game Of Thrones had been off air for three years, and it was decided that we really wanted to tie the shows together. Because even though it’s all-new characters and it’s set hundreds of years before, we felt like it needed that stamp to say “This is Game Of Thrones—it’s in a different time, but it’s Game Of Thrones.” We felt like the opening really ties it all together. Even in the first episode, I wrote new pieces, but thematically, you hear the King’s Landing theme, you hear the dragon theme, so it’s very much calling back to the known themes to set the tone again. But then we depart, and as we get to know all the characters, there are new themes. I wrote so much music for the season.
AVC: What do you see as the biggest differences between HOTD’s world and GOT’s? How did those differences inform your choices with the score?
RD: Well, what’s interesting is in this one, we’re very much zooming in closer into a family’s drama rather than all the different families. In the original Game Of Thrones, we had the Starks, the Targaryens, and the Lannisters. So we would create the themes for the families, and every once in a while, a couple seasons in, we would have a breakout theme. Like Arya got her own theme, so then we would have the choice of: do we stay with the Stark theme, or do we go with Arya’s theme?
But here, right away, we’re dealing with a bunch of Targaryens within the family. The dragon theme was kind of the overarching Targaryen theme, but then we immediately zoomed in on all the different characters: there’s Rhaenyra’s theme, Daemon’s theme, Viserys’ theme. There’s a bunch of themes that are in the family, so I guess zooming in closer is another way to look at it.
AVC: Would you say you have a favorite HOTD theme so far?
RD: The one that I’m really into this season is the Rhaenyra one, because that’s a departure from the original tone a little bit. Whenever that comes up, it always just feels really cool. I feel it gives her a lot of power. The first time she flew in on the dragon, and then when she leaves and that theme plays, in episode three, that’s the first time we hear it. And Rhaenyra has more than one theme—there’s also another, more emotional theme that she has. But this vocal one gives her a power that I think is really cool.
AVC: Your musical contributions to GOT continue to draw huge streaming numbers. Why do you think audiences have remained so connected?
RD: Look, we’ve spent so much time with these characters—we really got attached to Daenerys and Jon Snow and all these great characters, and the themes really kind of grew with them every season. There’s something that just sits with you, and emotionally, you get attached. My goal was always: if you listen to the piece of music, you want to know what’s happening in the scene. If you take the “Light Of The Seven” piece, without even looking at the visuals, by just listening you kind of relive that scene—“I remember, Cersei’s here, in the room, drinking the wine…” All those moments, I hope that, musically, I’m telling that story and that it puts you in Westeros.
AVC: What’s the most valuable thing you learned from your early days working with Hans Zimmer?
RD: He’s been such a great mentor. Obviously I admire his music so much, but a lot of it was also the business overall. Because there’s so much more to it than writing music—creatively, you can learn all the tools and everything but that’s something that can’t really be taught. But just to be working on a project with him, to see how he does his meetings, the organization, the recording sessions. All the technical aspects to it—he’s always on the forefront. I remember, when I first walked into his studio, my jaw dropped: I didn’t know what any of these faders, buttons, and everything did. That’s just something that can’t be taught really, on that scale—so it was just amazing to be able to work on these great projects with him that he’s done. It’s been an unbelievable experience for me, for sure.
AVC: Any listening guilty pleasures, mainstream or otherwise?
RD: I mean it’s really across the board—the one thing I don’t really listen to are film scores. I listen to a lot of classical music, and then I listen to a lot of pop music. We have 8-and-a-half-year-old twins, and I’m trying to expose them to all kinds of stuff. Even jazz I sometimes put in front of them, which they’re kind of starting to warm up to. But then they definitely like the classical stuff, and then of course the pop music, I knew they would head in that direction, so that’s on in the house all day. Post Malone and Billie Eilish and all those great artists. And I find them very inspiring! I mean, it’s great music.
AVC: Let’s talk about the fan reaction to the new HOTD theme. Given what you’re hearing or seeing, do you think your vision for the score resonated?
RD: Well, my big thing is: I hope everybody is happy and they’re equally a fan of not just the music, but the show. Because I’m a fan of the show myself, not just because I work on it. So I hope the music continues to inspire people and that they get excited about the new themes for the new characters, so that it kind of does a similar thing like the original.
AVC: I loved the song that was introduced during Rhaenyra’s pre-wedding dance in episode five—it was the perfect haunting jaunt to lead into a very, well, intense sequence. How did you go about creating the track, and what were you thinking about when scoring the wedding?
RD: That’s a good question actually, because that was one of the moments where I had to read the script early. That music was written even before they started shooting because the music had to be there first so they could choreograph the dancing to it. So I read the script and we discussed: What would a Targaryen wedding be like? What would the music be like? We have the drums, and it’s just maybe not what you’d expect of wedding music—tribal isn’t the right word, but the percussive element, there’s definitely a strong background of that there. So it was fun to write it and see how they shot the scene to it. And then later it turns into score, obviously, when it all goes crazy, but I think there were three pieces I had to write before. So they were written, like, over a year ago.
AVC: How does it feel to come back to this music, and come back to this world, after an extended period of working on other soundtracks, like Westworld or Jack Reacher?
RD: It’s been amazing, because it has been a three-year window, after having been on the show for so long. But I still remember, when they sent me the first episode [of House Of The Dragon], it just sucked me right back in. I felt like, “Oh my god, I still have more to say about the Game Of Thrones music.” Especially seeing all the new characters, I was inspired immediately, so I was really excited to jump back in and just do more.