Saturday, May 4, 2019

The Memories of Music in Game of Thrones

By Alex Ludwig

This year is certain to test the Ironborn assertion, “What is dead may never die,” as three pillars of popular culture attempt to bring about a satisfying conclusion to their stories. The Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) just completed its “Infinity Saga,” after 22 films and 11 years; Game of Thrones (GoT) is in the midst of its eighth and final season; and in December, the Star Wars franchise, which began in 1977, will conclude its “Skywalker” saga.

All three of these endeavors demand a tremendous amount of time from the viewer: the nine Star Wars films will clock in at roughly 30 hours, while GoT and the MCU are nearly double that length. Given this investment, it is no coincidence that the musical design of these franchises looks for inspiration to a similarly immersive work of culture, Richard Wagner’s Der Ring des Nibelungen.

Wagner’s extensive use of leitmotifs, in which musical phrases represent people, places, and even emotions, is appropriated here in Game of Thrones so that people, places, and great houses all have their own musical material. Using Wagner’s Ring as a model, I examine the dramatic deployment of both diegetic and non-diegetic musical cues in a Game of Thrones episode titled, “A Knight of the Seven Kingdoms” (S8E2).

In many ways, this episode is unusual: most of the main characters are gathered in one place, awaiting the army of the dead; and it functions like a giant anticipation, or upbeat, for the upcoming battle. The episode avoids action in favor of quiet contemplation, and reunites many pairs of characters (and swords) that have been long separated.

Ramin Djawadi’s musical score, which combines both diegetic and non-diegetic cues, enhances these quiet moments with additional layers of information. In the first scene of the episode, Jaime Lannister—known as the Kingslayer—arrives in Winterfell, despite having fought against the forces assembled there nearly his entire life. He does so at great personal risk, which only subsides once Lady Brienne vouches for him. After this point, Djawadi includes a musical reference to Jaime’s past, a direct callback to the first statement of Jaime’s “Kingslayer” theme, heard in the episode titled, “Kissed By Fire” (S3E5).

This callback is made more powerful given its initial dramatic framework: in the past scene, Jaime has explained that he killed the Mad King to save the realm, draining the “Kingslayer” moniker of its power; additionally, this confession furthers Brienne’s understanding of Jaime, enhancing her admiration for him. Djawadi’s inclusion of this “Kingslayer” leitmotif here in S8E2 illustrates not only the growth of both Sir Jaime and Lady Brienne, but also the deep connection that they share.

“Kissed By Fire” is also referenced later in this episode, and in a much darker emotional context concerning Shireen Baratheon, the daughter of the fallen king Stannis. Earlier in the series, she has not only befriended Sir Davos Seaworth and Gilly, but also taught them to read. In “A Knight of the Seven Kingdoms,” these two characters come across a young girl suffering from greyscale—the same illness that afflicted Shireen. Beneath this interaction Djawadi supplies a musical quotation of a ballad, “It’s Always Summer Under the Sea,” that Shireen first sang in “Kissed By Fire.” This quotation is non-diegetic, so Davos and Gilly can’t hear it, but its appearance here confirms for the viewer that Davos and Gilly are thinking about Shireen.

Ironically, the screenwriter for this episode, Bryan Cogman mentioned in a podcast called Still Watching: Game of Thrones that an early draft of the script called for a long, static conversation about Shireen between Sir Davos and Gilly. Transforming this conversation into a seemingly innocuous interaction with a Shireen-like cipher allows the audience to discover a subtle, yet deeply emotional, moment of recognition.  

Near the end of the episode, Podrick Payne—formerly a squire for Tyrion Lannister, now working with Brienne of Tarth—sings a mournful ballad to a ragtag assortment of men who have just witnessed Lady Brienne’s ascension to the title of knight. This diegetic cue, performed first by the actor Daniel Portman in the scene and later by Florence + the Machine during the end credits, is simple, yet powerful in its dramatic impact. The music itself betrays a modal influence: sung by a solo male voice, the melody is characterized by an initial leap upward followed by a persistent repetition of the fifth scale degree; the consequent phrase is frequently decorated by the lowered third and sixth scale degrees. The somber music emphasizes the images on the screen, as the camera finds each member of the audience. Podrick’s singing becomes a voiceover as a montage quickly shows a series of couples, ending with Daenerys and Jon in the crypts below Winterfell.

This entire sequence amplifies the emotional heft of Jaime Lannister knighting Brienne as “Sir Brienne.” It functions like an opera's aria: halting the plot, the filmmakers pause on the characters as they consider the momentous occasion; similarly, the montage showing characters outside the room reinforces the emotionally fraught moments on the eve of an apocalyptic battle. By foregrounding this piece of diegetic music, the filmmakers provide time for both the characters and the viewing audience to process this iconic moment. (For more on the lyrics and their narrative function, see this Vox explainer.) Whether this song carries a narrative implication remains to be seen.

Nonetheless, the sonic signals in Ramin Djawadi’s score for this episode — including the diegetic song and two non-diegetic cues discussed above — exemplify the musically complex and multivalent opportunities available to an extensive franchise like Game of Thrones. Whether in leitmotivic recollections inspired by Wagner’s Ring Cycle or in diegetic performances that draw on mythology of the story, musical memories in Djawadi’s score for Game of Thrones are often essential elements in creating meaning and narrative for the viewer.

Alex Ludwig is an assistant professor of the liberal arts at the Berklee College of Music, where he teaches courses on film music, pop music, and string quartets.

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