Music in Game of Thrones: S08E03 ‘The Long Night’

**MAJOR SPOILERS**

Sound & Music in Part One

There is a LOT to talk about musically/sonically in this episode. Given that ‘The Long Night’ is pretty much the length of a feature film, this is gonna be a long one! If you’re here for an analysis of just ‘The Night King’, then scroll down because I analyse that separately.

‘The Long Night’ is an episode seemingly completely designed to make you listen. That most of the episode played out in near-darkness has divided opinion — sure it’s supposed to evoke the chaos of battle whilst also being a metaphor for the world sliding into darkness, but does that offset the incredible irritation of not having a clue what’s going on from one minute to the next? Jury’s out, but what it did do incredibly effectively was make the sound one of the best ways to orientate yourself throughout most of the episode. 

So although I usually talk pretty exclusively about the music, quite a bit of this post is going to be about sound design. Until the final few minutes, the majority of ‘The Long Night’ is dominated less by music and more by Paula Fairfield’s phenomenal sound design (you can watch interviews with her here). 

Let’s take the opening of the episode. For the most part, it lacks music. The audience, like the Winterfell army, has pretty much no idea about the battle position of the dead. It’s pitch black, we sure as hell aren’t going to see them. So we have to listen for any clues, and for signs that they’re approaching. It’s the sound design that’s the most important thing here, not the music. And Fairfield gives us the sound of horses, wind, the dragons… 

The whole start of the battle is played out mainly in sound, with very little in the way of visuals. We don’t see the Dothraki begin their charge. We hear them shouting in the background as Melisandre and Davos talk, and at this point Djawadi comes in with a variant of the main title theme. The title theme is only really used for events that are of real narrative significance, often impacting on multiple plot arcs simultaneously — this is where the battle really kicks off. Musically, it sounds like the living might stand some chance.

But the Dothraki charge into darkness. (Which, while we’re at it, has to go down as the most incompetent military strategy ever conceived. Why send your cavalry into the unknown against a literal zombie army?!) We never find out what happens to them. They run into a wall of…something? And then the music cuts out entirely. The sounds diminish as the lights from their flaming arakhs drop off, leaving us again straining to hear anything that will give a clue about what happened. 

A similar technique is used again, really effectively, when Arya is hiding in the Winterfell library.  She and the audience are listening for the most minute sounds, because her life depends on hearing where the walkers are. As well as Arya’s breathing we hear scraping, clunks and clanks. Part of the reason these sounds are so scary is because we can’t see what’s creating them, and we only have some sense of how close they are. This is called acousmatic sound — sounds where you can’t see the source. Beloved of all horror movies, acousmatic sound is used whenever you really want to put viewers on the edge of their seats. So it’s perfect for Arya’s life or death library trip.

Another musical technique that’s designed to get the edge-of-your-seat, heart-racing response is the heartbeat sounds that are used throughout many of the battle scenes. When Jorah rides back from the Dothraki charge, a sound like a heartbeat begins, accelerating as the shrieks of the dead get louder. The increasing-heartrate-technique is another horror classic, getting the audience to empathise with (and perhaps feel) the characters’ fear and tension as the dead approach.

Likewise the ticking-clock noise that’s used from the point where the dead cross the flaming trench. As soon as it becomes clear that the walkers are going to breach the walls, it’s the beginning of the end for the Winterfell army. So the soundtrack helpfully provides us with a clock, ticking away the final seconds of their lives and counting down towards the end of humanity. Cheery stuff. Especially because the ticking slowly accelerates, having a similar effect to the increasing-heartrate sound, building tension and encouraging a very physical response from the audience.

