With exam season upon us, Joshua McCormack discusses the best film scores to soundtrack your study sessions.
Exams. No sooner does the flood of midterms subside before a tsunami of finals come crashing over the horizon. Soon enough, you’ll be hunched over a computer screen, eyes raw and red, as you drag yourself through a swamp of MCQ’s and essays, lecture slides and past papers. Before long, shattered and despairing, you’ll reach for the earplugs and fire up a playlist; a small measure of relief as the songs of your favourite artist ring in your hearts. At last, study is bearable! And you’re as productive as ever, or so you’ll tell yourself, until you're confronted with an exam paper; where, try as you might, your memory refuses to cough up anything more useful than the lyrics to ‘Bohemian Rhapsody.’ Let’s be real, no one wants to stare into the void of study with no sensory relief. So, with this truth in mind, and because Mozart isn’t for everybody, here are five film soundtracks that make study bearable without throwing a dent in your focus at the same time.
Let’s be real, no one wants to stare into the void of study with no sensory relief.
‘Oppenheimer’ – Ludwig Göransson
The soundtrack for Christopher Nolan’s haunting study of J. Robert Oppenheimer, father of the Atom Bomb, is built around that most versatile of instruments: the violin. Guided by these shivering strains and quivering notes, Ludwig Göransson weaves a spell of melancholy and regret, tragedy and triumph, hope and despair. Despite the explosive subject matter of Nolan’s film, Göransson seldom indulges in the kind of bombastic, crashing crescendos one might expect. Oh sure, there is the thunderous terror of ‘The Trinity Test’ and ‘Destroyer of Worlds’ but for the most part, much like the film it enhances, the score is contemplative and thoughtful, the ideal companion to a gruelling study marathon. On Friday November 10th, it was announced the Oppenheimer soundtrack was nominated for Best Score Soundtrack For Original Media Original at the 2024 Grammy Awards along with Black Panther.
‘Phantom Thread’ – Jonny Greenwood
For his final performance, acclaimed actor Daniel-Day Lewis embodies the eccentric and domineering dressmaker Reynolds Woodcock; this quiet, lavish and introspective character studies boast subtle scores that curl through the narrative like mist. Eerie and alluring, with gothic sensibilities stitched into the texture of every track, the music is like a whisper in your ear, a murmur in the wind. The obsessive nature of the film’s protagonist hangs over every note; indeed, if you find yourself bowed before your computer, like a sacrifice at some hunger altar, tempted to quit studying having barely started, turn to Greenwood’s score, and Reynold’s tunnel-eyed dedication and fanatical devotion to detail will sharpen your focus, turning the hours into neon lights which flash by in a blink.
Turn to Greenwood’s score, and Reynold’s tunnel-eyed dedication and fanatical devotion to detail will sharpen your focus, turning the hours into neon lights which flash by in a blink.
‘Blade Runner 2049’ – Hans Zimmer and Benjamin Wallfisch
Speaking of neon, this score draws us into the noir-soaked world of replicants and blade runners. Doom laden and mournful, the music, with the fragile touch of a lamenting piano and the crackle of techno synth, reflects the film’s lonely and crumbling world like polished chrome. While there are a few hopeful refrains, it's fair to say this isn’t an especially cheery soundtrack, but let’s be honest; studying doesn’t leave most people bursting with glee. Perhaps, if you prefer a soundtrack that complements your grim mood, one that, for all its melancholy, is subtle and unobtrusive, one with a moody energy and a retro-futuristic pulse, then look no further.
The Last Samurai – Hans Zimmer
As one of the film industry's maestros, Hans Zimmer has crafted dozens of iconic scores, and it's therefore understandable some of his most stirring works end up falling through the cracks; the score for 2003’s Tom Cruise and Ken Watanabe starring epic is one that deserves oceans more praise and recognition. Versatile and sprawling, Zimmer employs the use of several traditional Japanese instruments, including taiko drums, koto strings and shakuhachi flutes. This score is atmospheric and transportive; a roaming soundscape which transforms the oftentimes grim woods of academia into a twittering forest of tranquillity and wanderlust – standout tracks include ‘A Way of Life’ & ‘A Hard Teacher,’ both peace distilled into song.
The Grand Budapest Hotel – Alexandre Desplat
Composer Alexandre Desplat won an Oscar for his score of Wes Anderson’s most celebrated film. Set in the fictional European country of Zubrowska, the film blends the architecture and accents of a slew of central and East European countries, and Desplat’s soundtrack embodies this melting pot of influence with an approach that rings like a mix of mythic European and off-kilter Transylvania Russian balalaikas, Gregorian chants, bells, yodellers and Hungarian cimbaloms. In the hands of a less experienced composer, an instrumentation range as diverse as this could easily spin out of control, but Desplat succeeds in spinning a score that matches Anderson’s sensibilities with aplomb. Offbeat and charming, suspenseful and lilting, hopeful and human, with a warmth to almost every score, this cosy score will buoy you through even the most taxing of study sessions.