With the semester almost over and no more radio shows until next year, my time with movies mostly consists of listening to them while I read. So, to procrastinate a bit more productively, I thought I’d share my favourite movie scores for studying. Of course, there are other scores I like when I’m not studying that are a bit more upbeat. You won’t find the theme to Indiana Jones or Star Wars here. Anything by Howard Shore is also a given, and not mentioned below.
In no particular order, here are my go-to original scores for studying.
The Fountain (2006), music by Clint Mansell
Mansell has done the scores for some great films, most recently the compelling Stoker I was fortunate enough to catch at the Kosmorama film festival this year. He also did Black Swan, and for you videogame fans, the very addicting Mass Effect 3. His best work, in my opinion, is still The Fountain, a film by Darren Aronofsky. It’s a film about love, death, the nature of existence, and the divine. A man (played by Hugh Jackman) and woman (Rachel Weisz) are lovers across time, in both modern day and 16th century Spain. To some, it sounds a bit heavy, and I admit I didn’t think I would like it, but it’s a film that gets under your skin. The visuals, and the ease with which Aronofsky handles the subject matter, along with Mansell’s sublime score, creates an atmosphere that makes you forget the particulars of the plot. The climax of the film is a feast for the eyes, and most importantly: the ears. I think this might be my favourite score of all time, for it captures the spirit of the film entirely, and is just a delight to listen to on its own.
Dragonheart (1996), music by Randy Edelman
A dragon, played by Sean Connery, and the most whiny king imaginable played by our beloved Professor Lupin (David Thewlis). Throw in Dennis Quaid with a Batman voice, and Jason Isaacs before he started acting, and you have the guilty pleasure of a good chunk of fantasy geeks. It’s forever protected by thick nostalgia goggles, but more importantly: it was one of the first films where I really noticed the score. When that theme reaches its crescendo, you are in the age of dragons! The score has more heart in those few notes than the entire film. I blame Edelman for making me cry at that death scene. It certainly didn’t happen because of Quaid’s emoting. It’s a theme that, for me, sits right alongside the other great fantasy themes.
How to Train Your Dragon (2010), music by John Powell
You know what has to follow Dragonheart. Probably the most action-like score on this list, it’s still just relaxing enough to play in the background to liven things up a bit! This is the film that convinced me (and probably many others) that Dreamworks could make an animated film that rivaled Pixar in good characters and storytelling. Not only that, the score is fantastic! John Powell has scored several animated films, and he does a good job on all of them (Kung Fu Panda also stands out in my memory). His work on this film, however, is his best to date. When Hiccup finally gets to fly, the music lifts us up and carries up right alongside him. Whenever I feel myself nodding off during my study session, I put this on and I’m ready to go a’viking! The best track is of course, “Test Drive”
Legends of the Fall (1994), music by James Horner
I could put so many of James Horner’s scores on this list: Braveheart, Enemy at the Gates, The Four Feathers, The Pagemaster, Jumanji, to name a few. Even when the films leave a lot to be desired, the music is never at fault. I think James Horner scored my childhood just as much as John Williams. He even did We’re Back: A dinosaur story, which no nostalgia goggles can save. I picked Legends of the Fall because it is one of the more relaxing ones, and also because I just love talking about this movie.
It stars Brad Pitt as Tristan, the middle brother of three. When the youngest brings home his fiancée, they all fall madly in love with her. What follows is basically what you imagine when you see those paperback books for women, with titles like Hidden Desires (or the movie’s Norwegian title: Passion’s Price). It follows Murphey’s Law in that every tragic thing that could conceivably happen, does.
Is it bad? In many ways, it is terrible. The acting is over-the-top (even Hopkins does a tiny bit of scenery chewing), the plot is melodramatic to the extreme, and you’ll feel like you’ve aged ten years when you’re done. Don’t even get me started on the strange Native American mysticism thrown in. Do I love it? Yes. It is my guilty pleasure, because Brad Pitt is just so terribly tragic, and I know the film is perfectly designed to appeal to the woman in me. Well, at least the version of me who desperately wants to sit in a log-cabin somewhere in Montana, waiting for my long lost love to return.
The score, however, is beautiful all on its own. You can still hear the rider come over the top of the hill, silhouetted against the setting sun, but it is also genuinely uplifting and worth a listen.
I could go on and on about my study music, but this post is already too long. I’ll just list a few below if you need more suggestions:
Shakespeare in Love (1998), Hook (1991), Pride and Prejudice (2005), Memoirs of a Geisha (2005), Seven Years in Tibet (1997), Man in the Iron Mask (1998)
All are films that keep a relatively relaxing mood throughout, with a few action sequences to speed up your studying! Most people have seen all the films before, but if you didn’t like the film, I urge you to check out the music on its own.