Growing up, the rule in my house was that I couldn’t listen to music while I did my homework. My parents’ reasoning? That I would get distracted by the lyrics and make silly mistakes on my assignments. Looking back now they were probably right, but I found it harder to focus while working in complete silence. So I found a loophole — I could listen to instrumental music, since it didn’t have any words. My simple Spotify playlist, titled “scores for studying,” consisted of a few instrumental tracks from my favorite movies and usually was played only right before a big test. But since then, my relationship with film scores has grown into an emotional experience that I never expected.
Music and film have both always played a huge part in my life. I’ve played piano since before I started kindergarten, guitar since the seventh grade and I did musical theatre all throughout high school. My family and I have seen just about every Disney movie enough times that we could quote entire scripts if we tried (and we have), and my friends and I have planned more movie nights than I could ever remember. Scores, then, are the best of both worlds for me. When I listen to the soundtrack of one of my favorite movies, it’s easy for me to picture the corresponding scene in my mind. But scores also have the ability to capture complex ideas and emotions far better than words ever could. They can transport me into scenes I’ve never experienced in real life, but they give me a clear understanding of those events as if I had. It’s part of the reason I love them so much.
Take “Mother” from the 2016 biographical drama “Lion,” composed by duo Dustin O’Halloran and Hauschka (“Ammonite”). The song plays near the end of the film, when Saroo reunites with his mother in India after years of searching. The composers manage to capture each emotion that the characters feel in this scene. It starts out with slow, somber piano as Saroo is about ready to give up until he sees a woman walking towards him. As the recognition dawns on both of their faces, they walk with more urgency before meeting in the middle, crying and touching each other as though they can’t believe this is really happening. The strings come in and build on top of each other, creating a more hopeful melody. When I listen to the song, I can always picture the scene in my head regardless of how long it’s been since I last watched the film. I can hear the characters’ reunion through the notes: the gratitude to have finally found each other, the grief of being separated for so long. While some of us would have a hard time imagining what it would be like to go without the people we love in this way, the music is there to guide our imaginations.
Another personal favorite is “Agape” by Nicholas Britell (“Don’t Look Up”), from the 2018 film adaptation of “If Beale Street Could Talk.” Agape is a Greek word, meaning unconditional love. I first learned this term in my senior year at my Catholic high school — agape is one of the words used in the Bible to represent the level of love that God has for all humans on the earth. Regardless of your religious beliefs, the idea of loving someone for everything that they are, good and bad, is beautiful to think about and to want. I can’t properly describe why, but this song fits the definition exactly. The music radiates joy and awe. It pulls at your heartstrings and makes you feel like crying (happy tears, of course). I haven’t seen “If Beale Street Could Talk,” so I can’t put the song into the context of the movie, but I first heard this piece last summer while up north with my family and it sent me into a deep reflection. COVID-19 cases were dropping across the country, and for a brief respite, life was starting to feel more normal. I had been struggling with depression and anxiety from the constant uncertainty of the world, but the song matched the happiness and freedom that I felt that day, as I realized that I was doing so much better than at the same time one year before. Whenever the song comes up on my playlist, it sends me right back to that moment, and I can’t help but smile.
At times this love of mine has veered towards obsession. If I were to put every single instrumental song I have on my phone into one playlist, it would be about nine hours long. Not only that, but I’ve made several sub-branches of playlists: “best of scores,” “scores for sleeping” and even made-up soundtracks to the books I’m writing. In 2017, my top artist on Spotify was composer Justin Hurwitz (“First Man”) because of how often I listened to the “La La Land” soundtrack. In 2020, my Apple Music Replay playlist didn’t have a single song with lyrics. My mom has even said to me before, “I don’t react to music the way that you and your dad do.” (I still love you, Mom, even though the gene for musical talent unfortunately skipped you.) And yet other times, my love is validated. On a chill afternoon at work, somebody put on a playlist of movie scores, one of which was from “The Martian.” I recognized the theme at the same time that one of my friends did, and we both gasped and shouted, “‘The Martian!’” before cracking up laughing at each other. It’s comforting to know that other people notice these things, too.
I would describe myself first and foremost as a storyteller. I love to talk and to write, though sometimes I have trouble figuring out how to translate the ideas in my head onto the pages in front of me. I’m in touch with my emotions as much as a twenty-something college student can be, but I can’t always accurately describe how I feel. Scores help me work through it all. They calm my fears and make me feel like a character in my own movie. They help me empathize with other people’s experiences and rediscover the beauty of life when I’ve lost sight of it.
I’m so envious of people who can say so much without using a single word.
Daily Arts Writer Hannah Carapellotti can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.