Welcome to Game of Themes and thank you for tuning in. In this episode we will start to uncover all the recurring or notable musical themes in the recently ended TV series Game of Thrones. We’re specifically looking for leitmotifs and the composer Ramin Djawadi has provided us with very memorable ones. I still hear people hum the main theme on occasion.
So what are leitmotifs? Leitmotifs are musical phrases which are attached to aspects of the drama, such as characters, ideas or situations, and they recur and sometimes evolve following the development of the story.
Before we begin, I do want to apologise for not meeting my own deadline. I wanted to release this episode last August, but I think everyone will agree that being able to pay the bills, sadly, is a little bit more important than pursuing your passion projects. If only we found a way to pay the bills with what we love to do… the world would be almost perfect.
I originally planned to discuss each season in one podcast episode, but after a first trial run-through with the material that I have prepared so far, this would probably result in multiple hours long episodes and so I scratched that thought and I’m just going to go with a time span that is long enough to keep anyone’s attention—mine included—without too much trouble.
I have also uploaded clips of the themes to the YouTube channel and seperate posts of each theme will eventually finds it way to the website. Now if you like, you can follow along while the TV episode plays on your device or whatever you would use. But I suggest you pause when I speak, because I didn’t sync it.
Lastly, I want to make a sidenote that unless it is important to the narrative, I will not discuss diegetic music, which is source music that is presumably heard by the characters.
Right! We have a lot to cover so let’s not dillydally and delve right in.
Episode 1: Winter is Coming
Before the title sequence, the series’ pilot opens with a prologue in which three rangers set out to investigate reports of wildlings beyond the Wall. The very first notes that we hear only come back one more time in the first season, I believe, and it is when Jon and Tyrion see the Wall for the first time in the second episode. It’s a short deep 3-note motif following the notes A-G-D [MUSIC SAMPLE]. It does not give us a lot of other musical information. I associate it with the Wall of which much is unknown to the viewers at this point. But we do know that the rangers stepped out from the tunnel that goes through the Wall and are now in the Haunted Forest.
Then one of them, the scout Will, notices signs of heat and we hear the White Walker Theme for the first time. This theme sounds incredibly eerie but still delicate and is played on a glass harmonica over a deep base, and it sort of brings an icy, cold sound design. And of course as the viewer will later find out, ice and the cold are associated with the White Walkers. When the theme starts, even if the viewer hasn’t really find out what’s going on yet, we just know that something is up and the music prepares us for it.
Although it could be considered more of a sound design, I believe the White Walker Theme is in F minor and can be heard in its basic form nine times throughout the first season and always when the White Walkers are either referenced or implied. Here is it in a simplified form. [MUSIC SAMPLE]
When Will discovers dismembered wildlings corpses arranged on the ground and a dead wildling girl pinned to a tree, the music comes in very frighteningly and with a lot of urgency as Will flees from the scene. We hear loud dissonance, descending tremolos in the strings and rapid beats in the percussion, which are all techniques that film and tv music composers use to denote fear or terrifying events. I usually call this action music because there isn’t really a recurring theme, there’s more of a sound design that is similar in most scenes wanting to convey either terror, fear, or when used with less dissonance, can usually be heard in a scene with lots of action.
Next we hear the White Walker Theme again when Ser Royce and Gared investigate the now seemingly empty ground and Gared digs up some entrails. Again, we know something might happen and it does, because as a White Walker stands up behind Royce, suspenseful music similar to a few minutes ago starts. And then as the remaining rangers run for their lives, heavy drumbeats underscore the urgency of their fleeing, which stops all of a sudden as we see the White Walker next to Gared and he ends up beheading him.
This whole sequence from when we see Will just before he notices the signs of heat, can be heard without too much variation in the track North of the Wall on the official soundtrack.
After the prologue we see the title sequence featuring the main theme. Without too much inspiration, I have called the Game of Thrones Theme. In its basic setting it is composed in C minor and it’s the opening track on the soundtrack. Although it is in C minor, after the first few bars, the beginning riff shifts to its parallel key, C major [MUSIC SAMPLE]. In Western music C major is the most basic key signature you can have. There are no flats and no sharps. It’s a simple and pure key and when used, it evokes simplicity and pureness, and is being associated with innocence and a child-like naivety. Almost like an ad, it’s a great way to call the attention of the viewers. Hey! Look at this great story! But things can change quickly and life can turn around in a second, as we all might know. And this is what happens when the music abruptly switches to its parallel minor again [MUSIC SAMPLE]. It can all be gone in the blink of an eye, this story is unpredictable, so be prepared. Because in the Game of Thrones, you win or you die!
