Before beginning this article, I would like to recognize the brilliant composer Jóhaan Jóhannsson, who passed away earlier this year. I began writing this article while he was still alive, and I shamefully did not finish it until he was gone. He changed my life in so many ways through his film scores and his solo music, and I will forever be indebted to him.
The first time I realized the importance of film scores was senior year of high school.
It was midterms week, so tension was high and I was stressed, and all I wanted to do was take a 2-or-so hour break from schoolwork to watch a movie. So I minimized my thesis Word doc, opened Chrome, and rented The Theory of Everything on Google Play.
Of course the story tugged on my heartstrings, but it was the background music that really struck a chord (pun intended) with me. Sure, I’d heard the penny whistle solo from “My Heart Will Go On” by itself and thought, “Hey, that’s a pretty cool tune,” but even then I’d never really paid attention to film scores. When The Theory of Everything ended and I was forced to return to my thesis, I opened the album on Spotify and played it while I worked. Then, somehow trying twenty different ways to write the same argument didn’t feel so heavy and impossible.
Since then, film scores have become a large chunk of the music I listen to. And out of that chunk, film scores that make me happy are the majority. Titanic has a lovely score, yes, but it’s not exactly cheerful or uplifting. It won’t make you smile or remind you that life can be light and exciting and beautiful.
Here are 10 film scores to listen to when you forget that life can be light and exciting and beautiful. I promise you, it still is. Sometimes you just need a little help seeing that.
10. The Theory of Everything by Jóhaan Jóhannsson
Notable song: “Cambridge, 1963”
This score is important to me first because it’s what first got me into film scores, but also because it matches the movie in that both of them are the exemplification of what an uplifting film should be. The piano theme in this song is carried throughout, and every time I hear it, I can picture Stephen Hawking and Jane Wilde spinning around in the grass, smiling at each other like the entire universe has narrowed to their joined existence. When you need to, close your eyes and use this score to let your universe narrow, too.
9. St. Vincent by Theodore Shapiro
Notable song: “Fresh Crab”
While the score for The Theory of Everything is quietly beautiful, St. Vincent is more upbeat and happy. “Fresh Crab” especially is the kind of song you should listen to when you need a quick pick-me-up. I’m not saying this is the perfect background music for your next 4th of July party, but I am saying this: “Fresh Crab” sounds like the way sparklers look. It’s something you can’t explain, something you have to see (or hear) for yourself.
8. Year of the Dog by Christophe Beck
Notable song: “Peggy’s Goodbye”
This score, like this movie, includes a wide range of emotions. But no matter what, it never fully drops its soft, hopeful feeling. It has a simple, plucky lemotif that follows cover to cover and is especially present in happier tracks. Not only does that make the album feel full and connected, but it also serves as a little memory jog of other points in the movie. It’s a reminder that life is a series of moments that connect but remain separate, so there is hope for any new moment to be a moment of change.
7. Wish I Was Here by Rob Simonsen
Notable song: “Swimming in Sunlight”
Within the actual movie, the score is never used to fill silence. It fades into the background most of the time unless you’re looking for it. But on its own, this score deserves to be heard. The whole album is soft, dainty, and absolutely lovely—the kind of lovely you can listen to cover to cover (and then around again) and never have to skip a song. The kind of lovely that will make you see loveliness other places, as well.
6. 5 Flights Up by David Newman
Notable song: “Remove Them Yourself”
David Newman is regularly out-shined by his brother Thomas, the man behind famous film scores like The Help and Finding Nemo. But in the realm of rather tranquil scores, David reigns. This one particularly has a melody that remains more or less soothing through the whole album. “Remove Them Yourself” is one of the more understated songs on the album; but don’t worry about it conveying any Thomas Newman-esque drama. This score only conveys hope.
5. Like Crazy by Dustin O’Halloran
Notable song: “I Carry You with Me”
Honestly, much of this score is pretty nostalgic and not exactly what you would call “fun” or “light.” At least, not in the way St. Vincent or Wish I Was Here are fun and light. But know that this score is the kind of soft you’re probably looking for when you’re two minutes from smashing a flower vase and tearing out your hair. “I Carry You with Me” is best listened to at the end of a hectic day to wind down. (If you’re looking for something to cheer you up, you may still proceed—but do so with caution.)
4. Seeking a Friend for the End of the World by Rob Simonsen
Notable song: “Upstairs at Olivia’s”
The first time I watched this movie, I fell in love with the story, the performances, the picture, and the score. (And Steve Carell, but that’s beside the point.) Before there was Wish I Was Here, there was Seeking a Friend. But Rob Simonsen’s lightheartedness is present in both. This album is not as reposeful as Wish I Was Here, but it’s just as inspiring. In the context of the movie, “Upstairs at Olivia’s” is proof that beauty can exist even in the most unlikely of times. Whatever you do, please remember that.
3. We Bought a Zoo by Jónsi
Notable song: “We Bought a Zoo”
The best word I can use to describe this score is “charming.” Jónsi has also appeared on both How to Train Your Dragon soundtracks, but this score is a little different. It still has the sound of childlike playfulness fitting to complement an adventurous life, only it’s something softer than that. After all, this is background music for characters buying a zoo, not trying to tame the animals inside. But you don’t have to try either; listening to this brings that adventure to you.
2. The Secret Life of Walter Mitty by Theodore Shapiro
Notable song: “Quintessence”
Like The Theory of Everything, this score is rather significant to me. This is the movie I watch when I feel small and insignificant and not good enough. You can accept passivity, or you can make something happen. “Quintessence” (short for “The Quintessence of Life,” the title of the photograph this movie is centered upon) is my go-to song when I’m feeling mired down by life, like I’m going to be stuck in the same place forever. This movie—and this score—both serve as a reminder that you can do many wonderful things no matter how old or jaded or incapable you think you are. It’s never too late.
1. Little Men by Dickon Hinchliffe
Notable song: “Skating”
The first time I watched this movie, I didn’t cry. I got pretty choked up, but I didn’t cry. Half an hour later, while I was listening to the score by itself, I did cry. Maybe, like The Secret Life of Walter Mitty, this score also hits me so hard because of the subject matter. Little Men revolves around two young boys growing up in present day Brooklyn, blissfully unaware of the struggles their parents face until it’s too late. The score perfectly exemplifies the kind of wide-eyed freedom you have as a kid, growing up thinking your life is going to go exactly as you always planned.
(It won’t, but that that doesn’t mean your life can’t still be great.)
Anomolisa by Carter Burwell (“Lisa in His Room”)
Comet by Daniel Hart (“Part of That Strange Dream”)
Last Chance Harvey by Dickon Hinchliffe (“The Brief Encounter”)
Me Before You by Craig Armstrong (“Lou’s Interview”)
The Odd Life of Timothy Green by Geoff Zanelli (“You’re Gonna Find It Hard to Believe”)
Phoebe in Wonderland by Christophe Beck (“Phoebe’s Theme”)
Silver Linings Playbook by Danny Elfman (“Tiny Guitars”)
Short Term 12 by Joel P West (“Welcome to Short Term 12”)
Third Person by Dario Marianelli (“The Note”)
The Way Way Back by Rob Simonsen (“Because You’re With Me”)