There are very few moments with recognisable musical themes throughout the whole episode. When we do get them, they’re usually undermined in some way to show that the characters are struggling, not as powerful as usual. For example we get a brief snippet of Dany’s main motif when she flies over the army of the dead on Drogon, sounded with full choir and orchestra. But then both she and Jon are caught up in the Night King’s storm, and her music is lost in the sound of the wind that surrounds them. We also get a snatch of the ‘Dracarys’ motif when she instructs Drogon to incinerate the Night King, but even before the flames clear the music clues us in to the fact that he’s not been destroyed. The motif isn’t sounded in full, and Djawadi introduces a dissonance underneath the motif, indicating that something is about to go badly wrong. And sure enough, the Night King steps out with a badass grin.

Where Djawadi does give us motivic music is for Arya’s entry into the battle. We get a fully orchestrated version of her motif, which perhaps is our first clue that it’s gonna be her that gets to finish off the Night King, not Jon (who’s unceremoniously dumped off his dragon, and the Stark theme is nowhere to be found in any of his scenes). As she stabs, hacks, and generally outdoes the Hound, the soundtrack lets us know that Arya is so far the most powerful character we’ve seen on screen.

Let’s be real though, the true musical winner of this episode is Melisandre. Both when she arrives and lights the Dothraki’s weapons and when she walks out to light the trench, Djawadi gives us a full sounding of her motif. And the whole episode concludes with a quotation of her motif, but resolving onto a major triad. Finally, she has found peace.

But mostly, this is an episode that is surprisingly unmusical — which makes the final ten minutes all the more powerful. Moments which would usually have music aren’t scored, like Bran telling Theon that everything he’s done has brought him back ‘home’ to where he belongs. In another episode this would surely have musical accompaniment, but here it’s just the wind.

The Night King

So finally — ‘The Night King’, the track we’ve all been waiting for. The beginning of this track was, for me, the most effective moment of the whole episode. It’s so simply done, and yet all the more powerful because of that. 

It begins in the crypt, with Sansa and Tyrion looking at each other. All of the crypt scenes have so far been unaccompanied, to emphasise suspense as they listen for the sounds of the dead attacking. By the time ‘The Night King’ starts, the sounds in the crypt are pretty horrific — the sounds of people being torn apart, screaming, the shrieks of the dead and dying, and Sansa’s panicked breathing. 

Then it all fades out as Sansa pulls out her dagger, and we hear the very first, faint note of the track. Djawadi uses a simple minor triad on the piano, first rising then falling. He uses the piano in a similar way to S06E10. It’s an instrument that’s not in the regular soundworld of Westeros, and Djawadi’s explained that he uses the piano for its haunting sound, and the natural sound decay as each note fades. The opening of the track is written to exploit this, using long chords and long pauses between statements of the motif to allow the sound of the final note to fade naturally. 

Part of the reason it’s so emotional is because of the way the music is combined with the visuals. The first time we hear the main motif (A-C-C-A), the camera is on Sansa looking at Tyrion. The camera angle suggests that the music here is part of Sansa’s thoughts, her emotions. But then the motif is stated again, in octaves, and this time the camera is on Tyrion. They’re sharing the same feelings and thoughts, and the sounds of bodies being ripped apart fades right into the back of the sound mix. The piano then hits its highest note yet (E), and Tyrion kisses Sansa’s hand. By now the music track is so prominent compared to the sounds in the crypt that we actually hear the sound of his kiss and his small smile afterwards. These are very human sounds, emotional, loving — not the sounds of terror that the scene opens with. And from this point on the music takes on the role of the emotional storytelling, preparing the audience to say goodbye to their favourite characters.

Djawadi makes the music sound so unsettling by putting dissonant notes under the main chords. When the camera cuts from the crypt to Jon, the music starts to sound unnerving in a way that it didn’t when it was just Sansa and Tyrion. It’s because the chords in the high piano register are combined with a single dissonant note in the lower register — just enough to be jarring, and to convey that this is a poignant, emotional ending that’s also horrific, painful, and heartbreaking.