The Game of Thrones Theme has two distinct musical phrases, here’s A [MUSIC SAMPLE] and here is B [MUSIC SAMPLE], and both of them are used throughout the season when major things are happening. It will usually be playing on either the basic riff that builds up A in its minor or major parallel or a variation on the B sentence.
Later in the season, and especially in the last episode Fire and Blood, we will hear it intricately woven Ito other themes and it’s so beautifully done, I can’t help but label Djawadi as a musical genius.
It will be in the key of the House Stark Theme when Rob grieves for his father, in the key of the Night’s Watch Theme when the Night’s Watch rides out beyond the Wall, or in the key of Daenerys Theme when she seems unharmed by the fire and carries the hatched dragons. I absolutely love how Djawadi has used this theme and it’s what makes my heart skip a beat when I think about film or TV music.
When the title sequence is finished, we see outriders apprehending Will who has fled to the south in terror over a rhythmic pattern similar to that of the just finished Game of Thrones Theme. And when we see a lone rider heading to Winterfell, we shortly hear the House Stark Theme for the first time. This theme can be heard in most episodes since the House Stark is one of the main houses we follow throughout the story. In this instance, it is not in its usual G minor key but rather in C minor, so together with that rhythmic pattern from just before, it is still tied to the Game of Thrones Theme of the title sequence, which is also in C minor. It makes the transition for the audience a lot smoother.
The House Stark Theme has two different musical sentences, which I will also call A and B, just like with the Game of Thrones Theme before. Djawadi uses both frequently throughout the season, and almost always featuring the cello, but while A has a more honourable sound to it [MUSIC SAMPLE], B seems to imply sadness [MUSIC SAMPLE].
You mostly hear the theme brought in G minor, but I found three remarkable little details, which are:
- It is used three times in C minor when it is linked to the more noble history of Winterfell or House Stark, which are: this first view of Winterfell, Bran telling Osha about his ancestors and Robb being named King in the North,
- It is used twice in F minor involving Ned in King’s Landing, which are: Ned asking Varys why Jon Arryn was killed and Ned refusing to do what Varys wants, in that case serving the realm,
- It is used three times in A minor when it relates to Jon.
There are a few variations to the theme, for example a little bit later in this episode when Jon finds Ghost and then the very last time the House Stark Theme is referenced in the first season when Jon rides through the forest. Funny enough, these apply to Jon, who might be a Stark by blood but is still a bastard, so not considered a real Stark. You can hear a full rendition of the theme on the soundtrack in Goodbye Brother.
The next music we hear comes in very softly and quite intriguingly when Ned warns Cat that winter is coming. Maybe it might be more appropriate to call it a motif because it doesn’t have a very engaging melodic line. This little theme is used quite sparingly throughout the season, only five times I believe, and always when a Stark is involved. I call it the Boding Theme because every time you hear it, you know there’s more to the story than what we can see and it is always quite foreboding.
The Boding Theme is a Stark-related theme which mostly appears with Ned. It is always in F minor and it has two layers to it. The first is a little rhythmic riff that alternates between F and C, and F and D flat and is played on the hammered dulcimer, I think [MUSIC SAMPLE]. The second one is a general descending melodic line in the strings following the notes F, E flat, D flat and C [MUSIC SAMPLE]. They always appear together and have a very mysterious, uneasy feeling to them.
Here, Ned is using his house motto ‘Winter Is Coming’ and this line has been used many times in promotional posters and teasers. It’s one of the big premises of the series and so it needs to be underscored with intrigue, some suspense and a touch of negativity. The theme keeps playing when Cat looks down at Jon, and the viewers can feel the uneasiness and the negative feelings that she harbours towards him thanks to this music.
A little bit later, after Ned has carried out the sentence for deserters, he talks to Bran about how no matter what the reason might be for people to desert or no matter what he personally thinks, he as Warden of the North has to pass the sentence and swing the sword. We hear a deep sounding theme, as far as I know, it’s only used twice in its entirety throughout the whole season and one time in a shorter version I think, and I call it Ned’s Honour Theme because it has very much go to do with Ned’s honour.
