Scoring Westworld: Ramin Djawadi ’98 Blends the Futuristic and the Historical

Kimberly Ashton
November 22, 2016
Still shot from the HBO series 'Westworld,' scored by Berklee alumnus Ramin Djawadi '98
Ramin Djawadi '98, composer for 'Westworld' and 'Game of Thrones'
Still shot from HBO series 'Westworld,' with score by Ramin Djawadi, a 1998 Berklee film scoring alumnus
The first season of HBO's "Westworld," scored by Berklee alumnus Ramin Djawadi '98, concludes on Sunday, December 4, 2016.
Ramin Djawadi '98, composer on the HBO series "Westworld" and "Game of Thrones"
For the score, “I had to portray the adventure, but also give a hint that something is just not quite right about this place,” Djawadi says.
Photo courtesy HBO
Joey Cobbs
Photo courtesy HBO

As viewers first watched the opening credits of HBO's Westworld this fall, they knew they were in for a ride.

Westworld, a fictional amusement park where guests can immerse themselves in often-disturbing scenarios, takes place in a future that calls to mind the past. It’s peopled by android hosts and human guests, and set in the Old West. “I had to portray the adventure, but also give a hint that something is just not quite right about this place,” composer Ramin Djawadi ‘98 says of building the show’s theme music.

As the opening credits show a large 3-D printer laying down the material to build a horse, Djawadi’s construction starts with unsettling notes from a piano. He then adds layers to the music as the park’s props become more elaborate. The piece ends on faint, jangly notes of an old-timey upright piano and the slight whine of a swinging saloon door.

Opening credits for HBO's Westworld

Throughout the theme and the show, he blends the futuristic with the historical. “The Westworld musical palette is very wide,” says Djawadi, who also scores HBO’s Game of Thrones. “On the one hand, we are set in a Western theme park. The music has to reflect the realism and adventure of the guest experience. The music is very organic with instrumentation that represents that genre, like acoustic guitars, strings, trumpet, and harmonica. Meanwhile, we are aware that the whole park is based on high-tech robots with the most sophisticated A.I. we can imagine. So on the other hand, we need a sci-fi part of the score—one that is very synthetic and ambient.”

To blend these two worlds and transition between them, Djawadi relied on the piano, which he says works well in both genres. He notes that an upright piano can conjure six-shooters and petticoats while a concert grand imparts drama, echoing over vast landscapes and time spans.

Westworld Soundtrack, Paint It Black

Another technique that the show uses to remind the audience of the theme park setting is to feature modern songs in anachronistic settings. The Rolling Stones’ “Paint It Black” wafts through the dusty air as a posse of outlaws strides into town on horseback. An automatic-player piano plinks out Soundgarden’s “Black Hole Sun” as a madam walks down the stairs in her brothel.

The musical mixtures allow for complexity and play, says Djawadi, a guitar student who majored in film scoring at Berklee, adding, “It was challenging to find the balance, but at the same time, it was great to be able to make decisions about which style/side of the score we wanted to emphasize during the different scenes.”

The songs have caused such a stir that HBO announced it was releasing an album of them this fall. To see if Djawadi has more surprises in store, tune in to the season finale of Westworld on Sunday, December 4, 2016, or catch up later via HBO GO.

Watch a video interview with Ramin Djawadi: