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Six of the best: film soundtracks to get you working again

As we gear up for the start of term, Nina Holguin extols the benefits of studying to film music

After far too long at home for many of us, it’s almost the start of Michaelmas; I don’t know about anyone else, but my productivity has drastically decreased in the months since being in Oxford.

When I do finally decide to get to work, however, I will have my trusty film soundtrack playlist to help spur on the motivation: just like in video games, film scores are designed to be in the background, yet they are far more exciting and emotional than whatever ‘Chill Piano’ playlist you might have been relying on up to now. They flow perfectly from piece to piece as you attempt your essay, problem sheet or whatever it is that you do in your degree. In fact, when your work changes, so can your soundtrack – if you’ve never written your conclusion while listening to Hans Zimmer’s ‘Time’, you’re missing out, I can promise you. I am not knowledgeable about music theory, but after watching far too many movies and listening to even more soundtracks, here are six film scores to help you get back to work:

  1. Nicholas Britell If Beale Street Could Talk (2018)

I’m starting on a high with this selection. This soundtrack is one of my all-time favourites, perfectly blending jazz, melancholic romance, and a monumental atmosphere to set you firmly in 1970s Harlem, New York. It’s a great all-rounder, although its smooth violins keep the score at a slow, relaxing pace, which makes it particularly perfect for night-time studying. ‘Eros’ and ‘Storge’ are my favourite tracks on the album, so watch out for those: they merge dizzying romantic heights with a sense of painful realism yet to be discovered.

Like what you heard? All of Britell’s soundtracks are worth a listen, though all different in their own right.

  1. Hans Zimmer Interstellar (2014)

Of course, Hans Zimmer had to feature somewhere on this list. Interstellar is an extremely strong score as a whole, with leitmotifs everywhere creating a harmonious and achingly special soundtrack. It definitely has a ‘space’ feeling to it, but not in an overly Star Trek-y way. Instead, it feels like it’s trying to communicate the wonders of the universe and describe the space between stars. It’s not surprising that it gives the impression of curiosity and discovery, but the track ‘Mountains’ demonstrates all the qualities of a truly dynamic and invigorating album. ‘Cornfield Chase’, ‘Mountains’ and twin tracks ‘Stay’ and ‘S.T.A.Y’ all possess that certain Zimmer magic that everyone should experience.

Like what you heard? First Man, scored by Justin Hurwitz, has a great soundtrack with similar space flair and, of course, Zimmer’s own Inception builds on Interstellar’s suspense and grandeur.

  1. Thomas Adès Colette (2018)

I was really taken by this soundtrack, even while watching the movie. It’s an easy listen, loosely underpinned by swooping romanticism – it’s full of upbeat tracks and the feelings of a classic period drama. However, there’s a richness and complexity to it: as the film’s focus transitions from romance to Colette’s path of self-discovery and fulfilment, so does the soundtrack’s. It never leaves behind the ‘classic period drama’ sound of soft pianos and violins, but this is not to its detriment, instead making for a flowing, harmonious album. This makes it work well as study music, particularly if you’re into those ‘Chill Classical’ Spotify playlists.

Like what you heard? Other period drama scores like Pride and Prejudice by Dario Marianelli and Far From the Madding Crowd by Craig Armstrong are great soundtracks with a similar vibe.

  1. Yann Tiersen Amélie (2001)

Much like the film itself, Amélie is a refreshing and fun listen. The album, driven by a blend of piano and accordion, has a positive sway to it and thoroughly commits itself to the quirky premise of the movie. Its upbeat nature makes it great to use as background music when researching; the diversity of the album will keep you interested, engaged and (most importantly) awake during your work. ‘I’ve Never Been There’, ‘Guilty’ and, of course, ‘Comptine d’un autre été, L’Après-Midi’ are some of my favourites throughout the soundtrack.

Liked what you heard? Midnight in Paris (2011) and A Good Year (2006) feature lots of jazzy tunes if you need a French fix and a bit of sunshine in your headphones.

  1. Isobel Waller-Bridge – Emma (2020)

Okay, I love this movie, probably far too much. However, the soundtrack is amazing as well. It blends traditional folk and operatic classical to represent the dichotomy of Emma’s existence as an exceedingly wealthy country bumpkin. Perhaps because Emma leans more towards the humour of Austen’s work, it doesn’t quite fit the normal sound of period dramas, with more light-hearted staccato used throughout the soundtrack. It’s a charming blend of styles and definitely worth a listen.

Like what you heard? Little Women by Alexandre Desplat is again charming but doesn’t quite fit the stereotypical period drama sound.

  1. Nicholas Britell – The King (2019)

I know I have already talked about Britell but The King needs a mention in its own right. If you need moodiness, atmosphere and drama to get through a piece of work, this is the soundtrack for you. To fit with the grittiness of the plot, the soundtrack is full of heroic tracks with minor keys, crying violins and looming horns. Its 43 minutes brim over with emotion and heartache, expertly handled to make a seriously impressive score.

Like what you heard? Wind River by Nick Cave and Warren Ellis and Jane Eyre by Dario Marianelli both have a sombre moodiness too, if you are so inclined to the dramatic.

Listen to selected songs from Nina’s chosen soundtracks below:

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