Bustle Mixtape

Ramin Djawadi Is Living Out His Dreams

The film & TV composer reflects on his inspirations, culture, and Game of Thrones.

by Rebecca Long
Ramin Djawadi , the composer of the 'House of the Dragon' score and the soundtrack cover colage
Matt Martin, HBO

Growing up in Germany in the 1980s, Ramin Djawadi used to take his father’s cassette tapes of Middle Eastern music into his room to transcribe them or play along on his guitar. “We always had music on in the house, and all different kinds of musical styles,” Djawadi tells Bustle. “Maybe that's actually what made me go into film music. Every meal, we had the radio on.”

But Djawadi almost chose a very different professional path. “My dad was a doctor, and I was supposed to become a doctor,” he says. Ultimately, Djawadi decided to follow his passion and enrolled at Berklee College of Music. His ascent in the world of score composing happened quickly upon graduating after he gained the attention of famed composer Hans Zimmer and quickly began writing background music for film. In addition to writing the now iconic music for Game of Thrones, Djawadi has scored films and TV shows like Westworld, A Wrinkle in Time, and Eternals. “I still pinch myself every once in a while and just go, ‘Wow, I'm actually living my dream,’” he says.

Three years since the polarizing finale of Game of Thrones, the composer now finds himself back in George R. R. Martin’s world of ice and fire with House of the Dragon. “It kind of took me a minute to get my head around it again,” Djawadi says of composing new music within the Thrones universe. “It's 10 years that I've been working in this world.” And with House of the Dragon’s popularity, he’s poised to spend even more time in Westeros.

Below, Djawadi discusses the choice to reuse the Game of Thrones opening title score for House of the Dragon, his love of ‘80s music, and how synesthesia impacts his writing process.

On Game of Thrones & House of the Dragon

What did you find most challenging about returning to the sonic world of Game of Thrones?

Finding that happy medium between continuing the original DNA of the show and making sure it all is connected, but then, of course, setting up all the new themes and motifs and creating that continuity and that expansion on the story.

How did you ensure House of the Dragon still sounded like Game of Thrones, while making it also sound new (or, in this case, old)?

Sonically, it's very close to the original sound. The cello is still the primary instrument in general. There have been some minor adjustments that some people might notice: For example, I have not really used the solo violin. Instead, I’ve changed to the viola, so it's a little bit lower in range and a different tambor. And I've introduced some new instruments. There are some ethnic bamboo flutes that I'm using. There are some woodwinds here and there for texture. I’m searching for some of the few instruments that I haven't used yet in that world to see if I can make use of them in the show.

Can you walk us through the choice to use the same Game of Thrones theme for House of the Dragon?

Because there are so many new things about it, the overall idea was to glue this all together and make you feel right back at home. And, in [Game of Thrones], the main theme was always referred to as the theme that goes with every character and every plot. And the same is the case in [House of the Dragon]. So that’s why we felt like, “Why not?”

But then I have written so many new themes and motifs. Working with the showrunners Ryan Condal and Miguel Sapochnik, we’d look at a scene and go, “Is this a place for a new theme, or should we bring back the old ‘King’s Theme’?” It's kind of cool to have that option. Obviously, we’re using the “Dragon Theme” here and there because that's another theme for the Targaryens.

Do you have a favorite theme from this season of House of the Dragon?

I've always struggled with finding a favorite. There are several themes that surround [Rhaenyra]. Whenever it comes to those, I get really excited. There's the one at the end of Episode 1, which is not really her theme, but it plays with the coronation. And then there are two other themes that, depending on the setting, get used for her.

On Scoring Video Games & Going On Tour

You’ve scored video games, like Medal of Honor, before. How does scoring a game differ from scoring a film or show?

The one big difference in video games compared to TV and movies is that a majority of the music that gets written is not synced to picture. [Gameplay] cannot be synced because you don't know how the player is going to react and how long they will spend in a certain area. So you're asked to write two minutes of tension or two minutes of action and capture the mood. It’s actually freeing because you're not bound to “Oh, I have to cut this short now because the picture changed.”

