“I have no idea to this day what those two Italian ladies were singing about. Truth is, I don’t want to know. Some things are best left unsaid. I’d like to think they were singing about something so beautiful, it can’t be expressed in words, and makes your heart ache because of it. I tell you, those voices soared higher and farther than anybody in a gray place dares to dream. It was like some beautiful bird flapped into our drab little cage and made those walls dissolve away, and for the briefest of moments, every last man in Shawshank felt free.”– Morgan Freeman in The Shawshank Redemption (1994)
The other day, while my wife was at work, the one day of the week she is not remote, I felt terrible. I didn’t feel sick, but rather anxious, and found myself falling deeper into a somber place. I immediately grabbed my phone, put on my music streaming app, and turned on my preprepared playlist, “My Film Scores.” I selected “Constant,” which is from the fourth season of Lost by Michael Giacchino, walked into the sunroom, and moved a chair so I could look out the window. I sat down, eyes closed, and did some deep breathing as the song played. With its slow but beautiful orchestral progression of intersecting piano and violin play, I felt my heart grow warm, regular, and my anxiety slowly dissipated as the instrumental music comforted me.
I am not sure when I began gravitating towards film scores at moments of sadness and heightened anxiety. It’s not new, but it’s not old either. They seem to reset me when I feel low and bring me to a place that only they can guide me. It’s like being transported to an island of one with music broadcast over the speakers, similar to that powerful scene in The Shawshank Redemption, from the quote I use above. Even for a minute, it seems all the craziness, the current reality of life, and my fears and worries are proven imaginary. The villainous face these feelings appear as are finally unmasked, as the music reminds me of who I am and everything is alright. But why film scores? Let’s explore that for a moment.
Finding the Calm & Musical Beginnings
I think it is pretty clear by now how I deal with some levels of stress. I build LEGO sets, play video games, watch tv shows & movies, and created this blog to write about those enjoyments as well as my half marathons, travel, and more. It is, of course, not the only way I find tranquility. Speaking to someone and gaining strategies to deal with anxiety is essential. But these have been some of my tools, at stressful moments, I employ to combat those emotionally tricky instances. If the pandemic has taught me anything, it has shown me that I can get help when I need it and institute a strategy when attacked by feelings that seek to overwhelm me. It has been incredibly therapeutic in creating this blog and posting each week. The other day I was reminded that one way I deal with stress and have yet to share is by the power of listing to film scores. I mean, I am listening to them as I write this.
“Music was my refuge. I could crawl into the space between the notes and curl my back to loneliness.”– Maya Angelou
In my blog post, When Time Stops, I went into great detail about the type of music I enjoy listening to and the musicians I clamor to see live. But I left out my fascination and love of film scores, original music written for all types of movies. When I watch a movie or television show, the score is one of the most important and significant parts of the cinematic experience, at least for me. I am not talking about the best song for the film; that is an entirely different conversation for another day, looking at you Joey Esposito, Karate Kid, and “You’re the Best.” Instead, I am referring to that beautiful sound that will instinctively reflect the film or an emotional awareness the score calls up.
I am not sure why in both times of emotional difficulty, as well as when I watch a tv show or film, I am captivated and awoken by the power of the production’s original music. It’s honestly one of my favorite categories at the Academy Awards, but I am not a music expert. I can’t sing to save my life, can only read music at an 8th-grade level, and don’t pretend to have an ear that would make novice musical experts blush. I enjoy it, albeit from an amateur level, but that’s all I got, and I enjoy both discussing and exploring a score’s effectiveness on cinematic imagery. Maybe, this all has to do with my musical upbringing, although it didn’t last long.
You see, while nearly every American child starts their musical career playing the recorder, I quickly mastered it. Yes, I just said that I mastered the recorder. But soon after, my mother and father indulged in my fascination with the saxophone. So, in elementary and middle school, I played in the band and wasn’t terrible. My most significant moment came when I played “Save the Best for Last” by Vanessa Williams, which I had practiced till near perfection. With the help of private lessons, my parents paid for and maintained their support of my budding musical excitement. But when I wasn’t soloing and covering this amazing Williams song on the saxophone, I was part of an ensemble that played the best film scores. Music for Back to the Future, Indiana Jones, Jurassic Park, Jaws, and of course, Star Wars. So pretty much anything by John Williams, Alan Silvestri, not yet Hans Zimmer, was in regular rotation for kids in the band in American schools when I was a kid. That was probably my first encounter with the power of a film’s score and the magical process of how a conductor/composer mixed different instruments to make a fantastic sound. Hearing the instrumental and tone of the melody, you instinctively knew the movie the music represented. Is there any other greater power over the legacy of a film? I mean, there are merely two musical notes in Jaws, and it changed everything about that film and film scores since.
