Finding music to work to requires some careful needle threading. The wrong soundtrack can be more distracting than helpful, drawing your attention away from the task at hand rather than helping to focus attention. And words, as the singer once sang, often get in the way. If you can work along to verbally dexterous hip hop or songs that practically dare you not to sing along with them, great: The rest of us need a different sort of music to stay focused.
Those seeking instrumental (or mostly instrumental) alternatives have plenty of options, including but not limited to jazz, ambient music, the spare end of the classical canon and droning doom metal, all of which can help make time spent doing desk work transporting but not too transporting. Another fine option: film scores, which can make creating sales projections, updating spreadsheet data or other deskbound tasks a less tedious, more dramatic experience (or at least provide just the right amount of distraction). But even this requires some careful selection.
From the introduction of sound, film scores have been dominated by music whose lineage can be traced back to the emotional extremes of the Romantic era. That’s led to some stunning music, but try concentrating while listening to the cymbal crashes of, say, Erich Wolfgang Korngold’s wonderful score to The Sea Hawk. There might not have been a greater film music composer than Bernard Herrmann, but try not getting too swept up in his Vertigo score to concentrate (to say nothing of his music for Psycho).
Some of the most famous film music of more recent decades belongs to the same tradition. John Williams and Danny Elfman’s best-known work, to choose two prominent examples, has a similar mix of swelling intensity and plaintive yearning. What’s more, some film music can be distractingly famous. If you can listen to Jaws without looking around the room for a hungry great white or hear the music of Batman without searching the skyline for the Bat Signal, enjoy.
For this list, however, we’ve focused on music that ranges from the pleasingly melodic to the moodily atmospheric to the hypnotically repetitive, with some funky digressions along the way. In any event, here are some suggestions to get you started, with some further recommendations for those wanting to explore film music in a similar vein.
Nino Rota, 8 1/2 (1963)
Between 1933 and 1979, Italian composer Rota created more than 170 film scores (in addition to an impressive number of operas, choral works and chamber music). Along the way, he forged long-running creative partnerships with not one but two Italian masters — Luchino Visconti and Federico Fellini — and penned the instantly recognizable music used in Romeo and Juliet and The Godfather. For his Fellini work, Rota drew heavily on traditional Italian music and the sounds of the circuses that inspired Fellini and often informed the atmosphere of his films. Rota’s 8 1/2 score is a standout among standouts, a collection of jaunty tracks in which trumpets, clarinets, pianos and strings all take turns pushing the melodies along. Rota’s music is sometimes used as an ironic counterpoint in the film itself, but try not tapping away at the keyboard to the score’s insistent rhythm.
If You Like That, Try: You can jump in anywhere with Rota, but if you want to keep the 8 1/2 mood going, try Rota’s score to Fellini’s 1970 circus salute The Clowns. Or try Amarcord, a yearning, nostalgic score perfectly in sync with the movie it accompanies.
Ennio Morricone, Duck You Sucker! (Giù La Testa) (1971)
Think Rota’s voluminous output was impressive? How about this: As of this writing, Morricone has composed over 400 film scores and remains still active (if a bit less prolific) at the age of 91. To work in the Italian film industry during its heyday in the 1960s, 1970s and 1980s meant turning out music in bulk. If your success and acclaim made you in demand in Hollywood, as it did for Morricone, you just wrote that much more. Big budget blockbusters, grimy little police thrillers, bizarre horror films, lovely little memory plays — for Morricone, it was all in a day’s work. (Morricone has said even he doesn’t know exactly how many scores he’s written over the years.)
His breakthrough came via his work in spaghetti westerns, particularly his collaborations with Sergio Leone. Chances are, you’ve heard Morricone’s music for those — especially his score for The Good, the Bad and the Ugly — a few times too many. You might not have heard, however, Morricone’s score for Leone’s final western, 1971’s Duck You Sucker!, which takes their previous collaboration to some strange, unexpected places. (So much whistling. So many spectral vocals.) While you’re at it, check out one of Leone’s least-seen films, a politically charged tale set against the backdrop of the Mexican Revolution but inspired by the upheaval of the late 1960s and early 1970s.
If You Like That, Try: Morricone has written in such a wide variety of styles, and written so much for so many films, that knowing where to start exploring can be intimidating. The best course of action: just jump in. Or if that’s too intimidating, let someone guide you. The 1990s and early 2000s were a golden age of Morricone compilations on CD, and though the best of the bunch — Rhino’s two-disc A Fistful of Film Music — has fallen out of print, many survived into the streaming era, as have scores to films both famous and obscure. Streaming services aren’t short on Morricone playlists, either.
