The music theory behind Game of Thrones’ “Main Title” theme

Illustration: Leo Peng

Regardless of whether you’re a Game of Thrones fan, you’re likely to be familiar with its iconic “Main Title” theme song.

In fact, the Game of Thrones soundtrack has been streamed over a billion times.

To celebrate the return of its beloved theme for House of the Dragon, a new prequel to the show, let’s dig into composer Ramin Djawadi’s unique background and why and how his “Main Title” is so fitting to the series.

Let’s dive in!


About the composer, Ramin Djawadi

The Game of Thrones soundtrack is composed by Ramin Djawadi, a German-Iranian score composer. Djawadi has composed and produced over 100 soundtracks and film scores for both film and television. While he’s best known for his score for Game of Thrones, he has also worked on other major television shows such as Prison Break, Person of Interest, Jack Ryan, and Westworld. He’s also celebrated for his film scores for works including Pacific Rim, Iron Man, and Warcraft.

Djawadi was born in 1974 and has always been interested in composing melodies, ever since he was a child. He has the sensory condition known as synesthesia, with which he can “associate colors with music, or music with colors.”

Growing up, Djawadi was highly influenced by the composers of the classical romantic era such as Beethoven, Brahms, and Tchaikovsky, in addition to ’80s rock bands like Metallica. Djawadi attended Berklee School of Music for music composition, and right after his graduation, he garnered the attention of and worked as an assistant to none other than Hans Zimmer.

In the words of Rob Harvilla, the Game of Thrones score is “the next evolutionary step in Zimmer’s program of prestige enormity and super-macho delicacy, the soaring soulfulness of peak John Williams married to the thunderous menace of Djawadi’s beloved Metallica.”


Analyzing the music theory behind Game of Thrones’ “Main Title” theme

Let’s start by taking a dedicated listen to the “Main Title” theme:

For the theme, the creators of the show—David Benioff and D. B. Weiss—prohibited the use of pianos and flutes because they felt that those instruments were overused in fantasies and weren’t dramatic enough for the show. This is why Djawadi reached for the cello as the main instrument—he felt that it had a huge range with a dark sound perfect for Game of Thrones.

The creators essentially wanted the theme to feel like a journey, because the show has many locations with lots of different characters. Hence, they paired the song with visuals that traverse through the map of the Game of Thrones world.

As we dive into a deeper analysis in the following sections, I’ll be referencing specific measures from this medley’s sheet music. Feel free to follow along for a look into the contours and harmonic structure of the piece.

Using parallel keys to establish wonder and unpredictability

The piece kicks off with a four-bar introduction that immediately outlines the main riff that drives the entire piece. In the original orchestral version, the strings start the piece in C minor (i) for the first two bars, and then switch to C major (I) in the next two bars.

The alternating minor and major colors at the beginning of the theme set the tone for both the music and the series at large. According to Djawadi, just as the show has a lot of backstabbing and conspiracy, he tried to achieve that same feeling of unknowingness with the music—such that, even though the majority of the song is in minor, there are hints of major woven in to make things interesting and unpredictable.

This sort of move can be considered modulation to a parallel key. Despite its nuanced color, it’s a rather easy effect to achieve because parallel keys share several pitches (the tonic, second, fourth, and fifth) in common, in addition to the same dominant chord. Modulation is also very popular in film and TV scores at large, since it’s an effective way to achieve a dramatic effect.

Using chord progressions to achieve a feeling of adventure

After the introduction, Djawadi returns to C minor (i) in bars 76 and 77. He then moves to the v chord (G minor) in bars 78 and 79. From there, he continues to a VII chord (B♭) in bars 80 and 81, goes to the iv chord (F minor) in bars 82 and 83, and then finally returns to the tonic (C minor). Raising the cello melody by an octave as he repeats adds drama and interest.

Section B of the theme introduces a change in melody, described by Djawadi as giving “a sense of adventure.” That said, because the second violin shares the same motif as the introduction and the prior section, familiarity is maintained that smoothly connects the sections.

The harmonic progression for this section is | VI | III | iv | i | VI | iv – VII | i |. Starting on the VI chord rather than the i chord piques the listener’s attention and effectively reflects the feeling of adventure and traveling to a new location. The eventual return back to the i chord provides a satisfying cadence to the progression.


Conclusion

Overall, Game of Thrones‘ “Main Title” theme is packed with opposites and juxtapositions, like major / minor, contour inversions, and large jumps in pitch like octaves. All of these conflicts may be used to reflect the various conflicts that each of the main characters faces in the show.

With both this theme and other compositions in the soundtrack, Djawadi plays a crucial role in the storytelling of Game of Thrones, and is just as vital a character as any of the show’s actual characters. If the series has made a meaningful mark on one’s life, then so has Ramin Djawadi, whether one knows it or not.

In Djawadi’s words, “It’s a composer’s dream job, to soundtrack this vast universe of both world-building wonders and world-destroying nightmares.”

Do you have any favorite songs from Game of Thrones or House of the Dragon? What iconic soundtracks would you like to see us break down next? Start a conversation with us via the Splice Discord, and check out our tutorial on transforming a dog bark into a dragon roar for more Game of Thrones-inspired content.

October 18, 2022

Arundhati Swaminathan Arundhati Swaminathan is a New York-based singer, content strategist, active TV watcher, and social media scroller who is currently working as a Content Marketing Associate at Splice.