It is is G minor, so musically very connected to the House Stark Theme, which is also in G minor. And it makes sense, because it has got to do with Ned Stark, who is the head of the House. We also hear it in Episode 5 when Ned turns in his Hand of the King’s brooch and leaves the Small Council because he believes that killing Daenerys is far from doing the honourable thing [MUSIC SAMPLE].
Next up, the Starks are on their way back to Winterfell and find a dead stag on the road. The music here I label as a variation on the White Walker Theme. It is in the same key, F minor, and has the same eerie feeling, but it is played with a different musical setting. The glass harmonica is used, but we hear other instruments as well. We hear the first two distinct chords of the theme when we first see the dead stag, and although stags are not exclusive to live beyond the Wall, hearing this theme here, we can expect that it might has got something to do with the White Walker, who come from beyond the Wall.
The next two chords, the last ones from the White Walker Theme, we hear them when we find out that there is also a dead wolf a little bit further down. The viewer can guess that the animals killed each other, but what has this got to do with the White Walker Theme?
And as Ned recognises that the wolf is not just a wolf, but a direwolf, we hear a reprisal of the White Walker Theme. We suddenly understand the implications of the animals killing each other, one being the house sigil of the Baratheons, which is a stag, and the other being the house sigil of the Starks, which is a direwolf, but musically this is not what our attention is being drawn to. Instead Robb mentions that there are no direwolves south of the Wall, so it must have come from beyond the wall, and that is why we hear the theme. Because what else comes from beyond the wall? The White Walkers.
This reprisal however, is brought in G minor instead of the usual F minor, and I thought it was particularly clever because it links it musically to the House Stark Theme, which is mostly played in G minor as we have seen before. And since we have just realised that the animal is a direwolf, which is the Starks sigil, it makes a lot of sense to bring it up from F to G in a sequence, which is just an iteration of a musical motif to a lower or in this instance, a higher pitch.
I first overlooked the next theme, because I could hear it only twice but when the Starks decide what to do with the wolf cubs, there’s a very delicate theme playing and I decided to just call it the Wolf Theme for now [MUSIC SAMPLE]. We hear it here in G minor, continuing the House Stark Theme key, and then in F minor when Arya tells Nymeria to run away so she wouldn’t get caught in the second episode of the season. I’m interested to see if we will hear this theme again later in the series, and if we do, I would speculate it would be less delicate as the cubs would have grown older by then.
Jon finds Ghost, we hear the variation on the House Stark Theme A, as I mentioned before. It’s just a small reminder to the viewer that Jon is a Stark and that him finding Ghost will be important.
Then we switch scenes to King’s Landing where we are introduced to two other characters, Cersei and Jaime Lannister, and we find out that the Hand of the King has passed away. As they discuss who should be his successor and Jaime gladly passes on it, an often used theme is played for the first time. Djawadi has been asked about this theme, and according to him, it is used to represent the idea of conspiracy, and so following that I will call it the Conspiracy Theme.
It might at first seem unclear why it is used here because we have only been just introduced to them, but as we will later find out, the Lannisters are particularly good at conspiring and scheming. So it is a theme that fits them very well.
It starts off with a very distinct sound by using a sort of whiney sounding string instrument that I fail to identify, and the hammered dulcimer is playing the main melodic line. Djawadi uses this instrument at the end of the title sequence in the Game of Thrones Theme, trying to evoke mystery or some anticipation for the viewers. And here it also brings this cryptic message, because we know that the Lannisters know something that Robert, who is mentioned here, should never find out.
The theme continues as we switch back to Winterfell where we follow Cat and the main melodic line this time is played by what I think is the glass harmonica? I could be completely wrong and I’ve asked around but everyone who got back to me seemed to think it’s a studio sound. So if you know more about this, feel free to let me know!
The Conspiracy Theme is one of the most used themes in this season and it is played in a few different keys, but more than half of the times it is in D minor. It sounds very mysterious and to me it’s a little bit out of this world. There’s an unsettled tension and even when it resolves back to its tonic, which is the note with the tonal centre of a piece of music and is the note upon which scales are built—for example D is the tonic of the D minor scale—it usually has a very unfinished feeling to it. Here is it in a simplified form [MUSIC SAMPLE].
Most of the time we hear it with either a hammered dulcimer, or that instrument that I fail to recognise, or a combination of both. At first I associated this theme purely with the Lannisters, and I even called it a Lannister Theme, because in the first three episodes you hear it only when the Lannisters are involved. But then in episode four, it sort of changes into a more general theme. I believe lots of people also call it the Littlefinger Theme, but I’d rather not. If anything Littlefinger’s life is completely centred on scheming and conspiring, yes, but it has also been used for other circumstances, which involve conspiracy but not Littlefinger.
