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Top Ten Study Soundtracks

I freaking love music!  I may not play any instruments, but there is nothing like plugging in my earbuds, lying back, and listening to one of the most emotionally powerful art forms out there.  My difference is that I prefer movie scores.  It’s impossible to express how much I love movie music; in some instances, music alone brings tears to my eyes, others bring chills to my skin, and many are just fun to listen to.  Not only will this post provide you (faithful reader), with some excellent background music to relieve your stress as you work, but it allows me to praise some of my favorite artists.  Final exams are approaching, and this list is gonna help with that.  Before we enter musical bliss, here are a few ground rules.

  1. I cannot include the same composer twice.
  2. This list is only counting musical scores, no lyrics. Soundtracks like Pulp Fiction, Guardians of the Galaxy, and Sing (although great in their own right) are excluded.
  3. The entries in this list are based off of my personal preference. This preference is decided by: overall quality, creativity/originality, genre, and repeatability.

#10 – Raiders of the Lost Ark composed by John Williams

Kicking off the list is the greatest film composer of all time, Mr. John Williams.  I love this guy too, so don’t get triggered over him being number 10.  This list was hard enough to rank, let alone choosing one score from this master.  There were so many candidates: Schindler’s List (somber, but I’d rather not think of Jewish genocide while writing a history essay), Star Wars (iconic, but I start daydreaming every time I listen to it), Home Alone (charming, but very seasonal), etc.  However, I think Raiders never gets too fast or too slow.  Like the film, it’s perfectly-paced and engaging.  Aside from the classic theme, my favorite tracks are: “The Map Room: Dawn” and “Desert Chase.”  If you want to turn homework into a fun adventure, cue this awesome score and let the work begin.

#9 – Dances with Wolves composed by John Barry

Of the many, many things director/actor Kevin Costner did right while making this monumental epic was hiring a composer whose music adds a grand scale to Mother Nature.  Dances with Wolves was a risky project, it was the beginning of the 90s, and Costner was well-established as an actor, not a director.  However, through incredibly delicate direction, top-notch production design, and empathetic performances, it stands as one of the most impactful/important movies of the decade.  Even if the writing doesn’t compel you, there is no denying that the film looks BEAUTIFUL.  From the opening sequence alone, you know that the combination of Barry’s deep score and cinematographer Dean Semler’s incredible use of landscape is worth the 3-hour runtime.  Two specific things make this music great studying material: the duration of the tracks, and how it sounds.  While Raiders of the Lost Ark (and another entry further down the list) have music that gets you pumped, every now and then you need a score that takes its time.  A score that tells its own story in a swooping way.  Also, the longer the score, the more work I can get out of it without having to click the “next” button.  Listen to the John Dunbar theme or “Two Socks” and you’ll see why I recommend it.

#8 – Ratatouille composed by Michael Giacchino

I love this movie!  The perfect animation, the smart writing, the fun characters, the amazing, wholly unique, inspired, beautifully composed music!  Leave it to Pixar veteran Brad Bird to write/direct a film that perfected nearly every single aspect.  What stood out to me in particular was the score.  Giacchino (with all due respect) makes a lot of music, but most of it either sounds the same or is forgettable.  However, his notable exceptions (which include The Incredibles, Cars 2, Inside Out, and Mission: Impossible III) are something to behold.  In the case of Ratatouille… I can’t even describe it; just listen to “Souped Up” or “End Creditouilles.”  Note how vibrant and fast-paced they are.  The movie is evenly-paced, alternating between sections of character development and entertaining sequences.  Bird specifically wanted Giacchino (who worked with him on The Incredibles 3 years prior) to do this score, and the result was a match made in heaven (the same heaven which combined Spielberg with Williams and Wes Anderson with Alexandre Desplat).  Most of the movie takes place in a kitchen and/or from the perspective of the rat’s (Remy) perspective.  Oh yeah, and it’s in France.  After listening to these tracks, answer me this.  Do the melodies sound authentically French?  Would you listen to this soundtrack while cooking?  Is that saxophone guy the best thing ever?  If the answer to any of those was yes, then buy this man’s music!  It’s great stuff!  That’s the primary reason why it’s good for studying.  The tempo is upbeat (providing energy to keep working), the mellifluous flow eases the stress, and it is “getting stuff done” music.  Nuff said.