Exploring Morricone’s contemporaries and collaborators, like Bruno Nicolai and Luis Bacalov, are also worth your time. What better way to power through the end of the day than Nicolai’s groovy theme to Agente Speciale LK.
Akira Ifukube, The Best of Godzilla (1954 to 1975)
To create the stirring music that signaled Tokyo was about to get incinerated for the first Godzilla film (or Gojira, to stick to the Japanese title), Ifukube drew on the music of Japan’s indigenous Ainu population, inspired by the sounds he heard growing up in the northern town of Otofuke. The choice gave the big guy the most dread-inducing theme music a giant monster could ask for, a percussive march made to accompany the pounding of giant feet.
Ifukube’s music stands up beautifully on its own, however, no doubt in part because he considered film scores a side job from his work as a composer of classical music that had nothing to do with city-destroying monsters. But that didn’t stop Ifukube from remaining with the series, off and on, throughout its classic first wave (or returning to it in the 1990s), and this best-of collection captures a composer who kept experimenting when others might have just turned out variations on the same time-tested themes.
If You Like That, Try: Ifukube would probably love it if you integrated some of his non-film music into your work day, but it’s pretty hard to track down, at least in North America. But, hey, if you like his Godzilla music, his score to Rodan is sure to please, too.
Lalo Schifrin, Enter the Dragon (1973)
Even if you don’t know Schifrin’s name, you know his music, which includes everything from the Mission: Impossible theme to scores for The Amityville Horror and the Dirty Harry films. Schifrin began his career as a jazz pianist who collaborated with legends like Dizzy Gillespie and Xavier Cugat. He held onto his jazz impulses as a film composer, and his funky score to Bruce Lee’s biggest hit is a particular highlight, a potent combination of strings, wah-wah guitar and some (admittedly slightly cliched) Eastern sounds.
If You Like That, Try: Schifrin’s score to Bullitt will make any day at the office feel like a relentless pursuit through the streets of San Francisco.
Isaac Hayes, Truck Turner (1974)
Who’s the Black private dick that’s a sex machine to all the chicks? Well, Shaft, obviously. But say you’ve heard Isaac Hayes’ Shaft soundtrack too many times — assuming that’s possible — and want more. Try the soundtrack to Truck Turner, for which Hayes served as both composer and star, playing a football-player-turned-bounty-hunter who tangles with a pimp named Harvard Blue (Yaphet Kotto). The influence of blaxploitation scores can be heard all over 1970s TV shows and movies (Enter the Dragon among them). Hayes became a giant of the genre thanks to Shaft, but he didn’t exhaust his tricks with his most famous films. In Truck Turner, he creates the sound of a character singularly focused on getting the job done. Let that focus inspire you.
If You Like That, Try: Blaxploitation scores are a rich world unto themselves and for a good stretch of the early 1970s, it almost seemed a requirement for legendary soul musicians to try their hands at one. Curtis Mayfield’s music for Superfly is the best of the bunch (because it’s one of the best albums ever), but Marvin Gaye’s Trouble Man, Bobby Womack’s Across 110th Street, Roy Ayers’ Coffy and James Brown’s Black Caesar are all excellent as well.
John Carpenter, The Fog (1980)
Only a small handful of directors double as their own composers, a list that includes Robert Rodriguez and Mike Figgis. None are quite as famous as Carpenter, however, who’s provided the synth-driven scores to the lion’s share of his movies (sometimes in collaboration with composer and sound designer Alan Howarth) and even taken them out on tour as a frontman. Carpenter’s most famous score, Halloween, is far too scary to aid productivity, but his moody music for his 1980 follow-up The Fog sounds pleasingly spooky without ever becoming overwhelmingly terrifying.
If You Like That, Try: But maybe you don’t want music that’s pleasingly spooky. Maybe you need to kick ass (from the comfort of your desk) to the sound of throbbing beats and distorted guitars. In that case, may we recommend Carpenter and Howarth’s Big Trouble in Little China score?
