Because you know you can't sit through that entire term paper without some background music (Image via Collegian)

5 Dazzling Instrumental Film Soundtracks for Your Studying Playlist

Looking to hunker down and focus on studying for finals? These five soundtracks will get you through the grind.


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Because you know you can't sit through that entire term paper without some background music (Image via Collegian)

Looking to hunker down and focus on studying for finals? These five soundtracks will get you through the grind.


It’s that time of the year again. The advent of finals week looms over students’ heads like a thundercloud, reminding everyone of the impending storm of papers, exams and presentations.

Nerve-racked students flock to libraries and campus coffee shops, with their laptop screens cluttered with tabs and their books and notebooks scattered confusedly about them. And, of course, everyone invariably has their headphones jammed into their ears as they try to cram as much as their brains will allow.

During finals season, it seems like everybody has a different kind of music. The girl in the corner by the windows might be tuned into a hip-hop/R&B station on Pandora; meanwhile, the guy on the slightly overused couch in the middle is bobbing his head to classic punk rock on Spotify. Every studying playlist has something different to offer.

However, if you’re looking for music that’ll lull you into concentration while you study, nothing beats a good film score. The repetition of musical themes and motifs will keep you hypnotized until the very end, making film scores perfect for those times when you have to get in the zone to write that term paper.

These five film scores, though, perhaps draw in you the best. If you’re looking for the perfect playlist to help you prepare for finals, you might want to consider adding these to your own studying playlist.

1. “The Hours,” scored by Philip Glass

Philip Glass, one of the godfathers of the minimalist movement, created an exquisite, Academy Award-winning score for Stephen Daldry’s 2002 drama, “The Hours.” The film follows the intertwined lives of three women: the renowned British author Virginia Woolf, a Los Angeles housewife in the 1950s, and a thoroughly modern New York woman.

Glass is known for his elegant, pulsing, fluttering progressions that repeat and return throughout the piece. There are no overly lively sections of this score, only a carefully sustained melancholy that hardly deviates from the central theme.

If you need a score to focus your scattered thoughts — or maybe just to reflect on the quiet misery of finals — the score to “The Hours” has it all. Simply turn it on and let the dreamlike arpeggios and twinkling piano motifs wash over you.  

Best song: “Morning Passages”

2. “The Danish Girl,” scored by Alexandre Desplat

Alexandre Desplat’s scores are often marked by a touch of whimsy, much like the films for which he composes. You might have heard his work if you’ve seen “The Grand Budapest Hotel,” either part of “Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows,” “The Grand Budapest Hotel” or “The Shape of Water,” this year’s Best Picture winner.

His score for the 2015 film “The Danish Girl,” however, is particularly gorgeous and great for studying. Like the score to “The Hours,” the score to the “Danish Girl” is soft and pulsating, with some refreshingly unusual instrumentation.

Also like “The Hours,” this quaint album has a measure of gloom every now and then; for the most part however, it’s more upbeat than the soundtrack to “The Hours.” So if you want something that’ll prop your spirits up during those late nights at the library, try listening to “The Danish Girl.”

Best song: “Watching Ulla”

3. “The Theory of Everything,” scored by Jóhann Jóhannsson

Stephen Hawking’s biopic is a joyous, colorful and lively movie, and it’s only fitting that the soundtrack should be equally dazzling — that’s exactly what Jóhansson delivers in his Golden Globe Award-winning score to “The Theory of Everything.”

The soundtrack might be minimalist in structure, but is maximalist in every other sense; the instrumentation, dynamics, harmonies and melodies all conspire to produce a rather inspiring sound. If the muted sadness of “The Hours” and “The Danish Girl” isn’t doing it for you, try adding the score to “The Theory of Everything” to your studying playlist.

It’ll keep your spirits aloft as you struggle your way through term projects and papers, and who knows? Maybe its energy will pair well with the Red Bull you bought to get you through the night.

Best song: “Cambridge, 1963” or “The Arrival of Birds”

4. “Jackie,” scored by Mica Levi

The 2016 biopic “Jackie” has perhaps one of the most unique scores ever composed for a mainstream film. It is almost pointillist in approach: a deep bass coursing beneath like a thick canvas, stringed and reed instruments quivering and dotting above the harmony.

If one looks — or listens — too closely, they see disharmony, but if they step back and take the whole picture in, they find something much more austere. The score to “Jackie” alternates between a sense of sweet memory and vague unsettledness. However, as a whole, it moves in and out like a tide, rhythmic and solemn.

“Jackie” works well if you’re looking for something like structured ambient noise for those long, tedious studying sessions. Try playing this score when you’re reading an endless scholarly article or the last few chapters of that incredibly long novel you have to finish by Friday.

Best song: “Children”

 5. “The Handmaiden,” scored by Jo Yeong-wook

Score or no score, “The Handmaiden” is one of the finest mystery-thrillers ever made; if you haven’t seen it, it’s well worth your time. There are pickpockets, con artists, secret pornographers living in mansions in Japanese-occupied Korea and doubly secret affairs between chambermaids and high-class ladies. But the score is marvelous in its own right.

Like Jóhansson’s score, Yeon-wook’s is minimalist in structure, but maximalist in all other capacities. Its amalgamation of Western and Eastern musical styles and emphasis on forward-moving melodies is enlivening and actually tells a story of its own. Each song in “The Handmaiden’s” score is different from the last.

Still, it works to fantastic effect; in addition, the variety actually helps you stay in that studying frame of mind by keeping you on your toes. An exhilarating score to an equally exhilarating film, “The Handmaiden’s” soundtrack is perfect for a fast-paced study session.

Best song: “My Tamako, My Sook-hee”

Writer Profile

Shashank Rao

University of Michigan
English and Creative Writing

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