'Game Of Thrones' Composer Ramin Djawadi On Melodies That Stick

Feb 14, 2017
Originally published on February 14, 2017 7:14 am

It was The Magnificent Seven that inspired Ramin Djawadi, the musician behind Game Of Thrones' iconic soundtrack, to become a film composer.

"You would turn the movie off and those melodies would stick with you," he says. "It's something I love about movie scores — that when you leave the theater you can still hum the themes and relive the movie without even watching it. It's just the music that lives on its own."

Djawadi witnessed the world of American westerns from Germany, where he grew up learning to play the organ. From there, he rode off into a career composing music for movies and TV. This spring, Djawadi's taking his show on the road with an 80-piece orchestra for the Game of Thrones Live Concert Experience. He sat down with NPR's David Greene to talk about his process of composing the music for the show. Read an edited transcript below and listen to the full interview at the audio link.

David Greene: Does it take a different kind of musician to compose music for television?

Ramin Djawadi: Yes and no — I think a melody is a melody. I usually start writing my themes without even writing to picture, just trying to find the tone for the movie or the TV show.

What do you know about it when you start, if you haven't seen anything?

Many times it's just based on a conversation with the director or the producer. Or I read the script, or watch it — if I have some rough cut in front of me, I'll watch it once. But then I just let it run in the background and start writing. Once you have that [composition], then you can apply it to picture, because the length of the pieces and what they have to do dramatically changes from piece to piece. Then you really have to go in and fine-tune the melodies and emotions to what is needed in the scene.

So you have these early conversations, you come up with a general feel for the score, and then you start fine-tuning as you see the images and get to know the characters. Is that what you're saying?

Correct. In the case of Game Of Thrones, before I started writing I sat down with [David Beinoff and D.B. Weiss]. We talked about the tone of the show, and I just listened to what their vision was. ... They'll say, "We really like this instrument, do you think you can make this work? We like the violin, we don't like this." All that information helps me, and then I go in and actually turn that into music and go from there.

What's an example of something they might have said as you were collaborating?

One thing we always laughed about was that they said, "We don't want any flutes."

There was a no-flute rule for Game Of Thrones?

There was a no-flute rule! Just because, stylistically, it was something that we felt was used in the genre before, and we wanted our score to be different. ... So the big instrument that we actually came up with was the cello. It has a big range, it can play really low and high, and it has a dark sound. Game Of Thrones is obviously a dark show, so the cello became the featured instrument.

You were telling me earlier that sometimes ideas strike you at the weirdest hours. What does that look like? Do you sneak out of bed and start recording something?

I used to just scribble things on a piece of paper whenever an idea came to mind. Now with cellphones, that's gotten a lot easier. I can just take it out and sing into my phone. Sometimes I just wake up — usually at night, actually, at night or first thing in the morning, that's when I have ideas because it's quiet. I sneak into the bathroom so I don't wake up my wife.

What do you do then? Are you humming?

Yeah, humming — sometimes I whistle. The main title theme for Game Of Thrones, for example, I was humming in my car after I saw the visuals. As I was driving back to the studio, I had the idea to the theme.

Wait a minute — you were in your car, humming what has become one of the most iconic themes on television.

Yeah, that little melody can just come at any time.

Copyright 2017 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

(SOUNDBITE OF ELMER BERNSTEIN COMPOSITION, "THE MAGNIFICENT SEVEN MAIN TITLE AND CALVERA")

DAVID GREENE, HOST:

I know what you're picturing here - wide open spaces, cowboys, saloons. Well, get in that world and you will understand what inspired Ramin Djawadi.

RAMIN DJAWADI: "The Magnificent Seven" was the movie when I heard that music, I realized, wow, this is - I want to become a film composer.

(SOUNDBITE OF ELMER BERNSTEIN COMPOSITION, "THE MAGNIFICENT SEVEN MAIN TITLE AND CALVERA")

GREENE: I feel like we should both be on horseback.

DJAWADI: (Laughter).

GREENE: What was speaking to you in "The Magnificent Seven" music?

DJAWADI: There was something about the U.S. I just loved the country and all these Western movies that were coming from there, but the score itself was so memorable. You would turn the movie off and those melodies would stick with you. And it's something I love about movie scores that when you leave the theater you can still hum the themes and relive the movie you just saw without even watching it. It's just the music that lives on its own.

GREENE: Yeah, I feel like I hummed the "Star Wars" theme or "Raiders Of The Lost Ark," one of them every day of my childhood.

DJAWADI: Exactly, yeah. No, same for me.

GREENE: Childhood for Ramin was in Germany. His father emigrated there from Iran and met Ramin's mother. Ramin was 4 years old when he started playing the organ. He could barely reach the pedals, but from there he rode off into a career composing music for movies and TV. He has been working on something that maybe some of you might recognize.

(SOUNDBITE OF RAMIN DJAWADI COMPOSITION, "GAME OF THRONES MAIN TITLE")

GREENE: Yeah, the theme to "Game Of Thrones," maybe the most recognized song on TV right now is Ramin's handiwork. It's medieval fantasy, it's of course also dragons. And as if composing this music for a smash HBO series wasn't enough, Ramin is now taking his show on the road for the Game of Thrones Live Concert Experience. There's an 80-piece orchestra, a choir, a 360-degree stage, a whole lot of fire. Ramin is the conductor and maybe soon he'll be coming to your town.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "GAME OF THRONES")

PETER VAUGHAN: (As Maester Aemon) Winter is coming.

(SOUNDBITE OF RAMIN DJAWADI COMPOSITION, "GAME OF THRONES MAIN TITLE")

GREENE: So I was wondering if it takes a different kind of musician to compose music for television?

