MyFive: 5 Great Soundtracks for Writing

by Jeff Abbott on January 20, 2011


A new regular feature of this blog is going to be MyFive — a list of five things that I like or love or find helpful to me in my life or my work, and why.

I’m going to start with something that colors my work day, and that’s music. I listen to music while I write, and I have pretty wide-ranging tastes. I like everything from classical to jazz to rock. But one of my favorite genres of music for writing is the film soundtrack. Soundtracks mirror the structure of a story:  moments of huge drama, quiet, intensity, love, and confrontation. There are certain soundtracks I have turned to again and again for inspiration while I write, and it was extremely hard to limit it to five. (I can see writing a runner’s-up list here as well.)

Henry V by Patrick Doyle. Kenneth Branagh’s production of Shakespeare’s Henry V is one of my favorite films. I  know people who are not big into Shakespeare who loved this movie, too. And one of the many elements that worked so well in the film is the music. It’s hard to believe this was Patrick Doyle’s first soundtrack score–it is remarkably assured. It captures the young king’s confidence, the high stakes of his rash invasion of France, the warmth of his friendships, the burden of the crown, and the brutal action of Agincourt.

Lost by Michael Giacchino. I’m not going to break down the soundtracks by season; I’m going to consider all six seasons (and the separate finale soundtrack) as one epic work. I think this is the best television soundtrack of all time. Very few television shows bother with a full orchestral soundtrack, but Lost did, as the show morphed from a survival story about plane crash survivors to an examination of a set of damaged characters seeking redemption inside the secret heart of the world. It was a grand, sweeping story that required music to match. No matter your feelings on the show–whether you embraced Lost‘s mysteries or thought the show took too many turns for its own good–few television soundtracks lent so much power and distinctiveness to a show’s feel. The music managed to create a palpable sense of intrigue, of suspense, of joy, of loss. And it gave the show’s mysterious island its own extraordinary sense of character–most soundtracks don’t quite pay as much attention to locale as Lost does. The track “Oceanic 815″ on the first season soundtrack, with its piano solo and accompanying orchestra, is completely compelling, encapsulating  fear, loss, and hope in six stunning minutes. I also love Giacchino’s work on Alias and Star Trek, but his score for Lost stands alone. All the seasons, and the finale soundtrack, add up to over 12 hours of stunning music.

Oldboy by Cho Young-Wuk. This astonishing Korean film about one man’s violent revenge on the people who kept him captive in a single room for fifteen years –for unknown reasons–runs the gamut from a light and airy waltz to dark orchestral themes of loss and vengeance. All the tracks are named after films: from ‘The Searchers’ to “For Whom the Bell Tolls’ to  ‘The Big Sleep’. I was halfway through watching the film for the first time and was already looking to see if the soundtrack was on iTunes. One of the most emotional soundtracks ever for a crime film. The high-minded orchestral treatment is a direct contrast to the violence of the film (it’s not for the squeamish). It does an extraordinary job of conveying those huge moments of tragedy, when past and present collide.

The Bourne Films by John Powell. The reimagining of Robert Ludlum’s Bourne novels–updated for modern times, and a modern sensibility about what an action film should be–was greatly enhanced by John Powell’s scores for all three films. He manages to evoke Bourne’s sense of disconnection, of loss, of not knowing who he is, while tying it to some of the best action themes ever written. An example: “Bim-Bam-Smash” from The Bourne Supremacy is a nearly perfect car chase theme; and is immediately followed by a bittersweet theme in “Atonement”, when Bourne must face someone whose life he has ruined. All three are action soundtracks, but full of true emotional beats.

The Hours by Philip Glass. This was one of those films I didn’t particularly think I would enjoy and ended up really liking, and a big part of being won over was Glass’s terrific score. Some find Glass too repetitive; I actually think his music works fantastically well for background while writing, because the static rhythms don’t change instantly, the progression is steady but slow, like words appearing on the screen. One of the challenges of this soundtrack was one usually found only in novels: three characters, in three different time periods. Glass’s music works for the 1920s, the 1950s, and the the turn of the 21st century. It is thoughtful, rich, emotional music, and although my books are rather different from The Hours I always love writing to this soundtrack.

I have many more soundtracks I love, and it was hard to limit to just five. I’ll have to post another set of five in a MyFive entry weeks to come.

Photo credit, andres.moreno

    { 1 comment… read it below or add one }

    Giles Blunt November 25, 2011 at 11:33 am

    Hi Jeff (if I may),
    I first started using soundtracks while writing way back in the early eighties. I had a very loud Smith-Corona and I used Tangerine Dream to block out the noise and gradually just got used to writing to music. Philip Glass’s Glassworks was one of my next purchases (on cassette, naturally).

    Thanks for the tips. My personal preference is either for very moody tracks (eg The Road), or music that is simple and percolating like Cliff Martinez’ Drive or Contagion. For high emotion, of course, no one beats Ennio Morricone.

    I have a couple of Patrick Doyle, but I’ll check out the Bourne stuff.

    Cheers, GB

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