A finely-detailed animated map, spurts of fire, whatever those spinning metal things are and THAT cello melody. You’re never in any doubt about what you’re about to watch when the Game of Thrones title sequence comes onto the screen.
One of the side effects of the “golden age of television” has been the obvious expansion of budgets for title sequences. The prevailing wisdom seems to be that a show can’t join the echelons of “event TV” unless it has elaborate, semi-iconic opening credits like Black Sails, American Gods, the Night Manager or Mad Men.
It’s not the first show to go down that route, but the Game of Thrones title sequence has certainly been one of the most influential and memorable. Featuring over 100 seconds of cartographic brilliance, it was the winner of the 2011 Primetime Emmy Award for Outstanding Main Title Design. Here I’m going break down, in excessive detail, Ramin Djawadi’s much celebrated theme music.
Oh, and to fulfil my duty to online etiquette – be aware that this post is dark and full of spoilers.
The theme music alone for Game of Thrones was an immediate hit – spawning an improbable number of covers and parodies within days of release. In the admittedly limited field of purely instrumental TV themes, I think GoT is the most successful and instantly recognisable theme since we were all whistling the X-Files theme back in 1994 (incidentally also a winner of the Emmy for Main Title Design).
So, what makes it so good?
A main title is a little bit different in function to the score for the rest of the show. It doesn’t underpin any dramatic onscreen action of its own. Instead, it must create a recognisable brand for the show as well as preparing the audience for the mood of the show to come. There are four key qualities about the GoT Main Theme that make it both memorable and very effective as a main theme.
- An energetic riff that builds excitement for the show and provides momentum for the animation
- A super-hummable melody
- A distinctive sound that is both unique to the show and appropriate for the fantasy setting
- The invoking of a feeling of adventure and an epic journey
Now that we’ve covered what is so good about it, it’s time to get into the analysis.
The structure is deceptively simple. There are just three musical elements in the main theme:
- The Riff
- The melody
- A ‘B’ section melody
They are used as the building blocks for the entire theme, in a sequence that goes a bit like this:
- Just the Riff
- The melody, played three times, supported by the Riff
- The ‘B’ section, also supported by the Riff
- Just the Riff
I’ll break down these elements one by one to show how this is achieved.
Everything about the main theme to Game of Thrones literally starts and ends with the strings riff.
The Riff - Game of Thrones Main Theme
The first remarkable thing is just how simple it is. It’s really just two elements – a downward leap followed by a climb. That’s it. Two different components that combine to create a sense of constantly climbing. The only variation we ever get is a simple slowing of the rhythm, achieved by removing one of the notes at the end of a section, like a little musical punctuation. Even there, while the rhythm is technically slower, Djawadi adds strong accents in the drums, which serve to drive the music into the next section. This constant forward and upward motion is the source of the main title’s powerful momentum and energy.
It’s also a good example of that old engineering maxim that something is complete when you have nothing left to take away. It has everything you need in a memorable riff or ostinato, a balance between a strong leap and a weaker ‘step-wise’ motion, and absolutely nothing else. For a very similar example, consider the equally memorable riff of the White Stripes – Seven Nation Army. That does essentially the same thing, only in Seven Nation Army the riff is relentlessly descending, as opposed to the rising of the Game of Thrones riff.
The second reason why the Riff is so memorable is that Djawadi beats us over the head with it. We hear the Riff through almost the entire title track. Trust me, I counted. It occurs a whopping 91 times over the course of the 100-second title sequence. And that’s not even counting sections where the rhythm of the Riff continues in the drums while the Riff is not actually playing.
Harmonically, the Riff is based entirely around a triad chord. Starting in the key of C minor, the first note we hear is a G, then we have the ‘drop’ down to our chordal root of C. It then jumps up a third (Eb) before climbing back up to the fifth (G), only to drop again. Those three notes, C, Eb and G are the most basic, root position triad of a C minor scale.
