Brian LaGuardia - Composer, Orchestrator, Arranger

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Game of Themes

by Brian

We are fortunate enough to exist in the era of rebirth for television scoring. Where before there was no soundtrack (or, in the case of some shows, un-thematic minimalism), we now have sweeping thematic scores that complement fine dramas. And these scores don’t have to be complex, either. Case in point: Game of Thrones, the epic Fantasy on HBO that just began airing its third season. Note that if you have not seen this show, read at your own risk as there are some spoilers up to the end of season 2. Don’t say I didn’t warn ya!

Of course, everyone knows the main theme, overlaying the title sequence:

It’s a fun little sequence. I also find it brilliant that the relentless ostinato presented here tends to show up when two or more story arcs or characters that began disparate start to become intertwined, or when we are at the doorstep of events that will have consequences reaching other story lines (since all of them are pretty much totally independent after the first few episodes of season 1). So to me, this is the “everything is tied together in the epic land of Westeros” theme, or literally the “game of thrones” theme, since that’s what all this convoluted plotting is about: taking the throne and keeping it. ‘Tis a phickle game, after all. 😛

Another “universal” theme I’ve noticed is the theme of the Crown (whoever happens to posses it at the time). It’s marked by two elements, actually, which usually coincide. One is the ostinato underneath:

The Crown Ostinato

And the other the main melody:

The Crown Theme

This shows up in some fun places, namely when Joffrey is promising to treat Sansa better and also when he orders all illegitimate sons of Robert Baratheon executed (in the second example, there is of course a darker, almost corrupted tone to the normally regal theme).

The Throne is Mine

On a related note, I dearly hope Joffrey get’s what’s coming to him. There is literally nothing redeeming about his character, unlike EVERYONE else (some of whom have had pretty gruesome deaths so far). I can’t wait to see justice served, George RR Martin style.

One of my favorite themes in the show is the Stark Family/House theme. It perfectly portrays the Starks and the brutal northern lands they have to contend with. There is a quiet strength about it.

The Starks

Of course, just because the family has a theme doesn’t mean that some of the members of House Stark don’t have their own. The honorable John Snow has one that reflects his honor and his struggle to maintain it in the face of adversity. It also shows us that a character theme doesn’t have to be complicated at all to be recognizable, effective and epic. It’s just an augmented triad!

John Snow

Initially, I thought this was the theme for the Night’s Watch…as it seemed to only show up when we were looking at the enormous wall the Crows watch over or when they are reciting their vows:

But that was soon proven wrong when it started accompanying John Snow wherever he happened to be, even when he seemingly switches sides to join the wildlings. Even if it is still the Night’s Watch theme (possible given that he could still be loyal to the Crows), it always seems to be playing whenever he’s in the scene.

Keeping with the subject of very simple yet effective themes, the recurring line (and words of choice for House Stark) “Winter is Coming” has its own theme, largely due to its foreboding tone and painfully obvious use as a way to foreshadow the return of the White Walkers:

Winter is Coming Theme

My other favorite theme is the theme for House Lannister. It is literally a drinking song Lannister men use as source music (meaning it’s within the show’s reality and not part of the score…actors are actually singing it). If you listen to the lyrics, you can plainly tell that it’s referring to Tywin and his utterly ruthless tactics.

Reins of Castamere

Here’s an example of it in use in the score itself, which is obviously meant to represent Tywin specifically:

Daenerys is an interesting character, which is no doubt why she’s the only one with two themes. She has gone from a frightened, submissive little girl to the Mother of Dragons, ruthless and imbued with righteous purpose. This theme represents those moments of transformation…when you know you are looking upon the Mother of Dragons and, IMO, the one who is going to take the throne in a big way at some point. This is the first example of it showing up, where she refuses to be treated like an animal:

I will look upon your face

And here, where she hatches the eggs of her Dragons and discovers her true identity, is the pinnacle example (also notice the main title ostinato making an appearance!):

Mother of Dragons

But of course, her character is nuanced. There are moments in which her youth and inexperience show through…moments where you still see the emotional, insecure side of her that she is required to hide from nearly everyone in order to maintain her leadership.

Vulnerable Side

Then there’s the Lord of Light theme. This one tricked me early on as well, because it seemed to be Stannis Baratheon’s Theme for a while. Obviously the two identities are somewhat intertwined, as Stannis is being touted as the conduit of that god. But nowadays it shows up with the Red Woman more often than Stannis, who is of course preaching the loudest about this god.