While my early introduction to film music was fun, I lost interest fast as I got older and went to high school. Unfortunately, I, thinking back now, decided not to continue playing in the band, closed up the saxophone case for good, and moved on. But, my fascination and enjoyment of the music from films continued and only increased. As I said before, while I thoroughly enjoy the construction of a film’s soundtrack (insert every Quintin Tarantino film here, especially Jackie Brown), it’s the original instrumental score I seek to explore. As I got older, even as soundtracks gained more importance, the film score emotionally moved me in a way that average songs on a soundtrack didn’t, but not because the soundtrack was not emotionally gripping. Of course, they were and are, but I connect more profoundly with a quieter orchestra musical medium.
The Power of Original Scores
“Who hears music, feels his solitude– Robert Browning
Peopled at once.”
I thoroughly enjoyed James Horner’s music for Titanic, Apollo 13, and Braveheart. You can’t hear “For The Love of a Princess” and not immediately be brought back to the cinematic epic that was Braveheart. There are not many composers better than John Williams, whose credits incident Jurassic Park, Jaws, Star Wars, Saving Private Ryan, and Schindler’s List, to name a few. Jurassic Park’s main theme is probably my all-time favorite film score if, for no other reason, it unlocks a door to youthful imagination that resides in a world in which dinosaurs still roam. I adore the sound of John Barry’s Dances with Wolves, Howard Shore’s Lord of the Rings, and Trevor Jones’ brilliance with Last of the Mohicans. Even Steve Joblonsky’s score for Transformers, especially “Arrival to Earth,” is riveting and has an intensity that both illustrates the film’s sweeping scale and the anthem of the good guy.
More recently, Hans Zimmer is one of, if not the best composer whose original film scores I continuously listen to, which include Gladiator, Interstellar, and Inception, so pretty any work with Christopher Nolan. These are a few film composers whose music both inspired and remained with me in those early years, for the most part. I should mention Randy Edelman, whose music, particularly “To the Stars” and “Wonders of an Ancient Glory,” in Dragonheart is still one of the more emotionally powerful and calming scores I have ever heard. You have probably heard “To the Stars” in a movie trailer, awards ceremony, or event and didn’t know who created it or that it had originated from a movie about dragons.
While some of those composers are still turning out massive hits today, they are not the only ones who have found their way to my film score playlist. I could easily have added twenty, possibly thirty, but that would slightly defeat the purpose of selecting only a few that had a genuine emotional impact on me. However, I argue that there is one composer, above all, whose talents have translated into emotionally powerful original music for both television and film. This individual is Michael Giacchino, who I mentioned at the top of this post.
“I like the sounds of real, living, breathing musicians. When a real person plays something, there’s a soul. They’re giving you their emotions.– Michael Giacchino
In the years between high school and college, I went through phases of buying movie soundtracks at stores like Sam Goody in the mall or the local record store, Words & Music, in my hometown. But as the years went on, purchasing music online became more widespread, and I gravitated away from soundtracks. Instead, I found other sounds, which I discussed in my previous blog post on my musical tastes. It wasn’t until a few years ago that I started listening to movie scores independently of watching the movie itself. The original music from films had still moved me and stayed with me long after viewing, but I did not seek out a re-listen unless I watched the movie again. That was until I was injured a few years ago and binged watched a tv show, one that my brother-in-law Kyle had suggested continuously. The musical score of that show changed everything.
The Music from Lost
“I always thought of ‘Lost’ as a psychotic opera. Because there were so many characters, it was important for me to track them with themes.”– Michael Giacchino
In the summer of 2014, I hurt my knee and had difficulty running, which sucked since I loved running and prepared to run my first half marathon, The Wine & Dine Half Marathon, at Walt Disney World in Florida. My knee healed, and I went on to run the first of what would eventually be over a dozen half marathons. But, in those moments where I could not run and was working from home, I found the time to watch Lost finally. Let’s say I could not, I repeat NOT, shut it off. I binge-watched all six seasons, 118 episodes, in just about a month. It was amazing. I would get up in the morning, do some work, and watch Lost. I couldn’t run, and walking felt terrible too, so watching this show was a happy distraction. I didn’t expect to be so moved by the show. What a fantastic story, character and plot points, and YES, an ending that made sense! To be honest, it was the score linked with the cinematically crafted visual moments that made the show a game changer for me. It was beautiful.
I think in the days, weeks, and months after watching the show, I listened to the music from Lost more than any other theme. Mainly, I heard it on YouTube. I don’t remember having a streaming music service at the time, and not sure I looked for a CD, don’t think I had anything to put a CD in anyhow. I felt like the composer, Giacchino, crafted something extraordinary and unique. The sounds of the show, his use of the piano, and other instruments are brilliantly linked, connected, and interwoven. In all my years, I don’t think that any musical compilation from a television show, or film, has made me deeply emotionally inspired than Giacchino’s music for Lost. It can move you while telling a story that images, dialogue, and songs cannot. Watching Lost, listening to the original music has continuously stayed with me and become the pinnacle to which I measure all television and film scores against. It’s a tall order, but Giacchino is the best composer in the business, and Lost is that central reflection point.