You can hear a longer version of what we just heard in the episode on the soundtrack in the track A Raven from King’s Landing.
When Cat informs Ned that Jon Arryn has died, we hear a new theme. Even though in later seasons, this theme will evolve into something else, in the first season, it is only associated with the Starks, so for now, I will call it the Secondary Stark Theme. This theme has, just like the other major themes already discussed before, two different sentences to it. The first one, A, has a very beautiful sweeping melodic line [MUSIC SAMPLE]. And when it resolves, usually B takes over with a fast alternating riff between C and either D, E flat or F [MUSIC SAMPLE – with an added bonus of some hammering sounds because there are about FIVE bloody construction sites around our house]. For this theme, Djawadi uses the same instruments as for the Conspiracy Theme. We often hear it played by the hammered dulcimer, and the mysterious instrument, and it bothers me such me that I don’t know which one it is!
The Secondary Stark Theme can be heard about ten times in the first season and if I’m not mistaken it is always played in C minor. Sometimes we will only hear sentence A, sometimes only B and sometimes we hear both. We hear A when Cat informs Ned that Jon Arryn has died and then we hear B when we find out that the King is riding for Winterfell, which can only mean one thing and that is that the King is going to ask Ned to be the next Hand. Ending with the B sentence makes things feel uneasy and unfinished because B never quite resolves back to its tonic. The Starks are in for a rough ride, people…
Right! The next music that we hear is when Bran sees the King’s party appear on the road. This music is the House Baratheon Theme. It is one of the more majestic, stately and pompous themes of the series and that makes sense because everything about a king is considered majestic and powerful and strong.
Here the theme is in B flat minor and the main players are the strings underscored by some brass. There is also the distinct sound of the tambourine. Listening back to this after knowing what will happen much later, it sort of makes me think of court jesters with their bell hats, and it is interesting because we will find out later that King Robert is not the man he used to be and he has grown into a bit of a fool himself.
A little bit later, the King’s party arrives at Winterfell and we hear the House Baratheon Theme again. This time with blaring brass taking the lead and in C minor, the same key as our titular Game of Thrones Theme. Here we hear a full rendition here of the theme while they make their way to the courtyard to meet the Starks. Djawadi used middle sections that we will not hear again and a long ending section when Robert dismounts and walks to Ned. Here is a simplified version of the theme [MUSIC SAMPLE].
This theme is heard about ten times throughout the first season and apart from the very first B flat minor, it usually appears in C minor when we directly see Robert, for example when he is dictating Ned his will. We also hear it in a sweet C minor version with a harp when Joffrey gives Sansa a necklace. It is played in F sharp minor when the gravity of the narrative weighs through, for example, when Ned in the absence of the King, acts in his name sentences Gregor Clegane to death, when Cersei threatens Ned that in the Game of Thrones you win or you die, and when Renly wants to take the throne and tries to convince Ned that it is the right thing to do.
Interesting enough, it also is heard twice in D minor, the key of the Conspiracy Theme when it involves the Lannisters, more specifically when Cersei talks about how she first worshipped Robert and when Ned finds out that Joffrey is now King. It’s part of why I first really associated the Conspiracy Theme with the Lannisters. That D minor key is just so striking for them. Anyway, on the soundtrack, you can hear the two renditions of the House Baratheon Theme I discussed in the track The King’s Arrival.
When Robert places a feather in hand of the statue of Lyanna, we hear music in G minor, the main Stark key. Lyanna was a Stark so there are no loose ends here. However, it is never heard in this season again and I don’t recall hearing it in later seasons, although I haven’t scrutinised those as much as I have this one yet. I’m not going to list this as an actual theme, but I will add it to the list of notable standalone music.
The story shifts to the viewers’ first time across the Narrow Sea where we see Daenerys in Pentos looking out her window and the musical key accordingly moves away from that G minor. We are introduced to a whole new side of the story, and so this is probably a good place to end the first episode of the podcast.
Ok. I hope this has sparked some of your interest. And if you would like to find out more, please subscribe and visit the website where you can find some more information. Feel free to contact me if you have questions or suggestions, or you just want to provide some feedback. Thank you for listening and as I’ve been politely informed that the phrase ‘hear you soon’ from my goodbye in the introduction episode does not apply to podcasts, I bid you farewell with… ‘live long and prosper’?