Behind the music of Game of Thrones, Westworld and Iron Man

Rock out with your Dothrak out with composer Ramin Djawadi.

Richard Trenholm Former Movie and TV Senior Editor
Richard Trenholm was CNET's film and TV editor, covering the big screen, small screen and streaming. A member of the Film Critic's Circle, he's covered technology and culture from London's tech scene to Europe's refugee camps to the Sundance film festival.
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Richard Trenholm
5 min read

He's the man who wrote one of the most iconic TV themes ever, launching a thousand ringtones and fan-made cover versions. And after the iconic Game of Thrones intro, he's had another hit with Westworld . But composer Ramin Djawadi is keen to stress his collaboration with the directors and producers who interweave his music into the visuals. 

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In addition to working with showrunners David Benioff and Dan Weiss on Game of Thrones  and Jonathan Nolan on Westworld, Djawadi also composed the driving, guitar-led scores for Jon Favreau's  Iron Man and Guillermo del Toro's Pacific Rim. He's currently leading a touring concert celebrating the music of Game of Thrones, in which an orchestra helps live audiences relive the highs and lows of the show's seven seasons so far. 

The Game of Thrones Live Concert Experience comes to London's SSE Wembley Arena on 27 May and 14 June, as well as other arenas around Europe. I caught up with Djawadi backstage during rehearsals. 

Q: Is it true you originally weren't sure you were going to do Game of Thrones?
Djawadi: When I saw it I knew I had to do it, but I was busy with other projects. Seeing the scope of the show I was nervous if I could take on this massive project. But I met with the showrunners [David Benioff and Dan Weiss] and we clicked and everything was right about the project and I thought, I have to take this show. I thought, Well, I'm not gonna sleep for three months. Looking back, I think it was the right decision. 

When you initially sat down to start composing the main theme, what was the very first thought you had?  
Djawadi: The initial idea came in the car. I was actually driving. They had shown me the visuals of the beautiful main titles with the cities popping up and everything. And then as I was driving back to my studio, that's when the melody started forming in my head.

Did you know the theme would become so iconic? 
Djawadi: No, no idea! I never think about that when I write. I remember when the first episode aired and then the next day David sent me a YouTube video of the first cover that came out, and then another one popped up. It was beautiful to see how it inspired people around the world to create their versions -- metal versions, techno versions, all these different things. It was flattering.

Beyond the main theme, how do you plan the music for an episode? 
Djawadi: That happens in what's called a spotting session with David and Dan. We sit in a room together, and then we "spot" the whole episode: We watch from beginning to end and discuss where music should start and stop, and when music comes, what it should achieve dramatically. I write it all, present it to them and then we tweak it. Sometimes when we watch the episode again there are moments where we add a piece here, or the other way around -- we realize actually it's fine without music, let's take it out. It's a collaborative process.

How do you develop the instruments or themes that symbolize each character? 
Djawadi: That was also part of the initial conversation with David and Dan. Before I even started writing, we sat down and discussed the scope of the show and they said, Look there's lots of different locations, we really want to enhance musically that we're north of the wall or we're in the desert with Daenerys. So musically I try to switch it up with instruments so besides the visual aspect there's also an audible aspect to tell us now we are here, or we're with this family. The violin, for example, we use for the Starks quite a bit. The cello is the Lannisters. For the Dothraki or Khal Drogo we had a duduk [an Armenian woodwind instrument].

Every season I add new instruments. We always laugh about, What instrument haven't you used yet? All the way to Season 6, when in Light of the Seven we used the piano for the first time. That was an instrument which wasn't really in the language of the show. But we felt that moment was so different, let's musically break out of our usual sound palette. 

What new instruments are you thinking of bringing in for Season 8? 
Djawadi: I guess I have to see what the story will be, because I'm as much in the dark as everybody else.

From Game of Thrones to Westworld, how do you develop the cover songs like Seven Nation Army and Black Hole Sun used in the show? 
Djawadi: That's so much fun to do. Jonathan Nolan picks the songs. Then it's breaking them down to a piano reduction, or an orchestral thing. That's actually something I used to do as a teenager growing up and I would learn the songs by ear and make my own arrangements. It's kind of ironic that now I'm able to do it on such a great show and have fun with it. 


Djawadi provides the atmospheric player piano score for HBO hit Westworld.

John P. Johnson/HBO

Another score you composed was Iron Man, which just celebrated its 10th anniversary. What was it like to define the sound of the Marvel Cinematic Universe ?
Djawadi: I have great memories of it. Again, like with Westworld and Game of Thrones I would say it's a collaboration with the producer or the director. With Iron Man I have to give Jon Favreau great credit for the score because he always said, from the beginning, Tony Stark is a rock 'n' roll guy. He always kept going I want more guitars. My main instrument is guitar, but it was in collaboration with Jon that we came up with that style of the score, and I think it fit Tony Stark so well.

If it's your favorite instrument, could that be the last instrument at the end of Game of Thrones?
Djawadi: Who knows? It's definitely an instrument we have not used on the show. 


Ramin Djawadi and orchestra rock out with their Dothraki out at the Game of Thrones Live Concert Experience.


So you have synaesthesia, which means you see sound as colors. How does that impact your writing process?
Djawadi: For me, it's painting, because I can't do actual painting. When I write music, these colors pop out of me. It's hard to describe, but basically when I write music, I paint and I add colors and I add notes.

And what color is Westworld? 
Djawadi: Again it's hard to describe but it's a totally different color than Game of Thrones. It's not as simple as one color. I'm not sure. I struggle with words describing it. 

And what's your favourite TV theme?
Djawadi: There's so many great themes from the '80s. Magnum, Miami Vice. That's the beauty of a TV main title -- if you were in a different room, and your show comes on, you want that main title to drag you in that room. You're in the kitchen, you go, My show's on, I gotta go in! That's how I grew up, so I feel fortunate for having been able to work on something like Westworld and Game of Thrones and to create themes that hopefully drag you into them.

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For even more Westworld, check out our coverage of Season 2 so far, and our new after show below covering all the theories of each episode. (Episode 5 coming soon!)