#7 – The Grand Budapest Hotel composed by Alexandre Desplat

If there was any score that could beat Hans Zimmer’s Interstellar for the Oscar, it’s this jaunty, upbeat melody.  The Imitation Game (composed by Desplat in the same year) was my initial choice for this spot but after listening to Grand Budapest Hotel a few more times (while prepping for an exam no less), it won me over.   I have a soft spot for scores that have multiple instruments (each with their own standalone sound) going on at once; yet together create a one-of-a-kind style.  Examples of this would be Sherlock Holmes, The Untouchables, and The Adventures of Tintin (2011).  In the case of Desplat, he is a master of this genre.  I cannot choose a specific track because they’re all amazing!  Take for instance, “Criminal Camp Overture.”  It’s literally 11 seconds long, and yet it tells just as much of a story as “Mr. Moustafa.”  You’ll be happily tapping your foot while cramming for that presentation in style when you listen to this charming score.

#6 – Take Shelter composed by David Wingo

Just like the film, Wingo’s score is subtle, suspenseful, and leaves an impression.  Most of the tracks in this score are under 2 minutes, but none of them are bland.  I’m likely to review Take Shelter one of these days because it’s one of the best examples of subtlety and character in recent memory.  As for the music, David Wingo (who also worked with Jeff Nichols on Mud, Loving, and Midnight Special) provides an eerie, often unsettling tone to every scene.  If you want to see how applicable this score is, try playing Halo 3: ODST (during night in the barren streets) with “Storm Shelter” as the background music (prepare to be creeped out).  If you prefer a quieter, but still powerful piece, check out Wingo’s creation.

#5 – Tomorrow Never Dies composed by David Arnold

Aw yeah, you knew there had to be a James Bond score on this list!  Over the 50 years and 24 movies, we’ve had John Barry, Marvin Hamlisch, Thomas Newman, and David Arnold make music for the franchise.  What’s that?  You don’t know who he is?  Well, he may not be Oscar-nominated (like the others in that list), but his filmography is pretty underrated.  While his Television scores (Sherlock, Stargate SG-1) are impressive, his film music is even more so.  He hasn’t composed for many films, but his James Bond scores always deliver.  Tomorrow Never Dies is a ridiculously over-the-top action flick that tries to sound intelligent, but looks even more ridiculous because of it (ah, the 90s): and I love it.  However, the one part of this movie that stands among some of the best the franchise has to offer is David Arnold’s compositions.  Most know him for Casino Royale (2006), but he started with Tomorrow Never Dies, and I think it’s his best of all.  He incorporated the rockish punch of the decade with Bond’s signature tunes to create a fast, action-packed symphony that makes the movie 50 times better.  There are 5, or 8, or 37 action scenes in the movie, some of which are very standard, but Arnold’s music alone makes them extremely exciting.  The best track is “Backseat Driver.”  Each tune is equivalent to a cup of black coffee injected straight into your bloodstream.  Needless to say, you’ll get a lot finished with this stuff coursing through your ears.

#4 – Nocturnal Animals composed by Abel Korzeniowski

If there was ever a score that encompassed the word “beauty,” it’s this melody of perfection.  I’ll be honest, I went to see this movie on a whim after realizing that La La Land was sold out, and thank God for that!  I was treated to a slow-building, complex thriller that left me thinking weeks after seeing it.  In addition to Tom Ford’s brilliant direction, Nocturnal Animals achieved a masterful tone because of the score.  I don’t often complain about the Oscars in these posts (all bets are off in person), but the snubbing of this score is unforgivable.  The range of emotions the soundtrack covers in the span of 45 minutes (enough time to write a short essay) is incredible.  “Off the Road” is intense, “The Field” is crushingly sad, and “Wayward Sisters” is freaking awesome.  I can’t really specify what makes this applicable to schoolwork, but I can tell you that I’ve written over 10 reviews with Korzeniowski’s talents as my background inspiration.  Try it out, and you’ll be rewarded.

