Song(s) of Ice and Fire

Game of Thrones Season 7 premiered last night much to the delight of pretty much everybody who has ever watched television. If you have not yet seen or even heard of Game of Thrones or the Song of Ice and Fire book series, I urge you to climb out from under your undoubtedly comfortable rock and join us. Don’t mind the incest, it only marginally affects the plot.

I won’t talk too much about S7:E1 as I would rather discuss the series as a whole. I have long nursed a desire to write a scholarly piece on Game of Thrones (or its corresponding literature) but I’ve always been so immersed in the storyline that I’ve had little motivation to study it from a research-oriented angle. Instead, I sit around and binge the series over and over again. Without a doubt, studying Game of Thrones gender politics, religious implications, symbolism, metaphysics, etc. as a serious academic would put you on a collision course with medieval romances, Bible study, Freudian psychology…among other things. I think it’s about time for me to use all that time watching and dissecting episodes to make a contribution to the scholarship of George R. R. Martin’s brilliant work.

Psych, it’s not happening today. I’m still on vacation. I will talk about Game of Thrones though. I want to talk about an aspect of the series that I don’t think gets quite enough attention. Namely, the soundtrack. I think a show or movie’s success has much more to do with the soundtrack than people believe. I also strongly believe the reason for that is it’s all subconscious. You don’t realize that the music is what elicits the emotional response. The music is the proverbial chisel that etches the scene, the emotion, in your memory. When you hear the music out of context, you feel it all over again. You can visualize the scene in your mind more clearly than if you had just sat down to think about it. Every Frame a Painting covers this quite eloquently in a piece about the Marvel Symphonic Universe. I urge you to watch the video, but here’s the main thesis to draw from it: Marvel movies do not have a memorable soundtrack, to the detriment of their importance as cinematic masterpieces. Do what Tony says and try to hum a song from a Marvel movie, literally any Marvel movie, without looking it up. Now think about all those soundtracks you know and love. The songs that you can hum the first few notes to and your friends will all instantly join in until you have a perfect acapella rendition of Star Wars, Harry Potter, Indiana Jones, Game of Thrones, fucking Pokemon. You know all the words to “Gotta Catch ‘Em All,” don’t even pretend you don’t. Disney did a really good job of this back in the day, but Disney movies are basically animated musicals. I don’t want to include musicals because if your musical doesn’t have memorable music, you’ve done something terribly wrong. Not just Marvel Universe wrong. Like. Birdemic wrong. So how about all those movies and shows with music that becomes a part of our very souls. How about Game of Thrones, then? The music for entire series has been composed by one guy, Ramin Djawadi. That can be both a good thing and a bad thing, mainly because we’ve seen what can happen to good art when you’ve got one guy calling all the shots. In this case, it’s good because it’s consistent but he has enough sense and creative agency to change it up so it’s never boring. The title theme is the obvious place to start. Strong. Imposing. Catchy. You know what’s on as soon as you hear that first drum beat. Not just that, though. The song takes you on a journey. The song travels, just as you do. The map of Westeros and Essos is not just there to look pretty and the music is not just there to sound good. That opening sequence tells you everything you need to know about the episode before you watch the episode. The locations featured are the same ones you visit in that particular episode. Like well-oiled machines, the structures shift and gyrate to mimic the persistence of mankind in a turbulent atmosphere. Their banners rise and fall with new insignia. The camera pans. The scenery changes. And the music is your guide. It’s more than an opening sequence, it’s a non-spoilery introduction to the story that’s about to be told.

So, the title sequence is catchy and memorable. Does the music in the rest of the series hold up? Quick, hum “The Rains of Castamere!” Can you? Wow, I’m impressed. Even if you can’t, I’ll bet that if you’re a fan of the series, you will recognize that deep cello riff as soon as you hear it and chime in immediately. It’s a Lannister song. It’s mournful and dark. Dead children. Dead fathers and mothers. Cersei standing over yet another grave. The imagery is tragic. An inevitable prophecy fulfilled. All that from a song that Tyrion only briefly whistles in Season 2.

Now, listen to this song and don’t look at the title or image if possible. Just close your eyes and listen. By about a minute in, what do you see? Daenerys riding a dragon? Daenerys stepping out of the flames naked and unscathed yet again? Daenerys doing something epic like sailing a thousand ships across the Narrow Sea? The song is called “Khaleesi” and a lot of Daenerys’ music is based on it. If you heard it on the radio, you would know it’s from Game of Thrones. It doesn’t even have to be “Daenerys’ song.” You know what series it represents and that’s enough.

Here’s my personal favorite. It’s called “The Winds of Winter” and it’s commonly referred to as the “armada theme” because it’s played at the finale of the sixth season when Daenerys and the Greyjoy children sail their combined fleets out of Slaver’s Bay (ahem…I mean The Bay of Dragons). This song gives me fucking goosebumps. There’s something special about this song because it’s a mashup of at least five themes that already exist. Five that we can count anyway. Avid listeners will hear Daenerys’ theme, the dragons’ theme, the Unsullied theme, Theon’s theme (or the theme of the Greyjoys in general), and the main title theme. It’s successful because it not only sets the epic tone of the final scene, but it sets you up for the next season. Greyjoys teaming up with Targaryen, an army of Unsullied sailing into the unknown, the unsuspecting Westeros that is about to have a Targaryen piss in its Cheerios again. You know the series is about the take a very dramatic turn. Daenerys crossing the Narrow Sea is a big fucking deal and “The Winds of Winter” spares nobody of that emotion. I could listen to it for hours.

Here’s another favorite: The Light of the Seven. You all know this song. The trial setup. Men and women slowly filtering into the Sept of Baelor, unbeknownst to the fact that they’re about to have their shit blown seven ways ’til Sunday if Westeros had a Sunday and anybody used a watch or a calendar in this damn place. This song catches your ear because it starts as a very solemn solo piano piece. You don’t get a lot of that in Game of Thrones, so it gets your attention. Something is about to happen. The cuts to different characters in the sept and back to Cersei are ominous. She is remarkably unconcerned. The song picks up. A choir sings. Something terrible is going on. A cello joins the fun. The oozing green wildfire. Cersei pours some wine. A pipe organ sounds. Margaery suddenly knows.

Have you got chills yet? This song was so dramatic, suspenseful, and tragic. It was different from the rest of the songs in the series, and rightfully so. Cersei really outdid herself this time. She’s conniving. Fucking evil. She’s about to do something that we will never forget and this song will be the catalyst. Brilliant.

Never underestimate the power of a good soundtrack. There’s a reason songs from good movies are memorable: The song is part of the reason the movie was good. Do yourself a favor and take yourself on a date to the symphony more often. Go see a John Williams concert. Go see Video Games Live. Buy an actual film soundtrack. Try that on for size! Bet you’ve never done that before. Take some time to appreciate the importance of quality music. It’s very much a part of your experience and a part of you. 

“I’m just trying to create something magical.” -Ramin Djawadi

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