SPOILER ALERT! This article will go in depth into season 6, episode 10 so if you haven’t seen it yet, you might not want to read it.
Ramin Djawadi’s seminal work for Game of Thrones has consistently been an exemplary instance of what television music can accomplish. Brilliantly capturing the ambition of film scoring and bringing it to the small screen, Djawadi has brought a sense of scale to the show that really distinguishes it from other programmes. Moreover, his genius use of motifs for each of the show’s competing houses subtly functions to chart character journeys and also the shifting power dynamics between the families of Westeros. It’s truly stunning stuff, yet often it has had to take a back-seat in favour of the dialogue and the visuals.
There are a few exceptions to this of course, from ‘The Rains of Castamere’s’ inclusion in The Red Wedding, to ‘The Children’s’ eponymous closing track. Generally however, Djawadi has let his incidental music be just that; incidental. It is perhaps for this reason, that the ‘Light of the Seven’ sequence from the Season 6 finale has struck a chord with so many people. In a series so often driven by its eloquent dialogue, it’s one of only a handful of moments that has truly let the music come to the forefront. A protracted Godfather esque montage, the sequence focuses on the execution of Cersei Lannisters’ plan to wipe out the Faith Militant in King’s Landing. Cutting back and forth between the scheming villain, a brutal assassination, the discovery of wildfire beneath the city, and the Sept that Cersei plans to destroy with it, it’s a very elaborate but also elegant piece of television. And most unusually for Game of Thrones, it goes by almost completely without dialogue.
Instead, it is up to Djwadi’s score to connect the lines of action and build suspense, something which required an entirely new musical cue. The resulting track, entitled ‘Light of the Seven’, is one of the show’s most impressive to date, and stands out amongst a library of incredibly strong pieces. This brief analysis of how the music works in the sequence will be easier to understand if you’ve actually seen the episode, so make sure you do that first. Or don’t. I can’t tell you what to do.
The track signals its uniqueness right from the off, by implementing the use of piano, a timbre that we’ve never encountered on Game of Thrones before. Just let that sink in for a minute. We’ve had 6 seasons of this show and countless hours of music, yet this is the first time that Djawadi has ever brought out the piano (he did use the organ a little in Season 5 however). For someone who really pays attention to the score, it’s a really striking addition, one that signals that something important and groundbreaking is about to go down.
As the sequence begins, we watch various people prepare for Cersei’s trial, the different lines of action all unified by a simple 4 note piano movement. It’s a very elegant motif, one that is both sedate, but also vaguely tragic, thanks to the way that Djawadi allows each note to linger for a second or two. This deliberate pacing, combined with the gradually decreasing pitch of the notes, creates a very uneasy feeling as the sequence starts up. At this point we don’t quite know what is going on, but the music is telling us that something dramatic is just around the corner.
Then we arrive at the second piano movement, which is far more melodic and faster in tempo. It is introduced as events truly set in motion, with the faith militant discovering that Cersei is absent from her own trial. The High Sparrow thus commands Lancel to go to the Red Keep and bring Cersei to the Sept, whilst he and Margaery await her arrival. We follow Lancel as he moves out onto the streets, at which point he is distracted by a young child running into the tunnels beneath the city. We now have the separate lines of action that this sequence will revolve around (Lancel under the city and the trial in the Sept). The melodic piano motif once again serves to imply a connection between these events, but it also builds upon the tension established by the 4 note movement at the beginning. Despite having an elegant tune, the remorseful tone of the piano creates a foreboding atmosphere. This is emphasised even further by the incredibly sparse texture of the soundtrack, as the lack of any other instrumentation gives the sorrowful piano an unnerving dominance over proceedings.
Then things start to get dark, and they get dark fast. We cut to Grand Maester Pycelle as he enters into Qyburn’s chambers, where he is about to be ambushed and assassinated by a mob of children. This is the first step in Cersei’s murderous scheme, and it’s also the point where the initial feeling of unease gives way to full-on, hitchcockian tension-building. With this moment, comes the last stage in the piano’s journey, a final motif that is of a much lower pitch and equally lower tempo. This has a significantly darker sound than the music that preceded it, emphasising the disturbing nature of what is about to transpire. Then, when we hear a knife unsheath from off camera, the music momentarily cuts out. Pycelle turns around and sees his assassin staring him down. The camera then tracks up, unveiling this killer to be a small child holding a blade.
With this revelation, comes the first new addition to the soundtrack; a choir. Actually, it’s not a full choir, it’s only two voices, which is a point that I’ll come back to. The choir serves a few functions. Firstly, and most obviously, the vocals connect neatly with the image of children, reflecting their presence in the narrative. It’s a blatant connection I know, but it’s one that needs to be made. Secondly, when used appropriately, the audio qualities of choirs can be really disturbing. There can be something very unsettling about the high pitched harmonies of their voices, which is used to good effect here. Of course, this isn’t a full choir, it’s just two singers as I said before. That’s obviously an intentional decision, even if it would go unnoticed by many people, but in my mind it makes sense. Choirs are traditionally used for very large scale, majestic scenes in film and TV, and in a more restrained sequence like this, it could potentially be a little overbearing. Using just two children means that you still get the creepy atmosphere and sombre tone, but you get it in a more subdued and graceful way. The sequence is constantly building upon itself, adding new musical elements with the introduction of each narrative beat. To climax early on with a full choir would therefore ruin the pacing and feeling of escalation that makes the montage so successful.
