Dragons will come and go, it seems, but the main themes of Westeros stay the same. The opening of “House of the Dragon” embraces its televisionary sire’s thundering drums, armies of strings, and melodic refrains that loop like the turning of the Earth. In fact, there’s a fair bit of music throughout HBO’s follow-up to “Game of Thrones” that remains exactly the same. But that is in no small part because Ramin Djawadi’s score works almost like a narrator for the events surrounding the battles, old and new, for the Iron Throne. Whenever the main title theme hits — whether it’s the full-throated version in opening credits or an echo of part of the refrain, nested subtly inside a character’s theme as they make a play for power — it invites us to admire and dread what’s happening in a way no virtuoso camera move or shock of gore across the screen ever can.
“I feel people really pay attention very closely to the score in the show,” Djawadi told IndieWire. “So it can be a really good tool [for guiding the audience]. You can enhance things to feel a certain way, or you can just mislead them completely so that when there’s a turn — which, we know on ‘Game of Thrones,’ a turn can always happen — the surprise will [be even more impactful], and the music can be a big part of that.” Djawadi’s themes have formed a wordless but intuitive language for the original show’s viewers, not just for particular characters or locations but for ideas and forces in the world. Whenever the textured, almost primal electric cello strings of the show’s dragon theme drift across the soundtrack, it offers the promise of fire and blood no matter what’s happening onscreen. Even in moments of somber stillness, as in the funeral scene in “House of the Dragon’s” first episode, those long, archly plaintive notes speak to the alien power the Targaryens have access to, and the unpredictability of how they might use it.
The choice to build on the audience’s familiarity and play with our expectations, rather than trying to invent a whole new language, is one that allows for Djawadi and the show’s creators to nest a lot of emotional richness into outwardly simple sequences. The score keeps pace with the visual narrative, too, in the instrumental turns that allow Djawadi to find shockingly fresh new gears. “It’s been a lot of fun to be back writing more themes, more material, just more,” Djawadi said. “Obviously in the original show, after six seasons, we used the piano for the first time and it had this massive impact,” Djawadi said — a reference to “The Light of The Seven,” the accompaniment to Cersei Lannister’s explosive grasp for power in the sixth-season finale, “The Winds of Winter.”
“[With ‘House of The Dragon’], we thought, well, because people know about the piano now, why not just drop in the first episode right away?.”
“House of the Dragon” itself needs to set up the power players for an eventual civil war between Targaryens and their very powerful dragons, but Djawadi uses the musical ideas set in “Game of Thrones” in order to underline that internal strife. Because when we can hear something even just slightly different in a melody we already know, we can pick up on the festering discord in the court of King Viserys (Paddy Considine). When the Western/Westerosi standoff between Prince Daemon (Matt Smith) and Hand of the King Otto Hightower (Rhys Ifans) in Episode 2 is disrupted by the timely arrival of Princess Rhaenyra (Milly Alcock), the Targaryen string progression gives an almost mournful, subtle hint that no one’s heart is really committed to a cause here.
But Djawadi is also adding musical vocabulary to the new series and finding new musical identities for its characters. Just like the original series, which eventually spun off distinct melodies for Arya Stark and Jon Snow from the heart of Stark theme, Viserys and Rhaenyra are finding their musical identities slowly, as they struggle to maintain their roles as king and heir, and the echos of the Targaryen and king themes used for them get melded with the piano and choral elements that so often presage destruction. “There’s a part of Rhaenyra’s theme that we heard in Episode 2 [that has] a vocal in it, which I find very interesting, because I hadn’t really done that much of that in ‘Game of Thrones,'” Djawadi said. “So that’s a new part of the sound palette and that’s been fun to write. I’m still looking creatively [for if there is] something that I haven’t used that could be fitting for this character or this family. Obviously we want to keep the ‘Game of Thrones’ DNA alive so the cello is still the primary instrument. But there’s definitely some new elements.”
One of the key differences between the score for “Game of Thrones” and the score for “House of the Dragon” is a total instrumental swap. “In ‘Game of Thrones,’ it actually was always the cello or the violin and the only time I really used the viola was for the ‘Jenny of Oldstones‘ piece,” Djawadi said. “This season, it’s all cello and viola. There is no violin, actually. I’ve run down lower in the register. I like to push the cello up into the violin range [because] there is a thickness to it up higher than the violin and I like that sound. It’s the same with the viola — obviously the viola can play lower than the violin, but even if the viola plays higher, it has a different timbre.”
The different timbre is fitting for this different era in history: A time when some of the old norms of Westeros are still in place, populated by a different set of characters whose expectations and values aren’t so colored by the coming winter. Rhaenyra Targaryen is haunted much more by the monsters who hold prejudices against her sex than by ice zombies. “It’s dark but it’s very emotional,” Djawadi said of the score. “So I’m excited about [the show’s Season 2 renewal] because there is such a setup in this season and the thought of being able to push that further is exciting.”
A roadmap for the ways in which Djawadi will keep pushing the score is already apparent in the first track released for “House of the Dragon,” titled “The Prince That Was Promised.” The textured thickness that Djawadi creates in the music has a kind of melancholy weight to it; the heaviness of the sound speaks to how man-made much of the tragedy is here and the recursiveness to the melodic phrases echo the cycles of violence that (most of) the characters can’t escape. And snuck in underneath the main melody at the very end is, of course, the show’s main title theme, reminding us how for better and for worse, the game of thrones is never over.