DJAWADI: Yes and no. I think a melody is a melody. And the way I usually start is I start writing my themes without even writing to picture to just try to find the tone for the movie or the TV show.

GREENE: Really? What do you know about it when you start if you haven't seen anything?

DJAWADI: Many times it's just based on conversations with the director or the producer, or I read the script, or I watch it. If I have some rough cut in front of me, I'll just watch it once and - but then I just let it run in the background, and I just start writing.

(SOUNDBITE OF RAMIN DJAWADI COMPOSITION, "THE KINGSROAD")

DJAWADI: And then once you have that, then you can apply to a picture because certainly the length of the pieces and what it has to do dramatically changes from piece to piece. So then you really have to go in and then fine tune your melodies and emotions to what is needed in the scene.

GREENE: So you have these early conversations. You come up with like a general feel of what a score is going to be, and then you start fine tuning and fine tuning as you see the images and get to know the characters, is that what you're saying?

DJAWADI: Correct. In the case with "Game Of Thrones," before I started writing I sat down with David and Dan. And we just talked about the tone of the show and just listened to what their vision was.

GREENE: These were the producers, and you were listening to what they had planned?

DJAWADI: Correct. It's a collaboration. So you work with them and they say, we really like this instrument, do you think you can make this work? We like the violin, can you like - we don't like this. All that information helps me. And then I go in and actually turn that into music and then go from there.

GREENE: What's an example of something they might have told you as you were collaborating in that way?

DJAWADI: One thing we always laugh about was that they said we don't want any flutes.

GREENE: (Laughter).

DJAWADI: So I knew there was an instrument that...

GREENE: There was a no flute rule for "Game Of Thrones"?

DJAWADI: There was a no flute rule.

(LAUGHTER)

DJAWADI: Just because stylistically it was something that had - we felt was used in that genre before. And we just felt like we wanted our score to be different.

GREENE: Like "The Hobbit" or those shows like that, I mean...

DJAWADI: Exactly.

GREENE: ...You would hear the flute a lot.

DJAWADI: So we knew we wanted to have our own tone for the show. And then the big instrument that actually we came up with was the cello.

(SOUNDBITE OF RAMIN DJAWADI COMPOSITION, "MY WATCH HAS ENDED")

DJAWADI: It has a big range. It can play really low. It can play high. And it has a dark sound, and "Game Of Thrones" is obviously - it's a dark show, and the cello became the featured instrument.

(SOUNDBITE OF RAMIN DJAWADI COMPOSITION, "MY WATCH HAS ENDED")

GREENE: You ever go to these guys and you say, guys, I know there's a rule, but I think the flute would really be good for this one?

DJAWADI: I've snuck it in a couple times. And then they would say, Ramin, do we hear flute in there?

GREENE: (Laughter).

DJAWADI: I think it's in there, but OK, you made it work. It's...

GREENE: Like, no, no, no, that's not flute. No, no, it's not flute at all. That's not a flute. That is definitely not a flute.

DJAWADI: (Laughter).

GREENE: That's really funny.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG)

GREENE: As we were getting settled in the studio, you were telling me that sometimes ideas strike you at the weirdest hours. What does that look like? Do you, like, sneak out of bed and start recording something, or what goes on?

DJAWADI: Yeah. I used to just scribble things on a piece of paper whenever an idea would - came to mind. Now with cell phones. It definitely has gotten a lot easier because I can just take it out and just - I'll just sing into my phone.

GREENE: You sing?

DJAWADI: Yeah.

GREENE: Like sneak into the bathroom or something?

DJAWADI: Yeah, exactly. I mean, because I can - sometimes I just wake up, usually at night actually, at night or first thing in the morning. That's when I have ideas because it's quiet and I grab my phone, yeah, sneak into the bathroom so I don't wake up my wife and...

GREENE: What do you do? Are you humming, or what exactly are...

DJAWADI: Anything, yeah. Sometimes I whistle. The main title theme, for example, for "Game Of Thrones" I was humming in my car after I saw the visuals. And as I was driving back to the studio I had the idea to the theme, so I - this (humming). It - that idea came up as I was driving back to the studio.

GREENE: Wait a minute, you were in your car humming what has become one of the most iconic themes in - on television right now?

DJAWADI: (Laughter) Yeah, it's just that little melody that just, you know, it can just come any time.

(SOUNDBITE OF RAMIN DJAWADI COMPOSITION, "GAME OF THRONES MAIN TITLE")

GREENE: OK. So you have liked Westerns since your childhood. I wanted to just play a score from a Western.

(SOUNDBITE OF RAMIN DJAWADI COMPOSITION, "WESTWORLD THEME")

GREENE: You probably recognize this.

DJAWADI: (Laughter).

GREENE: This is you. This is the HBO hit "Westworld," the weird futuristic Western. Are you living the dream? I mean, I think back to your love of Westerns.

DJAWADI: Absolutely, I'm living my dream. Yeah. My wife always jokes, says I'm a big kid, you know, playing in the studio and coming up with melodies and sounds. And, you know, I wouldn't know any other way because I just have music in my head all the time, and I just love it.

GREENE: I kind of want to follow you out of our studio, and if you start humming I'm going to be like this could be - God knows what this could become.

DJAWADI: (Laughter).

GREENE: Ramin, it's been a real pleasure. Thanks so much. We really appreciate it.

DJAWADI: Oh, thank you. Thanks for having me.

(SOUNDBITE OF RAMIN DJAWADI COMPOSITION, "WESTWORLD THEME")

GREENE: That was Ramin Djawadi. He composed the musical scores for both "Westworld" and "Game Of Thrones." And this spring, he is taking his music on the road with The Game of Thrones Live Concert Experience. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.