study music

soundtracks that will make you smart

At some point in college, you probably figured out that you really suck at studying. If you’re lucky, this happened early on, in Freshman year when you were “working with friends” in a Keeney lounge. If you’re less lucky, you’ll figure it out in your senior year, on the night you take Adderall to crank out sixteen pages of your senior thesis. Whoever you are, whatever you study, it’ll happen to you at Brown. You will plan poorly. You will work inefficiently. You will despair of ever being able to meet a deadline without loathing yourself.

And inevitably, you’ll improve. By graduation, most of us have figured out one or two study methods that, without fail, have helped us work harder and concentrate better. For some people, it’s getting up early. For others, it’s a certain kind of Starbucks order, prepared by a certain barista. And for myself, it’s video game music.

The idea seems intuitive. Take a genre of sound that’s been designed precisely to immerse you in hours of concentration, plug yourself in, and go to work. Unobtrusive, loop-happy, and textured just enough to make repetitive tasks feel interesting, video game music does wonders for productivity. Here are some of my favorite soundtracks to work to:

Journey

The first video game score to be nominated for a Grammy, “Journey’s” music accompanied players as they wandered through an eerie, beautiful desert and solved puzzles by communicating to each other via chimes and Morse code. It was apparently a gut-wrenching experience. People cry when they talk about playing this game.

The game’s producers wanted a soundtrack that felt cultureless and universal, yet so terribly personal that hearing it would transport a player back to particular in-game memories. So “Journey’s” soundtrack has a sort of formlessness about it—a symphony with expanded percussion effects ebbs and flows around the cello, the instrument representing the human player. The cello’s theme appears here and there, briefly, only to be drowned out by the response of the symphony, the sand and wind and rush of the desert. Listening to the soundtrack is both isolating and inspiring—fitting for a game about smallness and wonder.

Good for: Writing the last few paragraphs of that paper, when you really need all that stuff you just said earlier to come together and seem intentional, large, provocative, etc.

L.A. Noire

I spent the summer of freshman year in China. Because of the jet lag, noise, and homesickness, I had a lot of trouble sleeping. I would lie in bed, totally awake, in a polluted, over-lit, unfamiliar city. Some nights, I would listen to the soundtrack from “L.A. Noire” and convince myself I wasn’t lonely at all, just mournful. And very tough.

“L.A. Noire’s” theme song is a very slick piece of mood-setting. Smoke rises, criminals lurk, night falls on the stylized streets of Los Angeles. For anyone with an interest in jazz, film noir, and 1940s crime stories, this soundtrack carves out that aesthetic pretty perfectly—I recommend it for reading, or cooking, or your next long summer night spent alone. Even if you’ve never smoked, it’ll make you crave a cigarette.

Video game soundtracks rarely feature jazz as the main genre, and hardly ever do so to evoke a particular jazz period. “L.A. Noire’s” soundtrack reminds fans of late 1950’s jazz; one reviewer compares it to Miles Davis in his ‘cool’ period. It has the same mournful, dissonant harmonies and muted trumpet voicings. Andrew Hale, the composer, also has a sweet spot for the vibraphone. If you don’t listen to jazz but would like to get into it, this album would make a great start.

Good for: Doing your readings for American history. Writing your philosophy paper on Existentialism. Having an existential crisis while doing your readings for American history. Folding laundry.

Hotline Miami

This is the only soundtrack on this list that I would probably love as a real album. I also can’t describe it very well: equal parts rock/electronic, jungle/street, noir beach/daytime nightclub, 80s disco/90s Daft Punk, guitar riffs/synth loops/8-bit bass, all of it interesting and extremely well-curated. The video game was noted when it came out for the way it showed carnage. Players not only kill a lot, but they have to walk through a lot of blood and dead bodies. The soundtrack, I think, was meant to make you feel psyched about it and then immediately feel weird about feeling so psyched.

It definitely makes email a lot more intense. House music tempos, pulse and consistency make this soundtrack instantly addicting. You should check it out if you like techno, Red Bull, or the movie “Drive”.

Good for: Getting really pumped and manic aggressive about being home on a Friday night doing job applications.

The Last of Us

Apocalyptic Western music might not sound like the perfect accompaniment for a night of studying, but for some reason, it puts me in deep focus mode better than anything else on this list. Something about the tension between dry horror and campfire warmth in the soundtrack both puts me on edge and makes me feel like I’m coming home.

I discovered this soundtrack in a moment of quiet midnight desperation. It was closing time in the Sun Lab, and I was tearing my hair out over of a piece of code that surely would ruin me if I couldn’t get it working. I panic-googled “video game soundtracks,” put this on, and instantly felt calmer. This soundtrack has been my “eleventh hour” go-to ever since.

Argentinian composer Gustavo Santaolalla combines two popular game genres in his minimalist score: the old trope of outward-bound Western survival and the newer one of Apocalypse bildungsroman. While other composers might have powered through and written an epic, intense, totally undistinctive symphonic score, Santaolalla made a slightly ambient work that’s very personal. It’s quiet. It’s self-reflective. It carries you, without panic, through the hours approaching deadline. Before you know it, you’ll be painlessly there.

Good for: Debugging code late at night. Studying early in the morning.

FEZ/Faster Than Light

This last one comes down to a tie between two mellow, atmospheric 8-bit soundtracks. Both “FEZ” and “Faster than Light” are retro indie games that came out in 2012 to minor cult success, and they owe a lot of that to an old-school look and a strong, nostalgic soundtrack. Imagine the addicting candy-sized melodies of early Nintendo, but with perfectionist post-2010 sound production.

“Faster Than Light’s” soundtrack has a dark, muted, code-cracking feel to it, and the sound effects feel large, sweeping, and cool, much like the interstellar space the players navigate in the game. “FEZ,” on the other hand, was a game that popped, and the music uses 8-bit effects to evoke a cozy, green-and-blue, smell-the-flowers kind of feeling. In both soundtracks, there are moments of childish peace and childish excitement. Perfect for taking you back to your early days of Game Boy Advance and bad Flash games on Mom’s work computer.

Good for: Finishing up the grunt work at the end of the week—answering emails, booking tickets, making plans, following up. Relax! Music is playing. Life is a game. Everything’s okay.