#3 – Risky Business composed by Tangerine Dream

Little did I know that when I watched the dramedy that gave Tom Cruise his career, I would be treated to one of the best movie soundtracks of all time.  Electronica (whether you like it or not) has quite an interesting history with movies.  You probably don’t know how many familiar films have scores done with synthesizers: Chariots of Fire, Blade Runner, Midnight Express, Iron Man, etc.  In my opinion, the king of electronica movie scores is Giorgio Moroder, but a close second is the revolutionary band, Tangerine Dream (whose music has been featured in Mr. Robot, Louder than Bombs, and Stranger Things).  Their compositions for Firestarter and Sorcerer are excellent, but only one score has the catchiness that makes studying a joyful experience.  Please do yourself a favor and listen to “The Dream is Always the Same” or “Love on a Real Train.”  Don’t they sound wonderful?  Kinda whimsical, but the beats are fast and flow perfectly.  There are many remixes, rerecordings, and extended mixes, that you could get a full hour of this (originally 30-minute) score to equal half of a 20 page book report and it would never grow old on you.  What else can I say?  It’s catchy, creative, and comes in quite handy when that book report is due tomorrow and you need something soothing to ease the stress.

#2 – The Social Network composed by Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross

If there was ever a perfect combination of energy, calculation, seriousness, and tone, it’s this electronica score for David Fincher’s excellent depiction of social media and American college life.  Last semester, I had a particularly difficult Business Final.  Not only was there the usual test, but we had to create a three-part business plan that included: creating a feasible idea, writing up a 30 page plan (complete with legal documents), and then doing a 20-minute presentation in class.  I put over 70 hours into this final alone and I needed something special to listen to for all that time.  Surprise, surprise, a score that plays while Mark Zuckerberg (one of Gen Y’s biggest influences) creates Facebook works very well.  The film is a masterclass of suspense and intrigue, elevated by fast performances and serious emotional depth.  Each track adds so much more to each scene, and the proof is obvious.  “In Motion” is synonymous with Zuckerberg hacking into Harvard’s photo directory and catching the eye of the Winklevoss twins.  “Intriguing Possibilities” makes you feel like a high-profile businessman.  “In the Hall of the Mountain King” made a bunch of dudes rowing in tank tops feel awesome.  As for “Hand Covers Bruise” well, you could listen to that while walking around campus and whatever you were going to do now has a deeper meaning.  It’s the perfect college soundtrack, and a dang good tune for studying.

Honorable Mentions

Just when you thought we couldn’t get any more amazing space soundtracks in a row (Gravity in 2013, Interstellar in 2014, The Force Awakens in 2015), enter the incomparable Thomas Newman providing instrumentals with more intelligence than the actual movie.

This is a double because The Hateful Eight used a few tracks from The Thing.  Morricone has so many outstanding scores to his name, but this combo has gotten the most mileage in terms of studying (probably because they don’t grow old on you).

  • For Your Eyes Only composed by Bill Conti

Don’t get outraged because the Rocky score didn’t make it.  Even so, admit it, everyone only remembers the kick-a** themeFor Your Eyes Only is what happens when you combine the rock of the 70s with the upcoming electronica of the 80s, and its epic!  It’s difficult not to start humming “Runaway” or “A Drive in the Country,” which was probably what Conti was going for.