As Jorah and Dany face down hordes of the dead, the motif starts to develop. As well as the melody, the chord sequence that Djawadi uses here is what gives the music its sense of despair. It rotates through two main chords — A minor and F major. The motif always falls back into a minor key, which is made more moving because of the brief moments of major-key harmony, like brief flickers of hope. And the repeated notes give more of a sense of insistence, driving the music inexorably to its end. So now we’ve got two main ideas: the rising/falling motif, and the repeated note motif.

When the camera cuts to Theon fighting in the weirwood, the first rising/falling motif comes back. This time it’s set against a descending bassline that’s much lower in the piano register than anything we’ve heard so far. And again it’s mostly dissonant against the melody, Djawadi using the dissonance to convey that the Night King holds the power here, and that defeat is approaching. Accordingly, we see the Night King and wights moving toward the weirwood, and Jorah falling from his wounds. 

At this point Djawadi also introduces strings, which are going to help build the intensity of the track as the episode moves towards the climax. Cue the camera cutting to Theon, fighting to save Bran. The cello starts to play an arpeggiated accompaniment, the piano motif is played faster, Djawadi notches up the tension… And then he takes it down again for the camera cutting to Bran, just sounding the repeated note motif. Why? Because this is making space for the only speech in the final ten minutes, when Bran says goodbye to Theon. We need to hear this moment of forgiveness clearly, because it makes Theon’s death all the more tragic. If Djawadi plunked accelerating music over the top it would lose all its emotive impact. 

So instead he pauses momentum in the music, only to start ratcheting up the tension again when Bran finishes speaking. Although the piano still plays faintly in the background as Bran speaks, Djawadi removes the dissonant notes, reintroducing them after Bran says ‘Thank you’. The dissonances throw us back into the reality of the situation, as Theon accepts that he’s about to die. Musically, Theon’s death is one of the most impactful of the whole episode. The solo cello arpeggiation begins again as he runs towards the Night King, and the rest of the strings play a variation of the main theme under the ‘Night King’ motifs (see what I mean about it only being used at major plot-significant moments?). 

Structurally, what gives the track its emotional power is the way that Djawadi alternates sections that build tension and drama, and those that maintain suspense. It creates what are basically ‘waves’ of musical tension. The build-suspense-build-suspense alternation is much more effective than a single, straight, unrelenting line of musical build-up. In the ‘build’ sections, Djawadi repeats small sequences but varies them a little each time. He adds instruments, speeds up the rhythms, expands the melodic range, and adds counter-melodies. But the ‘suspense’ sections drop back entirely, to just a slow piano line with limited accompaniment. These are the moments that are the most emotional — when Theon drops to the ground, or when the Night King looks down at Bran. 

This all leads to the most significant build, which starts just before the Night King reaches for his sword. The strings swell, the piano accelerates, and the music is cut off in the middle of a phrase as Arya jumps. The sudden silence is so effective because it comes in the middle of a phrase that we’ve heard repeated quite a few times by now, interrupting the resolution that we’re expecting to hear. 

One of the reasons that when the ‘Night King’ track begins it sounds kind of inevitable, almost familiar, somehow, is because Djawadi’s been musically preparing us for this moment all episode. The ‘Night King’ motifs are scattered throughout the episode, right from the beginning. At around 22:34, when Dany and Jon are fight to see anything in the storm, we hear hints of the first motif, the minor triad, in the bass (except here it’s on Eb to Gb, rather than A to C). Whenever the dead make significant advances, Djawadi layers in the minor triad — as the living retreat to the walls of Winterfell, when Dany can’t see Davos’s signal, and when the dead make their way through the trench and towards the walls. 

As in ‘The Winds of Winter’, this episode is a moment where Game of Thrones breaks with its usual storytelling apparatus. Throughout most of the series, the musical norm is to have music very much led by dialogue. But in ‘Winds of Winter’ and ‘The Long Night’, music becomes the main way of telling the story. It’s not quite as significant a break with narrative norms as it was in ‘The Winds of Winter’ — S06E10 set a precedent for this kind of musical narration. Nonetheless it gave a hugely emotional end to the episode, and leaves the question — where on earth does the show go next?

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