Why soundtrack music is the best kind of music

Welcome to Formative Jukebox, a column exploring the personal relationships people have with music. Every week, a writer will tackle a song, album, show, or musical artist and their influence on our lives. Tune in every week for a brand new essay.

I’m standing on a subway platform, waiting for the delayed train that will eventually take me home. I have my headphones in, not only to ward off potential strangers who might fancy a conversation, but also because I’m in the mood to listen to the iTunes playlist I’ve (so cleverly) titled “Score!”

The list, which I’ve been compiling for years, is filled with snippets of film scores and soundtracks — the main theme from Gravity; the amazing I-am-woman-hear-me-roar music to which Buffy Summers leads her army of slayers into battle; the Beta Band song Rob puts on to inspire his customers in High Fidelity. Whenever I hear a song I like in a movie or TV show (or, increasingly, trailer or commercial), it gets put on the list, to be listened to whenever I want to think about whatever story it was used in.

Each song has its place, a specific reason for its addition to my library. Many are for when I need a good cry and can’t quite get that first sob out. (I tend to cry at the sight of other people’s tears, so pretty much any song used in a scene in which a character is crying — think the Juno “Sea of Love” scene — is good for this.) Others, like the aforementioned Buffy track, are for when I need courage. (I’ve listened to it before going into pretty much every job interview I’ve ever had, and damn if it doesn’t get me fired up.) A surprising amount (almost) make me want to work out. (The music used in the third Interstellar trailer weirdly has the perfect beat for jogging, a theory I fully plan on eventually testing and proving.)

What is it about these songs that resonates so much? A lot of it has to do with how they were used, and how they made me feel when I heard them in this movie or that TV show. I can’t listen to “Statues” from Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part II without picturing Professor McGonagall leading the charge to protect Hogwarts, just like I can’t hear “Strobe (Adagio in D Minor)” from Kick-Ass without seeing Hit Girl, well, kicking ass — and feeling like I could do the same.

The music chosen or created to accompany a particular scene can give you strength to do so many things: To fight; to feel; to confront your thieving roommate who keeps “borrowing” your favorite pair of earrings; to break up with the jerk who’s been cheating on you for months; to tell off the co-worker with the penchant for telling sexist jokes.

And that’s just the music already associated with a movie or show. There’s an interesting side effect of loving film scores and soundtracks so deeply, which is that, after a while, you begin to wonder how every song you hear will fit into the score and soundtrack of your own life. It’s not long before you start assigning them to various moments of your days, from the mundane to the significant. What will play during your Sunday afternoon brunch/grocery shopping/cleaning the bathroom montage? Or when you finally quit that soul-sucking office job? Or when a car nearly runs you down and your life flashes before your eyes?

Adding a musical background is the perfect way to spice up something as banal as just getting from Point A to Point B. Try listening to the eerie music that plays while Cillian Murphy creeps through the military mansion in 28 Days Later the next time you’re walking down the street and see if it doesn’t get your heart rate up a bit. (Imagining hordes of pseudo-zombies following closely behind is optional.)

If music can make something like making your way to the train exciting, think of what it can do for moments of actual importance. I hear very specific songs in my head when I’m falling in love (Cat Power’s cover of “I Found a Reason” and Hot Chocolate’s “Every 1’s a Winner“), when I’m falling out of love (“Coming Down” by the Dum Dum Girls and “Your Heart Is an Empty Room” by Death Cab for Cutie), when I’m pissed about something (Dresden Dolls’ “Girl Anachronism” and Mumford and Sons’ “White Blank Page“), when I’m in such a good mood my face starts to hurt from all the smiling (“Sleep the Clock Around” by Belle & Sebastian and “Mr. Blue Sky” by Electric Light Orchestra).

And yes, I’ve pretty much accepted that if my life were a movie, it’d be a low-budget indie. I’m perfectly happy with that, and I’ll continue having a blast painstakingly piecing together my soundtrack. Who knows? Maybe someday I’ll do something that will warrant a movie about me, and look at that — I’ll already have the music all set for it.

Oh, and in case you need something to listen to next time you’re waiting for a late train, I highly recommend Carly Simon’s “Anticipation.”

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