From 2017 to 2019, you conducted the Game of Thrones Live Concert Experience. Did you enjoy touring? Would you consider a concert series for House of the Dragon?

I absolutely loved it. It was always a dream of mine to go on tour. Before I got into the film business, I played in bands and I performed. I love that — it's such a different thing than being in a studio and writing. Being in front of an audience is very special. We did a European tour. We did the U.S. tour. I never imagined that it would have been on that scale. We had a different orchestra in almost every city. So meeting all these musicians and working with them and rehearsing, it was a blast. Doing it with House of the Dragon? I guess it's a little bit too early to tell. You know, we’re one season in. But never say never.

On Squid Game & Being A ‘80s Kid

What score do you wish you had written?

I got inspired by Elmer Bernstein's Magnificent Seven [soundtrack]. When I saw that movie and when I heard that score — how the themes were attached to characters and how that all played out — it was so memorable. That’s when I discovered the whole world of film music that really inspired me. And then, of course, John Williams’ Star Wars.

What are your favorite TV shows right now?

Squid Game was something I went crazy for. When it came out, I was kind of late, and everybody started talking about it, so I looked it up and started watching it. I was hooked — every night, I had to watch it. But other than that, I'm way behind.

What was the first album you bought?

I don't know the name, but it was a compilation album of ‘80s pop songs. One, in particular, was Culture Club’s “Do You Really Want to Hurt Me?” I was such an ‘80s kid. I loved it. All the music right now is based on the ‘80s.

On Synesthesia & Writing Music With His Kids

You’re from Germany and of Iranian descent. Does your heritage impact your compositions at all?

Oh, big time. When I write music, I never really think about it. You just do it [laughs]. I've always struggled with explaining my process. But once I started analyzing it a bit more, I realized, “Now I understand where that comes from.” I was heavily surrounded by classical music, Western music, and pop music. Then I got into rock music, but my dad also listened to Middle Eastern music. I don't speak the language, but the instrumental violin music really influenced me.

In Middle Eastern music, a lot of the rhythms are in 3/4 and 6/8. It's not the 4/4 rhythm that’s common in Western music. I've noticed when I write my music that a lot of it is in those meters. The main title for Game of Thrones is in 6/8, and the Westworld main title is in 12/8. So there's a lot of those subdivision rhythms that naturally come out of me.

You experience synesthesia. What colors do you see in the House of the Dragon opening title score?

It doesn't work like that exactly. It's very tricky to explain. I didn't think about this before. My wife kind of discovered [I have synesthesia] because she asked me, “When you write music, what do you see?” And I said, “Well, this is this color, and this triggers that.” I didn't even know there was a term for that, actually.

I associate colors with notes or keys. For House of the Dragon, there's a lot of red and yellow and orange. C, for me, is red. So that tends to guide me to red a lot. E is yellow. But it's not as simple as just a single note, obviously. Maybe that's why I ended up with film music because I write to visuals a lot. So having all these colors is a big inspiration for me.

What’s your most unexpected source of inspiration when writing music?

It changes quite a bit. Right now, it’s my kids. They're so into music. We bounce musical ideas back and forth all day long. I might have to co-credit them at some point. At night, when they go to bed, I'll grab the guitar, and we'll start singing and making up songs together. When they come into my studio, we’ll start tinkering. I do this thing with my son where we sit at the piano together and write music. It's been so great to see the development of how they embrace music and how they understand music more and more.

How old are they?

They’re twins — a boy and a girl. They’re going to be 9 in November.

That’s such a great age because their imaginations are boundless.

Yeah, because they can't play instruments that well yet, they sing a lot, so there's a lot of freedom to that and purity with kids. They’re also very good with making up lyrics, which I can't do at all, so I'm already jealous.

This interview was edited and condensed for clarity.

Top Image Credits: Matt Martin, HBO