Lord of Light

The cool thing is that some of the relatively minor characters even have themes. Theon Greyjoy is a good example of this. His theme seems to indicate that he is slowly, ever so slowly growing into his own identity and becoming something greater after having rejoined his true house…which is why this might double as the House Greyjoy Theme at some point.

What is Dead may Never Die

I find the score of Game of Thrones compelling. It is a perfect example of how effective thematic writing can be, even if the themes themselves are sparsely orchestrated and simplistically constructed…though I must level a few criticisms against it. First, the main title ostinato shows up so often as to wear on the listener at times. Second, while the themes are decent enough, the composer doesn’t always take it upon himself to develop them. Sometimes it’s just another statement of the same theme with the same orchestration. I feel like either he should force himself to spread his creative wings a bit or more of the budget (which looks quite large judging from the effects) needs to be thrown his way. Either way, I hope you enjoy picking these out as you watch…as though the ludicrously extensive world-building wasn’t enough to keep track of.

The End is Nigh!

I know Easter was last week, but if you’re feeling up to a belated scavenger hunt, here’s a fun one you can try: see if the Dies Irae is in your favorite movie. Odds are it’s in there somewhere, because it is everywhere! It’s not quite as prolific as the Wilhelm Scream, but it crops up a lot. I’ll prove it to you in a minute.

But first, a fun little jaunt to Music History land. As my last post described, the Dies Irae depicts the last trumpet on the Day of Judgment, where the saved are delivered and the damned cast into eternal flame. Of course, the verse itself came before it was set to a plainchant melody, which was written in the thirteenth century. Even so, it is one of the oldest recorded melodies in European history and was eventually incorporated into the Roman Catholic Mass. Here it is, in all its glory.



Of course, the Dies Irae text has been set to many things due to composers taking it upon themselves to write new music for the traditional Requiem Mass::

Verdi’s Dies Irae

Stravinsky’s Dies Irae

…but the above melody is the one that has found its way into common use as a quoted musical idea. Due to the descending nature of the line itself (and of course its conceptual origins), it has come to symbolize death, burial, doom and peril. And it’s not just in classical compositions, but also film and television scores, our modern-day avenue for the majority of professional composers.

Now that you have the musical idea firmly parked inside your brain, you’ll be able to find it in each one of these examples. I’ll start with the most obvious example, which is Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining. Wendy Carlos basically just took the Dies Irae, plugged it into a synthesizer and turned it into the movie’s main title (it’s even a full statement of the entire theme, which is rare):

Of course, this probably doesn’t impress you. “Kubrick always relies heavily on music already written in his films!” you say. Well, then, it’s time to bring out the big guns. Here’s a compilation of all the instances I’ve caught just in my own DVD collection that clearly contain at least the first portion of the Dies Irae, either as a solitary statement or as a motif that becomes developed in an interesting way. Notice how each scene involves death or the idea of death in some way.

It even creeps into television shows. Here is Kate’s theme from LOST, and the Winter is Coming theme from HBO’s Game of Thrones. See if you can spot a familiar influence:

Kate’s Theme

Winter is Coming Theme

The classical composers of old threw it into their works all the time as well. In particular, Rachmaninoff was in love with it, as it’s in the majority of his orchestral pieces:

Symphonic Dances

Isle of the Dead

Variation 24

Symphony No. 2 – Allegro Molto

It was a common joke back then that Paganini was amazing at playing the violin because he sold his soul to the devil, so the inclusion into Variation is rather tongue-and-cheek. There is always a reason for it to be in there, even if it’s just “this piece is about death.” Case in point:

Dance Macabre

Of course, the most famous example in classical music, the Witches’ Sabbath from Symphony Fantastique, depicting the narrator of the program piece after he has been beheaded and has descended into hell:

Songe d’une nuit de sabbat

Mahler used it in one of my favorite pieces ever, his Resurrection Symphony. In this case, the composer actually uses the first four notes to develop a full-fledged theme that recurs throughout the final movement:

Wieder sehr breit

Mit einem Male etwas wuchtiger

And one of my other favorite composers, Ottorino Respighi, used it in his Brazilian Impressions to illustrate that coming face-to-face with poisonous snakes don’t exactly give him an overwhelming sense of safety:


So there you have it! Now you can nerd out like me whenever that particular phraise pops out at you. Or, you could just enjoy music like a normal person. 😛