There’s a war taking place place in Westeros.  It is a Cello Battle  Bows have been drawn, strings have been plucked and fierce exchanges have been taking place between the two sides.

That’s not the battle for the throne between the Starks and the Lannisters. That’s nothing compared to the real fight.

This is a war about music.

Lara St. John, a violinist and owner of a record label, wrote to HBO to complain about the theme tune to the Game of Thrones television show. Those haunting strings, she says in her letter, use not a real cellist but a “pale, pallid, pathetic computer-generated imitation of a solo cello.”

Game of Thrones by HBO

Game of Thrones by HBO

She even goes so far as to record a new version of the theme music and offer it as an alternative.

HBO, however, didn’t run at the sight of St. John’s first salvo. In response to coverage of the story on PRI, officials at the network pointed out that St. John was complaining about an online version of the music which wasn’t theirs.

“There has been live cello on all recordings and on the series opening itself,” HBO said.

St. John absorbed the blow. The version that she placed in her letter to show the quality of the music was indeed a Midi version, she conceded. But she fired back by maintaining that the actual theme appears to use a sampler. A musician would have recorded each note of a scale and the composer could then have constructed the music by playing it back electronically.

She then charged.

She asked Scott Levitin, Chief Engineer at Warner Elektra Atlantic Studios in Burbank CA, what he thought. He listened to the iTunes version of Season 2, Episode 1 and said:

“I believe the cello sound is from a sampler, not live recorded real cello. The bow sounds are always the same and individual pitches always sound identical.  Plus, it just sounds artificial.”

He surveyed eight other audio engineers. Six thought it was from a sampler, one thought it was from a real cello and one didn’t know.

Do You Prefer Real Music or Fake Music?

This is all fun stuff and Lara St. John makes clear that she loves the show and the books. And the dragons. But it does raise a couple of interesting points.

The first concerns the confusion over whether cello was real or not. There wasn’t a consensus among the critics, and HBO still says that the original recording was live. If professionals can’t definitively tell the difference between a live cello and a sampled recording, what hope is there for non-musicians?

And the second was that most of the people who didn’t like St. John’s live version of the theme tune were young, non-players.

“Now, call me a ‘music snob’, an ‘elitist’, and tell me to ‘get over myself’, but I find this really disturbing,” says St. John. “Can it be that there is a whole generation out there that doesn’t like real sound because it’s real sound?”

It may well be, in which case they just need to hear more live music.  Invite them in.


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