The composer Ramin Djawadi approached the solemn tune from “A Knight of the Seven Kingdoms” as Elton John would a set of lyrics.
It might be Westeros’s heroes’ last night alive: Time for wine, time for conversation, and time for a song. When Tyrion Lannister called for music amid a fireside chat with comrades in the latest Game of Thrones episode, “A Knight of the Seven Kingdoms,” it was the shy squire Podrick Payne who answered his call. “High in the halls of the kings who are gone,” he sang in an unexpectedly delicate, pretty voice, “Jenny would dance with her ghosts.”
Those words, from the second book of George R. R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire series, compose the opening line of “Jenny of Oldstones,” a song that’s referenced throughout the Martin saga. In Westeros history, Jenny was a common woman whom Duncan Targaryen fell in love with and married, thus triggering a war (he’d been betrothed to a Baratheon princess) and abdicating his claim to the throne (making way for the line of succession that would lead to the fall of House Targaryen). Jenny believed herself to be descended from the First Men, the ancient race who first populated the continent.
Martin’s books didn’t specify the full lyrics of the song, but the showrunners David Benioff and D. B. Weiss filled in the blanks for the latest Thronesepisode. Podrick sings of Jenny dancing with the ghosts of those she’d loved and lost “through the day / And into the night through the snow that swept through the hall / From winter to summer and winter again / ’Til the walls did crumble and fall.” As he sings, viewers see a series of tender moments between characters amid preparation for humanity’s stand against the army of the dead.
The song’s slow and lilting melody was written by Ramin Djawadi, the composer for all of Thrones’ music, including the thrumming title theme and the string-laden episodic scores. Only a few other examples of lyrical (and diegetic) tunes have shown up previously on Thrones: “The Rains of Castamere,” the Lannister war song, and “The Bear and the Maiden Fair,” a bawdy drinking tune. I met with Djawadi last year for a glimpse at his process, and after hearing the new song—as well as its haunting cover by Florence and the Machine—I spoke with him again, this time about the musical material heard thus far in Thrones’ final season. This conversation has been edited.
Spencer Kornhaber: Tell me about your assignment for “Jenny of Oldstones.”
Ramin Djawadi: That came together like some of the other songs we’ve done in the past, like “Rains of Castamere.” The song was written into the show, so they needed this piece before they were shooting. Normally I come in after the episodes were shot. But this one, they gave me the lyrics and said, “Write us a song.”
Kornhaber: How do you approach writing a song with lyrics when most of your music is instrumental?
Djawadi: It’s definitely different because I already have something preexisting. I try to find the rhythm within the lyrics and put a melody to it where, when you sing the song, it just feels natural. A lot of times, you’d think the song comes first and then you put lyrics to it, but there are definitely occasions—Elton John being a very famous example—where the lyrics exist before.
Kornhaber: So you read the lyrics and hear music in them. How would you describe the mood, the tone, that you felt the words called for?
Djawadi: Definitely something somber. Obviously it’s the night before the big expected battle. It’s haunting and lonely. Those things that go on in your head when you think, Are we going to die? That’s what I was going for.
Kornhaber: Florence Welch said it reminded her of “a Celtic folk song.” When you’re writing a song that’s supposed to exist within the world of the show, do you look to any historical sources or styles of music that seem like what they’d be singing in Westeros?
Djawadi: Not really. In fact, it’s quite the opposite. We’ve done it with the score as well: I try to stay away from something that you might expect from a medieval time. Obviously it can’t be a song that’s so contemporary in terms of harmony and melody that it feels completely out of place. But also I don’t want to write it specifically, stylistically, for medieval times. I just try to come up with a melody that is hummable and memorable.
I love [Welch’s] version of it. It’s beautifully performed. The version I sent to her was very stripped down, and she did an amazing interpretation.
Kornhaber: What did you think of the voice of Daniel Portman, the actor who plays Podrick?
Djawadi: I was really impressed. His version is very toned down and, in fact, the harmonies in that version I simplified even more from how I originally had written the song. I almost wanted him to sing it a cappella. Florence’s version is like I originally wrote it, with more chord changes.
Kornhaber: Do you think the lyrics are reflecting anything going on in the show, or is this just the song that happened to come into Podrick’s mind?
Djawadi: That’s open to interpretation, right? Clearly the relationship dilemma with Jon and Daenerys you could relate to Duncan and Jenny. Now that [Jon] knows who he is, and Dany knows who he is, you can draw a comparison to the conflict or the decision to come.
Kornhaber: The other powerful musical moment in that episode came with Brienne’s knighting. What are we hearing in that scene?
Djawadi: That is actually a theme that we had used for Jaime and Brienne before: the “Honor” theme. We’ve used it in other moments when somebody does something honorable, [like] when the Hound buries the bodies in that house [in Season 7, Episode 1]. It’s one of my favorites. It’s such a beautiful and emotional theme we don’t get to use as much.
Kornhaber: So it’s a theme tied not to a character but rather to an abstract concept. What are the show’s other themes like that?
Djawadi: One we had kind of became the Littlefinger theme. We called it the “Conspiracy” theme. In the early seasons, there was a lot of backstabbing going on—I guess it’s the opposite of the “Honor” theme.
Djawadi: That was just a fun scene. It’s playful in a way, but also very powerful because he’s learning to ride the dragon. The arrangement was big, with percussion. There’s a hint of danger.
What was interesting in Episode 1 was that a lot of the themes had callbacks to Season 1. For example, when Bran and Jaime meet at the very end of the episode, that definitely is a callback to the original, from their first interaction. Jon and Dany arriving at the beginning with their army was a callback to the king’s arrival from Season 1. Obviously the footage is very similar—how everybody in Winterfell was lined up—so we drew similarities to the original cue there.
Kornhaber: Did you write any other original songs for this last season?
Djawadi: Every season, I’ve developed existing themes, and there’s always been room to write some new material and new themes. We definitely have that as well this season. I can say that much.
Kornhaber: Have any of those new themes shown up in these two episodes?
Djawadi: I don’t think so. It’s coming.