Vangelis, Blade Runner (1982)
Carpenter wasn’t the only musician exploring what synthesizers could do for film music in the 1970s and 1980s. Released the same year as Halloween, Giorgio Moroder’s score to Midnight Express would both win an Oscar and encourage countless composers to plug in their Yamahas. For Greek composer Vangelis, the shift in taste created a chance to bring the synth-heavy music he’d explored on albums like China and Odes to the big screen. He won an Oscar for his score to the 1981 film Chariots of Fire, then outdid himself with his work for Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner, crafting music in which forbidding electronic sounds and lush, unmistakably organic themes inspired by film noir scores brushed up against one another. It’s the movie itself in music form.
If You Like That, Try: The 1980s were awash in synth scores and one band dominated the field: the long-running German electronic music ensemble Tangerine Dream. Though the group helped define the sound of the 1980s, much of their soundtrack work is currently out of print and unavailable on streaming services. One of the group’s earliest soundtrack efforts, the score to William Friedkin’s 1977 thriller Sorcerer, is both readily available and turns even the most tedious task into a pulsing dance with death.
Air, The Virgin Suicides (2000)
To help create a hazy vision of a long-lost 1970s filled with yearning and unspoken desire, Sofia Coppola turned to a French duo who’d already pretty much perfected what such a vision should sound like. Air had only released one full-length album when Coppola tapped them to score her directorial debut, an adaptation of novelist Jeffrey Eugenides’ suburban tragedy. But by then the 1998 album Moon Safari had become an instant classic, soundtracking many a late 1990s daydream (and more than a few make-out sessions).
The band brought the same dreamy, retro energy to the assignment and the score’s enveloping synths and lush saxophone solos create a sense of beautiful isolation for 40 minutes, up through a final track that uses a distorted reading of some of the novel’s saddest passages to moving effect. Get some work done and then have a good cry about the unreachable past, the mysteries of adolescence and the many ways the world finds to stack the odds against girls.
If You Like That, Try: A couple of years later Coppola’s brother Roman made CQ, a movie about a young filmmaker trying to find his voice against the backdrop of the world of late 1960s filmmaking. It’s not bad, but the soundtrack by Mellow — another French ambient band with a gift for channeling the past — is even better.
Mica Levi, Under the Skin (2014)
Jonathan Glazer’s unsettling, upsetting and ultimately devastatingly moving experimental science fiction film owes much of its power to composer Levi’s discordant score, a nerve-rattling collection driven by strings that create a sound Levi has likened to the noise of a beehive. Levi’s score might not work for everyone rushing to meet a deadline, but turn it up and get on its wavelength and the rest of the world pretty much disappears.
If You Like That, Try: Levi’s other soundtracks — for Monos and Jackie — are similarly excellent. Before she wrote film music, Levi fronted the band Micachu & the Shapes (now known as Good Sad Happy Bad). That makes her part of a tradition of rock-musicians-turned-film-composers to turn out remarkable work in the 1990s, 2000s and 2010s, from Clint Mansell’s collaborations with Darren Aronofsky to Jonny Greenwood’s work for Paul Thomas Anderson to Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross’ soundtracks for David Fincher and others. Though each excellent in their own way, their work doesn’t have that much in common beyond their creators’ ability to create a rich atmosphere. But if you need richly atmospheric music to help get the job done, look no further.
Nick Cave and Warren Ellis, The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford (2007)
Speaking of rock stars turned film composers, Cave and his Bad Seeds bandmate Ellis have collaborated on a series of remarkable film scores since first trying their hand at it with director John Hillcoat’s Australian western The Proposition in 2005. Though a remarkable effort, the duo bested it with their contribution to Andrew Dominik’s The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford, a stark, mournful retelling of the Jesse James story that has rightfully picked up an appreciative following after stiffing at the box office in 2007.
But even if you’ve never seen the film (and you should), it’s hard not to get swept up in Cave and Ellis’ music, a sweeping, delicate collection perfectly in tune with Dominik’s vision of an Old West devoid of romantic mythmaking, but filled with barren plains and lost opportunities. Or maybe it’s perfectly attuned with completing that metrics spreadsheet ASAP, EOD at the latest. That works too.
If You Like That, Try: Cave and Ellis’ soundtracks use spareness to great effect, often creating music of tremendous power with just a few instruments. They share that quality with David Shire’s score to Francis Ford Coppola’s paranoid masterpiece The Conversation, which uses a ragtime-inflected solo piano that only occasionally gives way to other instruments (usually to ominous effect) and once in a while collapses into strange, distorted noise. Shire’s score might be too eerie to work by, especially if you’ve seen the movie. But if you can resist the urge to tear up the floorboards looking for listening devices, it may be just what you need.