The interest comes through variations. Right from the beginning, Djawadi starts to mess with the Riff. After hearing it ‘normally’ four times, we get a change. That middle note shifts from an Eb to an E. That means that now we are hearing a C major chord, which is a much brighter and livelier sound.
This alternation between major and minor continues throughout the piece. Much like a pop song, the GoT theme is built on a chord progression and rather than staying in C, the Riff actually changes to whatever chord the piece is currently in. When it is a minor chord, we get the minor thirds, and when it’s major we hear major. Musically speaking, this makes the Riff functionally more like an arpeggio.
Arpeggios – playing the notes of a chord separately rather than together – are a distinctive feature of baroque and classical music. Neither of these musical periods, which span from 1600-1800, particularly match the late medieval or Renaissance aesthetic of the show But they do add a sense of history and age to the music are the styles that we are perhaps most used to hearing in a fantasy setting.
As far as instrumentation is concerned, the Riff is played primarily in the upper strings – violins and violas. It is supported throughout the piece by percussion. The percussion sounds like taiko drums or tom toms. In sound and rhythm, the drums manage to sit cunningly between Renaissance-era dance drums and thundering tribal war drums. Both are highly energetic and nicely match the setting and overall themes of a show based around books that have titles like A Dance with Dragons.
The Main Melody
Much like the Riff, the main melody is extremely simple in addition to being effective. It’s memorable and achieves the holy grail of TV and movie themes – it is extremely hummable.
Now for a potentially mind-blowing fact.
The main melody is a series of variations on the Riff.
Over the course of the melody we basically get four ‘passes’ of the Riff. Four times we hear a drop of a perfect fifth, and four times it’s followed by a couple of semi-quavers. At a risk of overanalysing it, what we hear is the Riff going through a four-chord progression in C minor – G minor, Bb Major, F minor or i-v-VII-iv. Just like a pop song. Beyond the changing chords, the other main variation is the direction of the semi-quavers. In the first half of the melody these step upward and in the second half of the Melody they step down.
Another notable feature of the Melody is an extremely narrow range. There are just six notes, between the G that the music starts on and the Bb in the second half of the theme. Most books on musical theory will tell you that this is bad melody writing. Starting the phrase on the highest note it will ever reach is a complete no-no, and the Bbs towards the end don’t add much drama, because they’re too close to the G in pitch and are placed on the weaker beats of the bar. The reason why traditional music theory tells you not to compose music like this is that you end up with a melody that has no climax. It’s constantly moving but never really goes anywhere.
And it’s a masterstroke.
Of course, it’s fun to speculate about the sub-conscious meaning of this form and lack of a climax. For instance, you could point to the fact that the rising melody echoes the story of so many of our favourite Game of Thrones characters – falling (sometimes literally), then having to climb (sometimes literally), only to fall again. Think about Petyr Baelish’s stirring speech about destiny being a ladder, intercut with shots of Jon Snow and his band of Wildlings mounting an assault on the Wall. There’s a Sisyphean quality to the music as well. It’s constantly striving and never getting anywhere. There’s a sort of ‘rotating’ element in the sound, which goes well with all the spinning gears that you see in the title sequence. It hints at the characters’ struggle for the Iron Throne – sometimes you are riding on top of the gears and at other times you’re being crushed by them.
Then there is the interaction of the Melody with the Riff. It’s a basic call-and-response format. We hear the first half of the Melody, then it pauses for a couple of bars while the Riff responds. Then the cycle is repeated. It’s particularly effective because of how similar the Melody and the Riff are, creating the sense of a folk song or sea shanty – genuine adventuring music.
The Melody is played three times over the course of the main title, increasing in instrumentation each time.
1st Time - Game of Thrones Main Theme
A solo cello performs the Melody the first time. The cello is a great choice here. It’s a strong lyrical instrument in a range that’s very similar to the human voice, contributing to the ‘hummable’ nature of the melody. It’s also a very significant instrument for the series – it will be used extensively throughout the show and is a genuinely medieval sound.
