The return of Game of Thrones won't feel real until the cello drops. This Sunday, when the eighth and final season premieres, thousands of fans will hum along at home with composer Ramin Djawadi's main theme, which, to date, has been covered by countless YouTube musicians, school choirs, Weird Al Yankovic, and cats.
But while the music of Game of Thrones has evolved over the past eight years, it has always been anchored by the cello, the heavy use of which singles the show out among fantasy scores and elevates it to a league of its own.
Fans have long sung the praises of Djawadi, who is responsible for favorites like "Rains of Castamere" and "Mhysa," although he achieved new heights after season six's incredible musical finale (Djawadi has reportedly amassed some 2.5 million streams on Spotify, a few hundred of which, I imagine, are my own). Scarcity was perhaps the mother of invention for the composer, who makes no secret in interviews about the showrunners having imposed a "no flutes" rule on him. It was a wise call: Music for fantasy movies and television tends to be so generic that it is possible for composers to release hour-long recordings of medieval "inn and city" music on YouTube and have them sound ridiculously familiar.
The cello, then, is the ideal instrument to differentiate Game of Thrones. Technically speaking, it has the versatility to fit the emotions of a complicated plot, reaching the soaring highs used in "Mother of Dragons," conveying the frosty loneliness of the Starks' themes, and making up the deep, determined backbone of tracks like "Winds of Winter." Bringing the bow close to the instrument's bridge, a technique called sul ponticello, creates what Djawadi told WQRX is the "glassy" or "nasally" sound he likes for north of the Wall, while the opposite, sul tasto, is summery, rich and honeyed. The cello is as capable at conveying emotion as it is describing Westeros' geography.
Then there is the deployment of the cello themes. Djawadi folds the main Game of Thrones intro music into "Mother of Dragons," which serves to aurally suggest Daenerys Targaryen's growing strength and signpost a significant plot development. It plays, for example, during season two when she takes revenge on the merchant Xaro for selling her and her dragons to the House of the Undying's warlock Pyat Pree. That's just one memorable instance; there are over 30 different recorded variations on the main cello theme in various songs throughout the show, all of which help build excitement when recognized by audiences. This scene must be significant, the resurfacing cello motifs suggest.
String sections are admittedly still common across fantasy scores, but what Djawadi sidesteps with the cello in particular is falling into using certain sounds as a crutch. When writing hundreds of hours of music, it might otherwise have been tempting to reach for the quaint whimsy of a pipe or the easy drama of a choir. "We ... made sure not to automatically fall into that Celtic feel," Djawadi told The Hollywood Reporter. "We can have it a little, but as soon as it goes into that — I don't want to say cliché — but that folky sound, we always said, let's not get too far down that road." Consider, in contrast, the recurring Hobbit theme in the Lord of the Rings trilogy, which uses a tin whistle and a harp for "that Celtic feel" described by Djawadi, as well as the flute and women's choir used to hoist the Chronicles of Narnia soundtrack to grand and epic heights:
The cello can achieve the same coziness or drama as a flute or choir, but by focusing on one instrument, Djawadi creates musical cohesion for the show — which is especially welcome given how multi-pronged the storylines are. Imagine if each character was signified by a different instrument, Peter and the Wolf-style; it'd be a cacophony.
The use of the cello also gives Game of Thrones its own identity. For one thing, the cello is naturally a deeper and more mournful instrument than, say, a flute— a quality Djawadi likes because the cello then emphasizes the darkness of the show. The instrument also mirrors the interplay of characters, with the cello sounding just as good solo (in the case of Daenerys' theme and Jon's) as it does when forming a relationship with other sounds, like with the higher violin in the main theme. The interplay of the cello with other instruments and themes is so precise that fans have used it to try to figure out which characters will end up together.
The best example of the cello's versatility and the unique flavor it brings to Game of Thrones, though, comes with the descending glissando before Daenerys orders her dragons to burn someone to death. The resulting sound is so unique that many fans have understandably mistaken the motif for a sound the dragons are making. The cello is loose and reptilian, but also deliciously ominous in its tonal downward tumble. After a few uses throughout the show at pivotal points, the effect is Pavlovian by season seven. The "Dracarys" glissando becomes more than just a part of the score; it's a bonafide harbinger of draconic mayhem. (You can hear for yourself at the 1:50 mark below.)
Even composing so heavily on just one instrument, Djawadi is able to capture all the narrative themes of Game of Thrones. "The low tones have this rich sound to it," Djawadi said in the interview with WQRX, suggesting such notes convey power, wealth, or nobility. Then "when you get into the higher violin range ... it gets more difficult up there. It's sort of a struggle." The clash of kings, played out on a fingerboard.
You don't need to understand the cello, though, for it to bring you chills. All you need are ears and that first opening thrum.