  • Midnight Express composed by Giorgio Moroder

As great as this score is, only “Chase” and the instrumental theme stand out.  I also considered his rock-heavy work on American Gigolo (which has one of the best movie themes of all time) purely because of how strong the instrumental is, but I’m content with recommending this master’s work.  He’s 77, and still creating amazing sounds.  Just look at what he did with his first videogame job!

Horner along with Desplat have composed many soundtracks that were born for studying.  Horner has Field of Dreams, Legends of the Fall, Glory, The Magnificent Seven, Avatar, Apollo 13, etc.  However, A Beautiful Mind is based around mental illness, so Horner created a somber tune that I instantly associate with a math genius writing a complex formula out on a chalkboard.  The piano is wonderfully utilized in this astute soundtrack.

  • Warcraft composed by Ramin Djawadi

One of the coolest movie scores is from the original Conan the Barbarian.  It saddens me to know that the adventure epic genre (along with its equally epic music) is all but gone, incomes Duncan Jones with his stylish film adaptation of one of the most famous RPG videogames of all time.  With that is one of the awesome opening themes in recent memory.  Sadly, the other 95% is the music isn’t as spectacular.

Number 1 is simply one of the best movie soundtracks of all time.  The tone is perfectly captured, the instruments used sound beautiful, and… it’s…it’s…

#1 – Interstellar composed by Hans Zimmer

I really don’t like my review of this movie.  Obviously, I was much younger and less eloquent/experienced, but there was so much more I should have given praise to.  The biggest of those uncredited things was Hans Florian Zimmer’s beautiful, sweeping, original, breathtaking, inspiring, adventurous, terrifying, emotional score that ranks among the top ten best movie scores of all time, no doubt.

Zimmer is my favorite movie composer.  His filmography is beyond impressive.  His style is inventive, brash, and deep.  However, his best work comes whenever he works with master storyteller Christopher Nolan.  In addition to The Dark Knight trilogy, he bought us one of the most intense scores with Inception (that barely lost to Interstellar).  I spent 10 minutes staring at the wall while trying to decide number 1.  It came down to which one helped me more while working.  Simply put, I cannot fully describe how extraordinary Interstellar’s music is.  When approached by Nolan (who brought Zimmer one page of dialog as “the starting point”), Zimmer created a few notes that’s called “Day One” in the soundtrack and went with a church organ as the main instrument.  Have I mentioned that I love orchestral choirs and church pipe organs more than my own blog?  When used by a master composer, we get The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1996), Interstellar, and a bit of The Grand Budapest Hotel (you’re not beating Zimmer this time Desplat!).  Despite this, I can’t think of many times they are used for movies, which is a dang shame because “S.T.A.Y.” is an emotional masterpiece!

I’ll unashamedly admit that I cried a waterfall when I first saw the “Message from Home” scene, and again with “Quantifiable Connection.”  Though the film’s narrative is really sciency, the real focus in on relationships (a Nolan staple if you pay attention).  Fathers and daughters, the possibility of love millions of miles away from home: only someone as talented as Zimmer could have turned a piano, a choir, and an organ into this terrifying piece.  This is one of the few soundtracks that I bought on CD, and I recommend that you check it out.  There are so many remixes, covers, and edits that keep the essential sound, but keep the sound from getting stale.  Check out Yourfavoratemusic’s YouTube playlist of Interstellar edits (I recommend, “Landing in Tesseract” and “Quantifiable Connection”).  By now you should realize that I listen to this a lot, and it has reminded me why I am answering Geometry questions that I know will never be useful in my life.  I have to pass this class, to get the degree, to get a job suited for what I want to do, and eventually that job will allow me to make my own movie… or at least shake Hans Zimmer’s hand, I’d settle for that.

There you have it, ten incredible compositions that I am 100% percent sure will help you along with that homework/cramming.  I’m sure some of you have your own favorite study soundtrack, so tell me what it is in the comments.  In terms of enjoyment, this was one my favorite posts to write, and I hope you all find at least one of these masterpieces enjoyable as well.