Highlights from Tim's Favorite Movie Soundtracks (aka Your Next Study Playlist)

Music is about as important a component of a movie as anything else that goes into the production of a film. A good score has the power to take the images onscreen and the words being spoken and channel right into the heart of the viewer; likewise, the total absence of music in a film can heighten a sense of despair or elevate tensions in otherwise pedestrian situations (Eastern European "torture cinema", as I have come to call it, makes ample use of this technique).

Of course, you don't need me to tell you how great cinematic scores can be—from John Williams' blockbuster overtures to the iconic screeches of Bernard Herrmann's "Psycho" score, the genre of movie soundtrack comprises some of the most memorable and powerful songs of the last 120 years. To say nothing of the sort of brilliantly talented composers who find themselves adding their musical genius to the medium.

After watching Martin Scorsese's phenomenal Taxi Driver tonight, I decided to compile a list of some of my favorite made-for-movie music for your listening pleasure.  

Bernard Herrmann, "Taxi Driver" : Main Theme

Scorsese's Palme d'Or-winner opens with dramatically building brass set against a haze of red light and fog. Then: that saxophone. That saxophone!  I can't even think of anything more logical to say than that. A desultory, moody leitmotif that works perfectly throughout the film in whatever form it takes, this theme was the last score Herrmann completed before his death in 1975, just a few short months before the film's Cannes premiere.

Bernard Herrmann, "Vertigo" : Scène d'Amour

Borrowing heavily from Wagner, Herrmann's other  famous movie theme is the spectacular theme of love that plays when Scotty watches Judy complete her transformation into Madeleine. As used in the film, the song is timed perfectly with every edit and movement of the camera, culminating in the unforgettable moment when Judeleine emerges from the bathroom, illuminated by the otherworldly glow of the neon green sign outside her apartment window.

 Alex North , "Spartacus "  : Love Theme

Speaking of love themes, the one Alex North composed for Stanley Kubrick's somewhat vanilla—but nevertheless enjoyable—sword-and-sandals epic really struck me and stuck with me (I can still be caught whistling it from time to time) (by which I mean, at least once a week). 

Giovanni Fusco, "L'avventura"  : Title Theme

According to one of the top comments on this video, Michelangelo Antonioni told Fusco to compose  a main theme that would try to capture jazz as it would have been written in the Hellenistic age. Sure, why not—sounds like a good enough explanation behind this fantastic guitar piece to me!

  Joe Hisaishi, "Howl's Moving Castle"  : Main Theme

Hisashi's "One Summer's Day" from Spirited Away has the unique effect of making me want to break down and start sobbing every time I hear it; his waltz from Howl's Moving Castle similarly fills me with feels, but of a slightly happier sort. Then you get to the syncopation at 4:30 and all the emotions break lose.

Luis de Pablo, "The Spirit of the Beehive"  : Title Theme

Toss this one in with the Spartacus love theme under "songs I catch myself whistling when I let my mind wander". The mysterious flute-and-piano theme of Víctor Erice's 1973 conflation of coming-of-age narrative with Mary Shelly's Frankenstein has that quality critics are wont to describe as "hauntingly beautiful". I wouldn't say it will keep you awake at night, but you'll definitely remember it for a long time to come.

Zbigniew Preisner , "Three Colors: Blue" , Song for the Unification of Eurpoe

And now at the opposite end of the spectrum, Zbigniew Presiner's symphonic masterwork for the great Krzystof Kieslowski's Three Colors Trilogy surely deserves more recognition Stateside. So here you go: the utterly triumphant opera used throughout Blue, the astonishing portrait of a widowed composer trying to reconcile the deaths of her husband and son with her duty to finish composing the symphony she and her partner were co-writing for the Unification of Europe.

 Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross , "The Social Network" : Painted Sun in Abstract

Obviously, not all film music convenes to the standard "Hollywood score" we tend to think about and which I've highlighted above. Indeed, Reznor and Ross's collaborations on David Fincher's last two films have yielded some truly excellent music. Tending towards atmospheric over melodic, the duo's songs contribute to the effectiveness of Fincher's razor-sharp filmmaking and the themes of alienation he's been exploring as of late. This piece, from around the middle of The Social Network, has the distinction of being the most-listened to song in my music library; hopefully someone out there is on the same wavelength as I am on this one.