2nd Time - Game of Thrones Main Theme
A violin joins the cello the second time through, playing exactly an octave above it. By playing in octaves the instruments completely blend with each other, making a bigger sound. You could say it sounds like someone else has joined in to travel same path – a common theme in the show.
Because the violin and cello are very similar-sounding, they blend together almost like they are one instrument. It’s subtle and a callback to a number of Renaissance and folk instruments which use additional ‘sympathetic’ strings to create a fuller sound. You can hear an example of this in the hardanger, the Norwegian fiddle that is used for the Rohan themes in the Lord of the Rings. So while a violin and cello duet might be the most conventionally ‘Western’ sound imaginable, it somehow manages to sound a little exotic at the same time.
3rd Time - Game of Thrones Main Theme
The third time through, the melody is played by a full string complement. The Riff continues to be played in the upper strings, which is an unusual piece of orchestration, with instruments effectively playing over themselves. This is a technique that’s common in Hollywood films, especially in epic big budget war or fantasy films. But the use of a full string orchestra is unusual for TV. Using that many performers is expensive and contributes to the tone and brand of the show. It’s really hammering home that this is an epic fantasy with no expense spared.
Finally, listen out for a significant absence in the main theme and in the soundtrack. It’s brass. Horns and trumpets are very commonly used in fantasy and medieval settings, usually playing grand heroic fanfares. But you won’t find much brass in the GoT soundtrack. The lack of brass, and the fanfares associated with it, is a subtle hint that this show isn’t going to play to the conventions of the sword and shield epic. The show is telling us that while Westeros might be an grand fantasy world with dragons and knights, we can’t expect those knights to be donning their shining armour to save the day any time soon.
The B Section
After hearing the Melody three times, the theme goes into a ‘B’ section. Originally, I suspected that this was going to be a lyrical second melody, the kind you might hear in a classic Hollywood action film like Indiana Jones. But in keeping with the ruthless efficiency of the music in this title sequence, it’s actually much simpler than that.
1st Time - Game of Thrones B Section
The sweeping melody of the lower strings is as basic as it comes. There’s a single note per bar and each note is the root of a chord. Functionally, it falls somewhere between a ‘cantus firmus’ – a song that you might hear in Renaissance or baroque music – and a ‘bridge’ section in a modern pop or rock song. The Riff continues relentlessly, reinforcing the theme, forming chords out of the notes of the melody, still alternating between major and minor.
2nd Time - Game of Thrones B Section
In the transition from full strings in the third playthrough of the melody, through to the lower strings of the ‘B’ section is a vacating of the higher pitches of the piece. This creates sonic room for a choir of women to join in the upper register for the repeat of the B section. This transforms the line into descant reminiscent of western sacred music, a high line that seems to land on top of the music as if from the heavens. It’s as epic and dramatic as it is beautiful.
And then finally, after two times through the B section, we return to just the Riff. But now it’s being played by a couple of very different instruments – a dulcimer and a Finnish kantele, which play the Riff three times. This is very clever and effective. The shimmering, exotic sound of these two new instruments adds a sense of mystery, a sort of musical question mark, raising the question of what will happen next. That use of two very unusual instruments also creates a unique and distinctive audio brand for the show. Significantly, a quick chord on these instruments is also the very first sound that we hear in the piece.
The Coda - Game of Thrones Main Theme
Finally, by cutting back to just two quiet instruments, Djawadi takes a lot of the energy out of the piece. This is a nice comedown and is useful for the editing of the show. If the theme had ended with full strings and drums, it would have posed problems for the producers if they wanted to cut to a quiet scene of two people talking. But with this ending, anything can happen, and often does.
I hope you’ve enjoyed this rundown of one of the greatest pieces of theme music in television. I’ll be investigating the full Game of Thrones soundtrack in fuller detail further down the track, exploring hidden ideas and musical gems from one of our favourite shows.