Anyway, this choir then carries the next chunk of the action, as Lancel follows the young child undergound, whilst Pycelle is surrounded by a group of children. The choir is generally the dominant element here, but the piano is retained and strings are also added in order to keep up the momentum whilst we cut between the two scenes. It’s here that the texture of the music becomes noticeably thicker, as more musical components are added, and everything gets more and more complicated.
Speaking of things being added to the mix, as soon as Pycelle is brutally stabbed by the children, we have the introduction of the organ. Now it’s hard to think of an instrument with more lofty associations than the organ, it being the go-to instrument for celebrations of faith and also supposedly the most technically sophisticated instrument in the world. It thus has a very distinct presence that can overshadow a lot of other sounds. This is something that Djawadi clearly capitalizes on, using it to add a dramatic flair to Pycelle’s murder.
Indeed, the organ definitely has the most bombastic sections of the track, as it is used again when Lancel is assaulted by another child agent. At this point, we get what is essentially an organ solo, in which the volume and tempo of the music rapidly increases. This creates a sense of urgency, as now that Cersei’s plan is properly under way, we become eager to know what comes next. It is also worth noting that the organ solo briefly implements a variation of the show’s main theme, recalling the title sequence. By quoting the main theme, Djawadi invites us to make a connection between the global scale of the titles and Cersei’s plan. In short, he’s telling us (in a very economic way) that this moment is important and will go on to have severe implications for Westeros at large.
With Pycelle killed, and Lancel left bleeding to death on the floor, we then return to the Sept, where Margaery is concerned about Cersei’s absence. At this point, the opening piano motif plays again, abruptly disrupting the escalating music to return us to an earlier point of calm. This is an intentionally frustrating move, defying our expectations by cutting the music short and not letting it reach a natural crescendo. This delay in the soundtrack adds to the unbearable sense of tension, as just when things were building up, they have been cut short.
However, it is not too long before we cut back to Lancel, as he discovers the explosive cache of wildfire beneath the Sept, with a candle burning down threatening to ignite the explosive substance. It is now that we understand how all of these events connect together, as in one cunning move Cersei aims to wipe out all of her opponents. When the candle eventually melts, the flame will cause the wildfire to explode, killing Lancel and everyone in the Sept above.
With everything finally coming together, the musical elements similarly begin to converge one by one. This process begins when Lancel is crawling through the darkness, at which point the strings return, with a much more rhythmic articulation than before. Then, as Margaery explains that Cersei is obviously planning something, the unnerving piano motif is re-added to the mix. Next, when the wildfire is revealed, the erratic organ returns and begins to smother the other audio elements. Once Lancel realizes what is about to happen, he starts to crawl towards the wildfire in an attempt to put out the candle, and with this development another section of strings is added to the increasingly hectic soundtrack.
With the jeopardy now established, the visual editing becomes much more frenetic, and the rate of intercutting between Lancel and the trial increases dramatically. It’s textbook tension building, as we flick back and forth between those endangered by the explosion and the man trying to save them. Accentuating this feeling of urgency, the music becomes louder, faster and the various instruments begin to overlap chaotically. All of the different themes that have been used thus far, from the melodic piano motif, to the slower, darker piece, right through to the title theme, merge together creating a dramatic collection of crescendos that synthesise in the most powerful way imaginable. It’s because Djawadi has been allowed 7 whole minutes in which to develop all of these themes that this climax is so effectively nail-biting,
Finally, as the people in the Sept panic and try to flee, and everything reaches an unbearable level of suspense, we are left only with the fervent strings and the occasionally appearance of the organ. We know that any second now the explosion could occur, wiping out everyone in the Sept, so the stakes are incredibly high. To reflect this, the pitch and the tempo of both the violins and organ rises to an almost intolerable level, inducing a palpable sense of anxiety in the viewer. Then, when it becomes clear that Lancel has failed, the music abruptly stops, and the anticipated explosion occurs, killing hundreds of people.
Now I know that was a lot of description, but it’s a very complex sequence, in which the musical dynamics are constantly shifting. New instruments come and go. The tempo frequently accelerates and decelerates. The pitch rises and falls, and certain themes repeat and merge together. It’s very sophisticated, and it all contributes to building an unparalleled sense of tension, giving the sequence it’s distinctly cinematic feel. It’s such a wonderful thing to witness in television, which is a medium that in the past traditionally treated music as an afterthought.
In fact, this moment almost single-handedly demonstrates that music in television is something that should be taken seriously. Gone are the days of shows reusing blocks of music or simply taking stock pieces in order to keep the budget down. Instead, we now have music spotted and composed with specific scenes in mind.
With Game of Thrones, Ramin Djawadi has shown just how much a show can benefit from tailored music of this kind. Here we have a soundtrack brilliantly corroborating with the visual components in such a wonderfully synchronized way. It is a great moment, one that is of a kind so rare in television, in which music is not only allowed to take the centre stage, but actively drive the narrative. The reason that this sequence has grabbed the attention of so many people, is that they realize just how powerful a score can be when it is allowed to take a central role and be more than just the background to drama. They see how emotionally resonant music can be if it’s given the chance to develop and evolve over a sustained period or sequence. Personally, I can only hope that Djawadi is afforded more opportunities to be this adventurous and creative in the final seasons of Game of Thrones, as it would really help to elevate the storytelling to new heights.
Written and Read by: Harrison Abbott
Edited by: Jack Gracie