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The White Walker Theme

Season 01

The White Walker Theme is the first immediately distinct theme we can hear in the series. It appears during the prologue, in which three rangers have set out to investigate reports of wildlings beyond the Wall. Its composition is made up of a high sounding glass harmonica and a deep drone. The use of these opposites in register gives it an incredibly eerie yet delicate quality and it makes for a cold and icy sound design; two traits which are associated with the White Walkers throughout the series. When the theme is heard, it is always within an ominous setting.

Although some might consider it to be more of a sound design than a theme, the White Walker Theme is in F minor and can be heard in its basic form 9 times throughout the first season, when the White Walkers are either present, referenced or implied (see the recurrences below).

In two instances, it is heard in a variation, both of which can be found in the pilot episode. In the first rendition, when the Starks are on their way back to Winterfell and they find a dead stag on the road and another cadaver further down and off the road, it is in its usual key, F minor, and has the same eerie feeling as in its basic form, but its composition has more instruments added to it, only repeats the first two measures and the F in the second chord is raised to a G. We might not entirely be sure what is going on here as viewers and listeners. Although stags are not exclusive to live beyond the Wall, we can expect that it might have got something to do with the White Walkers, implied by the variation on their theme here, and especially in light of what just happened in the narrative; the deserter claiming the White Walkers have risen again.

The second variation is really just a reprisal of the first one and heard when Ned Stark recognises the second cadaver as a direwolf. Robb mentions that there are no direwolves south of the Wall, which implies it must have come from beyond the wall, just like the White Walkers. This reprisal however, is brought in G minor and I thought it was particularly clever because it musically links it to the House Stark Theme, which is mostly played in G minor. We have just realised that the animal is a direwolf, the Starks sigil and it is a clever little move to modulate from F to G, linking an existing theme to another theme by shifting the former to the latter’s key.

A closer look

The White Walker Theme in its simplified form.

The White Walker Theme in it simplified form is a i-VI7-i-iM7#11 progression. It is in the F natural minor scale or the F Aeolian mode. The Aeolian mode is the most popular mode used in modern film scoring and since it is a minor scale, the general feeling listeners take away from it are gravitating towards negative ones. Sadness, darkness, moodiness, and in the case of this theme, it appropriately adds that mysterious and ominous quality that the notion of the return of the White Walkers implies.

Moving from the tonic (i) to the submediant (VI, major submediant in minor scales) is a good substitute for the tonic triad since it shares two scale degrees with it (F and Ab; heavily implied here). However, because it is not expected, it brings an element of surprise to the listeners.

After moving back to a repeat of the initial tonic triad, we then move to a maj7#11 on our tonic. A maj7#11 is omnipresent in jazz music and known as the Lydian chord. However, here it is built on a minor scale and obviously not in a jazz setting. It also moves in a chromatic semitone step down from the second VI chord and very much does not resolve at all. Instead the dissonance leaves the viewer and listener hanging and achieves a very strong element of imminent danger.

Where does it appear?

  • Episode 1 – Winter Is Coming, at: 
    • 00:00:23Fm – Will notices something off
    • 00:01:04Fm – Ser Waymar Royce and Gared investigate 
  • Episode 3 – Lord Snow, at: 
    • 00:01:43Fm – Old Nan tells Bran about the White Walkers
    • 00:02:24Fm – Maester Aemon warns that winter is coming 
  • Episode 4 – Cripples, Bastards, and Broken Things, at: 
    • 00:03:39Fm – Ser Alliser Thorne recalls his time north of the Wall
  • Episode 7 – You Win Or You Die, at: 
    • 00:04:31Fm – Osha warns Maester Luwin that the White Walkers were just sleeping
    • 00:05:18Fm – Ghost brings Jon a severed hand 
  • Episode 8 – The Pointy End, at: 
    • 00:05:37Fm – Osha warns Bran that Robb is marching the wrong way, the Night’s Watch is burning the wights 
  • Episode 10 – Fire and Blood, at:
    • 00:06:38Fm – Jeor Mormont tells Jon about the disturbing reports he has received 

Variation:

  • Episode 1 – Winter Is Coming, at:
    • 00:07:26Fm -The Starks find a dead stag and another huge cadaver
    • 00:08:12Gm -The Starks conclude the animal is a dire wolf

In the video below, you can hear and see all the recurrences of the White Walker Theme in Season 01.