Warning: contains spoilers for all seasons of Game of Thrones.
On Sunday, Game of Thrones returns for its eigth and final season on HBO, and many millions of viewers will undoubtedly hang on to each new plot twist after a two-year drought. And those gripping stories will be served and moved forward yet again by the show's award-winning soundtrack.
Music has its own role in GoT, both in the omnipresent background and within the action of the scenes. It’s interesting to note that the world shown in Thrones -- Westeros, Essos, etc. -- has theoretically been stuck in some version of the European Middle Ages for roughly 8,000 years, depending on how you compare cultures and parse the canon timeline. (Superfans will quibble on this like angels battle-dancing on the head of a pin.) Any music that the characters know is basically folk music and religious hymns, the music that would have been common many centuries ago in our world. No Westerosi has ever heard a sick beat, an electric guitar or a piano (or ever tasted chocolate, for that matter). Heck, they haven't even gotten around to inventing the harpsichord yet.
Take a moment and think about how that would inform your internal soundtrack if you lived in that world, and then take a step back to look at the music in the show. From music-world celebrity cameos to casting mighta-beens, here are some key places where the worlds of music and Westeros crossed.
Randy Bears. Some of the in-world songs have had noteworthy real-world covers. For example, a song called “The Bear and The Maiden Fair” is beloved by many characters within the A Song of Ice and Fire universe. In prequel novella The Sworn Sword, “The Bear and the Maiden Fair” is the only song that plebian Ser Duncan the Tall knows all the way through. A century later, in A Storm of Swords, Lady Olena Tyrell has her minstrel play the same songs loud to spy-proof her conversation with Sansa Stark. Real-world band The Hold Steady did a rousing punk “cover” of the song, written for the show by composer Ramin Djawadi to lyrics from author George R. R. Martin, which memorably played over the closing credits after Jaime Lannister’s hand is amputated in season 3 episode “Walk of Punishment.”
Rains, So Many Reynes. Djawadi again contributed music to George R. R. Martin’s lyrics for the Lannister anthem “The Rains of Castamere.” It’s hard to imagine a jolly uptempo version for #TeamLannister stans to sing with tavern wenches over pitchers of ale. “The Rains of Castamere” seems to take its cues from the dour Lord Tywin, and it's doubtful that anyone could find cheer in it, even drunk Lannister loyalists led by Bronn, an unsentimental tough nut if ever there was one.
The National and Sigur Rós have contributed haunting soundtrack versions of the song, which commemorates patriarch Lord Tywin Lannister’s destruction of the defiant Reyne family (get it? Reyne/Rain?) several decades prior to the beginning of GoT. Members of Sigur Rós also cameo in the fourth season as minstrels at the Purple Wedding, attempting to entertain the tyrannical, blessedly doomed, decidedly unamused King Joffrey with the lugubrious House Lannister song. Having small metal discs flung at you from a distance hurts, dammit.
The Frey's Drummer Boy. Coldplay drummer Will Champion appeared in season 3, episode 9 as… guess what? A drummer! Champion was seen in the Red Wedding scene, banging on a drum before the sex and later slaughter commences.
Ed Sheeran. Speaking of pop-rock, Ed Sheeran famously had a cameo last season as a singing Lannister soldier, interacting with real-life fan Maisie Williams’ Arya Stark. Sheeran and his soldier pals share food and drink with the young assassin after singing “Hands of Gold.” Charmed by the song, blackberry hooch and company, Arya opts not kill the men, even if they do happen to serve House Lannister.
Mastadon. Most of the musicians to cameo on GoT have showcased the skills they're known for in their scenes, with the exception of two appearances by members of Mastadon. They were briefly seen in the fitth season episode “Hardhome” as wildlings and in the seventh season finale as zombies in the Army of the Dead. No music, just fighting, and then vacant, hungry stares at the living.
Incest Fail. Here’s a musical crossover that didn’t happen. Alfie Allen (Theon Greyjoy) is Lily Allen’s brother, and George R. R. Martin has proclaimed himself a Lily Allen fan. Ms. Allen was offered the role of Theon’s sister Yara Greyjoy (Asha in the books) but turned it down. She is not an actor. Let’s be glad that this casting didn’t work out: Gemma Wheelan inhabits the role so well that thinking of anyone else in it is outlandish at this point, while Lilly Allen’s edgy, very modern presence would feel out of place in a medieval setting.
Crossing Over. Musicians have guested on GoT, and stars of the show have garnered attention for musical projects in the real world too. Kristian Nairn, who played Hodor, is a DJ who has released tracks and played multiple continents with his Rave of Thrones Tour.
And actor Jakob Anderson, who plays Danearys Targaryen’s army commander Grey Worm, is an accomplished recording artist under the name Raleigh Ritchie. Here’s a sample from his debut album: