Unlike most kids leaving toddlerhood, Ramin Djawadi began playing the organ when he was 4 years old and growing up in Germany.
Today, he's the composer for HBO's hit show Game of Thrones, which wrapped up its seventh season on Sunday night. Now 42, Djawadi says the key to success is making something yours and believing in your work. "Find your own style, whatever it is," he says. "Whatever is inside you, bring that out. I think that's when you have something unique."
Djawadi has a long career of making epic music for popular titles, including composing for Iron Man, Clash of the Titans and Blade: Trinity. Here's a look at his creative and technical process in composing a hit score.
Obsessing over the technical
Djawadi started practicing the guitar when he was 11, and by the time he reached adolescence, he knew he wanted to be a film composer. He graduated from Berklee College of Music in Boston, and "out of sheer luck," landed the role of an apprentice for Hans Zimmer, who won an Oscar in 1995 for his music in The Lion King and was nominated for 9 others.
While working with Zimmer, Djawadi learned the technical side of composing. That was instrumental to his career because it taught him how movies and music were made, he said. "If [the producers] has sat me down right away and said 'write this piece,' I would have failed simply because I didn't know which buttons to push."
As an apprentice, he attended meetings between composers and movie executives and observed how a demo track was produced. As Djawadi began mastering the technical aspects of composing, he was able to assist with percussion arrangements, orchestral work, and eventually wrote his own music.
Creating the sound of Thrones
Before the first season of Game of Thrones aired in 2011, the program's co-creators and co-showrunners David Benioff and D.B. Weiss approached Djawadi about scoring the series. The pair showed him the first two episodes, detailed the major characters, plot points and then let Djawadi take the reins.
Djawadi says he was given plenty of creative freedom when it came to the music--mostly because he and the creators didn't stick to instruments from a certain time period. While Game of Thrones is set in a time with dragons, magic and icy zombies, the show's creators were open to using modern instruments.
Djawadi said the cello plays most prominently in the show's music, as its low, moody and fits the overall vibe of the program. Djawadi said the goal was to put the audience in the Game of Thrones world sonically, and to create sounds for characters that became recognizable. This helps connect viewers with the characters during certain scenes. However, in the sixth season, he was able to incorporate the piano into a piece of music for the first time.
Djawadi, who said he normally works in chronological order, often found he would start a season by writing a song that was featured prominently in later episodes. He explained that in the history of Game of Thrones, there isn't a lot of music at the start of a season, or there are very short songs that run about 20 seconds long. So he would create tunes that could be teased early in the season, and brought back for a large scene in a later episodes. He said this process helped him create and plant themes in the music.
The series was a hit when it premiered, along with Djawadi's music. He said Benioff and Weiss sent him rock and techno covers of his main theme song the day after the first episode aired. "I honestly didn't expect it would ever become this big," says Djawadi. "I really wanted to be part of it, and never once thought about it like, 'it's going to be so epic.'"
Marrying the music and the plot
Djawadi adds that working on Game of Thrones has helped shaped his style as a composer. Most people think of music in terms of what it says, but he's learned that it can guide the audience and be supportive of the plot. For instance, Djawadi used a glass harmonica when the characters are in the frosty north, to evoke sounds of ice. But he also uses warm sounds when the characters are down south. He said that it takes years and years of work to define yourself as an artist and find your style, and add that it's imperative to hold onto your creativity.
But don't bother asking him about any spoilers. Djawadi says he can keep the secrets of the show, even from his wife.