The funny part is, even for people that didn’t watch Lost, and therefore do not have this shared knowledge of its sound, you are probably familiar with some of Giacchino’s other composed musical scores. Without knowing it, I was moved by his work earlier when I played, as a child, the video game Medal of Honor on the original PlayStation console. I have detailed my love of video games in a previous blog, A Newcomer Joins Borderlands 3, so learning, well after watching Lost, that Giacchino composed the music for the game, for some reason, made complete sense. Disney fans will recognize his music from UP, which he won the Academy Award (Oscar) for Best Original Score in 2009, or Coco, the Incredibles, Inside Out, Zootopia, and Cars. He is the composer of the new Jurassic Park, Star Trek, and Marvel films like Doctor Strange, Spider-Man Homecoming, and Far from Home and the best of the “newer” Star Wars films, Rogue One. For me, “Your Father Would be Proud” from Rogue One is mixed with the beauty of the film’s imagery and one of the most beautifully composed scores for a Star Wars film, other than the original. Each of these films and their original music is genuinely transformative.
“What chance do we have? The question is “what choice.” Run, hide, plead for mercy, scatter your forces. You give way to an enemy this evil with this much power and you condemn the galaxy to an eternity of submission. The time to fight is now!”– Felicity Jones in Rouge One (2016)
It seems no matter the movie or television show, Giacchino’s music has similar yet distinct qualities that make you feel the incredible depth. Even one of his most recent film compositions, Jojo Rabbit, was profoundly moving. The original music was designed to illustrate the feel, emotional impact, and tragic imagery perfectly crafted by Taika Waititi, another individual I could praise for his masterful work in directing and writing. That film seemed like the perfect storm of fantastic music, writing, direction, and acting, leading to a cinematic experience not easily forgotten after the closing credits. Giacchino is a master at his craft, and I look forward to his continued work in developing, writing, and composing incredible music for a film on both the small and large screen for years to come. At least I hope, because it is his work, more often than not, I seek comfort in during difficult times.
A Panic Attack & Red Sky at Night
A few years ago, I would never have considered creating a playlist on the phone of my favorite film scores. Something I now have and see as incredibly important. It wasn’t until I traveled to Shanghai, China, in the summer of 2018 that the thought emerged to create a playlist, and it was only in the aftermath of my first ever panic attack did I do it. For those who read one of my earliest blog posts, Exploring Shanghai, I introduced you all to my first panic attack. It sucked. I had been in Shanghai for about a week, I was missing my wife and our dog, and the air quality in China that day had been dreadful, but I went to bed with a positive attitude. Then in the middle of the night, I woke up and was having trouble breathing.
There was an air purifier in the room, so I slowly went over to it, shoved my face into it, and tried to do some deep breathing. I got a glass of water and went back to bed, but the breathing still felt, for lack of a better word, thick. It was as if the person in the next room was smoking, and it was coming into my room, but that was not the case. So, slowly, but with a gradual intensity, my heart started to race. I could feel it, and I panicked. I had never had a panic attack before, but it was terrifying. I truly felt like I had a heart attack. All I could think was, “so, this is how I go? In a hotel room in China, a little over 7,000 miles away from my wife and dog, and I didn’t pay for the extra insurance to bring back my body if I died, shit!” Jokes aside, it was scary, and I did not know how to calm down. Should I seek help, go to the hospital, or what? Luckily, with the time zone differences, I was able to get in touch with my wife, and she was able to help me stop the attack. It took about an hour, or more, to get from wherever I was to about a zero, but I did. It was one of those moments I will never forget.
I didn’t have any more panic attacks while in China. Shortly after the “big one,” I decided to make a playlist of those film scores that had always brought me the greatest feelings of calm. I hoped to compile this list and listen to it before bed. Hopefully, this would emotionally ground me so that in moments when I felt down, panicked, or anxious, I had something I could turn on and play, with the hope I would never have to go through an attack like that again. I added as many original film scores as I could remember. Still, I wanted only those that connected with me and could be called upon at those difficult moments, whether I was sad, feeling down, or on the verge of another attack. I knew only those melodies that I emotionally connected with could help me relax, calm down, and feel centered. As you can imagine, most of these were from Lost and composed by Giacchino.
