Game of Thrones: Behind The Music With Hannah Peel

“You know nothing, Jon Snow” wouldn’t have meant much to Northern Irish artist, composer, producer and broadcaster Hannah Peel in 2019, as she was one of the few people that had never seen one episode of Game of Thrones. No shame (shame!) of course – that was until she was asked to compose and record the soundtrack for Game of Thrones: The Last Watch, a feature length documentary chronicling the creation of the show's most ambitious and complicated season. A binge-watch to rule them all followed...

“It was the classic, ‘Oh my God, this series is so huge – I am never going to even start this because I'm never gonna get through it!’” Peel laughs, remembering when the documentary’s director Jeanie Finlay told her that she had over 900 hours of footage to edit down to just under two hours.

“I bought a house in Northern Ireland and that summer I had builders that were knocking down walls, and all I could do was binge-watch the whole of Game of Thrones because I had no other choice, because I couldn't work at home! That was technically my job for a month, and I totally got into it and loved it. 

"I made a massive list of themes and music as it was going on, and one of the things that I took from the score was that I loved the low strings that were used in the original series – there's a lot of cello and a lot of double bass.”

We went for the more handmade, acoustic feel for Game of Thrones.

Her epic binge-watch paid off, earning her a 2019 Emmy-nomination in the Outstanding Music Composition For A Documentary Series Or Special (Original Dramatic Score) category, although midway through the project she actually started from scratch again.

“Jeanie wanted different tracks for different types of weather because of the extreme conditions that they filmed in, like hot Spain and Croatia, the icy winds of Iceland, and in Northern Ireland, the rain and the darkness of winter,” she explains. 

“So I gave her loads of electronic stuff because I wanted to stay away from the original score in that sense. But when we placed it to picture, it just didn't work – it was just not right at all. So I went back and we went for the more handmade, acoustic feel. It is filmed in Northern Ireland, so it has got a folk element to it.”

At only four episodes long, scoring the music for Channel 5’s psychological thriller, The Deceived – about a woman who falls for her married lecturer who mysteriously disappears – fortunately did not require such intense cramming. She won an MPG Award for Original UK Score Recording of the Year for her efforts, which she does not take for granted.

“What's wonderful about the MPGs is that they recognise the mixing and the engineering as well – it's not just about the composer. That's really important because a lot of people behind the scenes often don't get a look in at all,” she points out. 

“And in particular, because the score was recorded in Northern Ireland – you know, Northern Ireland is not London – it was really important for all of us that they were acknowledged as well."

It went from being a soundscape-type score to being more in line with a Hitchcock film.

The score is a mix of string quartet, electronics and Kontakt instruments, and recordings sampled from the house on set, although this project also had a sudden change in direction.

“I said that I wanted to go to the house because it's integral to the story; it's a beautiful old house so I wanted to sample sounds from in there,” she explains. 

“They had a massive array of crystal cut glass, so I ended up using a lot of that and making those sounds into this ethereal instrument that became like the voice of the house – this ghostly presence. They had these gorgeous, huge old doors with big brass handles, and I ended up recording loads of samples and sounds. Then they decided they wanted the music to drive more like some of the epic, big budget scores with those beautiful, big string lines and atmospheres, and I was like, ‘Oh my god, how am I going to do this with the timeframe that I have?’ 

"It went from being a soundscape-type score to being more in line with a Hitchcock film. I basically had about two and a half weeks to write, record, mix it, send it off and get all the exec notes back. It became this big, massive mission of scoring strings left, right and centre to add to the drama and tension.

“I think that's why it was acknowledged by the MPGs because it went against the curve of what is possible and how much work – in a very small time frame – goes into this stuff,” she considers. “I learned a lot about the way I work and how to drive that forward, and the limits I can go to as well.”