Musical Game of Drones …

Since it has been some time since I wrote about a theme song, I thought I would have a look at the music of a current hit: the theme song from the HBO series “Game of Thrones” (an adaptation from A Song of Ice and Fire, fantasy novels by George R.R. Martin).  The first series debuted in April last year, and as I write this, Series Two has just concluded. Despite the title of this blog entry, I AM a fan of this series – it is joyous escapism, combining a Dark-Middle Ages aesthetic with fantasy elements like sorcery and magical creatures, and quite a few salacious bits too, which adds to the spice and entertainment value.  The script is also well constructed, and the characters are appealing and more than one-dimensional.  But this blog is about the music, and in particular, about the theme music, which in my opinion, lets the show down.

Music for theme songs in television series fall neatly into the category of programmatic music: subordinate to a narrative or story-line. In fact,  music for motion picture soundtracks and the small screen has followed the model of programmatic music since the advent of talking pictures, and with such strong visual leads, it is not unreasonable to argue (although some of you may do so) that it is the primacy of IMAGE that guides the musical form and shape in these contexts.

So before I go on to deconstruct the music, let me contextualise the visuals first.  The graphics for the opening titles depict the major centres or locations of interest in the fictional continent of Westeros. Each title opening changes to reflect where the action will take place in that episode.  For example, titles of the first episode depicted Winterfell (ancestral seat of the house of Stark); the Wall of the North, an enormous barrier of ice guarded by the Brotherhood of the Night’s Watch, erected to keep out “the Others” (mythical creatures alluded to during the first Season, who we finally glimpse at the end of Season Two); and Kings Landing, where the King of Westeros sits on the Iron Throne.  Each of these locations rise out of a quasi-two-dimensional map, in an elegant mechanical manner inspired by Meccano, but a LOT more sophisticated. Allusions to the mediaeval worldview come in the portrayal of the sun as a giant Astrolabe, soaring over the landscape. Visually, it is clever: it conjures up notions of an old-fashioned fantasy board game or even something like the old Dungeons & Dragons style role-playing games. If you want to know more detail about the process of the credits, click here:

The author of the theme song (and general incidental music for the series) is Iranian-German composer Ramin Djawadi, who has a strong list of musical credits as a film and TV score composer (see image attached).  His most successful efforts in the past include Iron Man (2008), Prison Break (2005) and Blade: Trinity (2004). A protege of the extremely prolific Hans Zimmer (who now heads up the film music division at DreamWorks studio, and was a pioneer in combining electronic and acoustic orchestral arrangements in scores), Djawadi has more recently branched into scoring for animation and games, and this really seems to be where the influence for the the theme song of Game of Thrones is situated.


The orchestration and trajectory of the score is as follows: the rhythmic-melodic introduction begins on lower strings accompanied by drums.  The drum sound is akin to a tapan, but they could be tenor or bass drums.  A cello solo introduces the main theme in a four bar phrase, which is constructed out of the driving lower string accompaniment:

I’ve notated the work in 12/8 rather than the more typical 3/4 for a specific reason: the main theme has a doubled pulse of four, appearing over the three-pulse rhythmic cell.  I could have notated it in 3/4, but it makes far more sense to notate this in compound time.

Back to the music.  The four-bar theme is doubled by a viola, who plays the occasional ornament  around the theme. The theme repeats again, legato, on full string section; it is varied rhythmically in the 5th and 6th bar.  Finally the theme is extended, first on middle violin range, and then up the octave.  The credits conclude with the rhythmic cell now played on a plucked zither instrument – either harpsichord, dulcimer, psaltery or a zither.  Here’s the ‘official’ show open – sometimes credits show a slight variance, with an extra two beats added during one of the sections.

Harmonically, the arrangement is in C natural minor, with a naturalised Eb in the second bar, for some presumed ‘effect’.  The use of a natural minor is used, presumably, to evoke a pre-modern musical system – it conforms more readily to our imaginings of church modes, and a more ancient Western musical system.

Having explained all of this in such detail, you might be tempted to ask me why I find this theme so lacklustre, so unrelated to the actual series.  The answer is simply this: it is stock-standard-derivative, boring in the extreme, and everything that Game of Thrones is not. Eeach device used by the composer is meant to evoke the unattainable quasi-mediaeval world of fantasy.  But the blunt, unsubtle and ham-fisted manner of using such clichés in abundance just disappoints. It certainly sounds like an accompaniment to a fantasy game for Xbox. But the theme to Game of Thrones (the HBO series) is an unsatisfactory pastiche of stock mediaeval/fantasy musical devices, cobbled together in a truly predictable and disappointing manner. It’s a shame: HBO usually does a lot better with their musical accompaniment. I’m guessing that the expression on Ned Stark’s face below came just after he heard the theme …


Filed under Music Reviews, TV themes

5 Responses to Musical Game of Drones …

  1. DL

    Joseph, I agree with your description of the theme as stock-standard-derivative, although it didn’t grate on me as much (perhaps I was distracted by the clever visuals in the title sequence). However, the motoric rhythms point to a larger trend in scoring, and one which I deplore for its unimaginativeness. I’m not a scholar of film music, so I don’t know where this trend started, but I first noticed it in _Pirates of the Caribbean_ (admittedly, a theme that swashed and buckled nicely). The trouble was, so much I heard afterwards seemed to be doing the same thing. Maybe it’s the Zimmer template? (PS: On a very different topic, just been working through your Yezerski pronunciation guide)

    • joseph

      David, thanks for the comment, and also thank you for pointing out the monotony of the motoric rhythms – yet another irritant of this score. You may be right – I wonder if Zimmer may be moving towards copyrighting the very template itself. Since it appears to frame many of the scores coming out of this particular school, maybe we could call it the “Zimmer frame”.

  2. I felt the same way, the only thought I have to add is that the simplicity of the theme did mean they could mess with it in various way (particularly over the credits in the second season) and still have it be recognisable. Of course, that’s not a strongly redeeming feature as it could have been achieved with more interesting themes as well.

    Thinking about music from film and TV more generally I do feel like there has been a trend towards the Zimmer style. Do you have any particular favourite scores? I quite liked the theme from the recent Battlestar Galactica series – it fit so well, but was nothing like the conventional space opera sounds of Star Trek, Star Wars, etc.

    Also, I think this is the first time I’ve actually commented, but I’ve been enjoying reading your blog for a while!

  3. andy brown

    There’s nothing wrong with a powerful theme underscored by a “percussive” rhythm… it complements the martial nature of the game of thrones story arc… if you want an “origin” of repetitive underscoring, can I point you towards any number of early blues riffs…

    • joseph

      Andy, thanks for the comment. I have no problem with a powerful theme underscored by percussive rhythm. What I have a problem with is the manner in which the cheesy devices that Djawadi uses in such an obvious fashion: the faux mediaeval modality, the ‘ancient’ tapan drum beat, the harpsichord at the end – it’s all just so unimaginative and cliché to me. Then again, one person’s cliché is another person’s ‘evocation’. Yes, I guess Game of Thrones has a martial story – but I think that the narrative captures us with the individual stories over the strategies of the Stark and Lannister battles. Finally, I would REALLY hesitate in comparing this theme in any way to early blues riffs, many of which have the beauty of improvisation layered over the top in order to provide interest and engagement to the listener (I think in particular of Robert Johnson as a great example). It would be a very hard task to find any ‘origin’ of repetitive underscoring – it happens in the folk tradition of practically every culture on earth.

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