My Calming iPod Playlist
“When I hear music, I fear no danger. I am invulnerable. I see no foe. I am related to the earliest times, and to the latest.”– Henry David Thoreau
Over the last few years, I have added, only slightly, to my playlist. It is still mostly made up of several titles from Lost, like “Constant,” “Life and Death,” “Moving On,” and “Parting Words.” Still, music, by the Newtown Brothers, from The Haunting of Hill House, which one might not have imagined possessing an impressive score, would be mistaken as it is one of the best musically sounding television shows released in the last few years. I love both the piano and the violin, so it should be of no surprise that many of the film scores included prominently feature those instruments. One score on my list with a gorgeous melody that I have never forgotten is “Ashokan Farwell,” as presented in Ken Burns’ documentary The Civil War. As a historian of American History, especially the Civil War era, I have watched this film series no less than a thousand times and listened to the score by Jay Unger with awe and amazement. It is a tune, as Unger wrote, that was his “attempt to get back to a feeling of connectedness.” It worked. It is one of the most beautiful musical sounds I have ever heard. The sound draws out individual emotional responses that make the documentary far better with it, and, along with the documentary, forever linked in a state of time and place.
Back to my playlist, movie score classics from Hans Zimmer, John Williams, and Trevor Jones are, of course, included. Still, the list is dominated by Giacchino’s music, probably to no one’s surprise. The music from Lost, Star Wars’ Rogue One, and Coco are prominently displayed. One show that I have recently included, even though I watched the show a couple of years ago, is from The Leftovers. Interestingly, Lost and The Leftovers were created by Damon Lindelof, but Giacchino did not do the score for The Leftovers. Instead, that was Max Richter, whose composition on the show was terrific, moving, if slightly haunting.
As I have said, nearly all the music on my playlist is instrumental, except two. So, other than the above examples, you will find a couple of random short songs like “LAVA,” from the Disney short film LAVA, by James Ford Murphy, which makes me feel emotional each time I listen, for reasons I will mention in a minute. The other is “Know Who You Are,” which is from Disney’s Moana and has a melody/tempo that makes me feel incredibly at ease every time. Maybe I love both of those songs because of my time living on the Island of Oahu in Hawaii, or my appreciation of the ukulele, or assuredly my immense respect for Hawaiian culture and Polynesian traditions, or, as I imagine, it’s all of the above. No matter what the reason, each time I hear both songs, I get emotional and am easily transported back to Hawaii, reflecting on my time with my mentor, who has since passed away, and longing to recapture the past for one more minute. “Know Who You Are” is one minute and eleven seconds long, and in that short period, I can reflect on years of lived experiences.
“I have a dream– Lyrics by James Ford Murphy for LAVA (2014)
I hope it will come true
That you’re here with me
And I am here with you
I wish that the earth, sea, and the sky up above
Will send me someone to lava”
There is no denying my connection to music and how it makes me feel better. I understand that there are probably many more film scores, or even classical music, revered with much higher praise, but this is not a blog post about that; it’s about how the film scores make me feel. I have never suffered a panic attack like I did when I was in China. I have more tools, more help, and far more prepared for moments of heightened anxiety and stress. I don’t pretend to think this perfect, oh no, absolutely not. Nor is this a journey I can travel alone, but the film scores soothe those moments when I feel alone. It helps to remind me of where I have been and who I am. It’s as if a fog is lifted. Most days, not all, I get up in the morning, get dressed, make coffee, and sit and listen to the music of Lost. Not because I need to remember the show, that’s impossible! Instead, it’s about “letting go” (you see what I did there?). It’s about starting the day with one eye recognizing past difficulty and one eye eager to plow forward. With the pandemic raging, this is how I set both feet on the floor when I get up and take on the day.
To come full circle back to The Shawshank Redemption scene I quoted earlier. It has always been a scene that struck me as impressive. Andy Dufrane is sitting at a desk, calm, feet up, and smiling as he has begun playing Mozart’s “Le Nozze di Figaro,” specifically the Duettino “Sull’aria” over the loudspeaker of the prison. It’s a moment that changed the film’s pace and direction. The cinematography was masterful as the music played, the camera panned above the prison yard with absolutely everyone motionless and in awe. As David Salazar wrote in Operawire on January 16, 2020, “Director Frank Darabont gives the audience one of the most glorious expressions of opera’s communicative power through a monologue.”
Music as language. As true today as it has ever been. Both in what music does for film, but always what it does for me and, as I am sure it does for most. I do not pretend to have all the answers to quell my stress or moments of anxiety. But, I love cinema, both large and small, and when I hear the orchestra and the music helping to shape the story, both in direction and impact, I find that I am in a moment similar to the scene in Shawshank Redemption. Everything stops, pauses, and it is as if some warm, gentle breeze graced my cheek, and the melody soothes and supports. The playlist will be there, and I am always eager to find those musical notes that inspire me, like “Constant” from Lost, or “To The Stars” from Dragonheart, or “Time” from Inception. We all marvel at how composers transform film, but we must celebrate the emotional impact their scores have well after the credits roll and the film cuts to black. The film ends, the score transcends.
Cover Image by Beth Rufener on Unsplash