The Chronicle Playlist: Scores That Tell Stories


Hildur Guðnadóttir, composer of the award-winning soundtrack for “Joker.” (Photo by Timothée Lambrecq)

By Cade Anderson, Arts Writer


Back in 2007, I got an iPod Nano for Christmas. I then proceeded to spend my entire iTunes gift card on just one thing: the soundtrack to “A Series of Unfortunate Events” by Thomas Newman. For a second, ten-year-old me thought that maybe I should’ve bought, I don’t know — literally anything else? But as I listened to the album, novels that I cherished played out in my mind and I regretted nothing.

I think I’ve always been mesmerized by the emotional and narrative power of soundtracks. Film and TV scores are an extraordinary type of music because they’re intentionally crafted to move a plot forward or help us understand characters — and particularly well-made scores can tell us these stories without showing us anything at all. Here are some of my all-time favorite scores, organized into a traditional three-part story structure.

Act One

“Waking Up”

Ishai Adar and Weish (“Shirkers”)

The perfect start to a cinematic playlist, “Waking Up” is a gentle and glittery melody that makes me appreciate the little details of a new day on planet Earth. 

“Out of Nothing, Everything”

Dan Romer (“Maniac”)

This song begins the exposition of the story — upbeat strings and marimba guide us through the textures and colors of a world we don’t know yet.

“Forbidden Friendship”

John Powell (“How to Train Your Dragon”)

“Forbidden Friendship” is an ode to the majesty of simple things. It presents pure relationships or motivations that will endure the coming tests.

“The Gravel Road — Score”

James Newton Howard (“The Village”)

As the name might suggest, this one is about traveling. A curious piano and violin pick up the pace, introduce us to new elements of the setting and explain that things here are more complicated than we previously thought.

“Photos in the Woods”

Kyle Dixon and Michael Stein (“Stranger Things: Volume 1”)

Eery and cerebral, “Photos in the Woods” marks the inciting incident — the moment that everything normal is shaken up. This synth-heavy track exudes the sensation that something is very wrong.


Daft Punk (“TRON: Legacy”)

“TRON: Legacy” is one of many movies I listened to before actually watching, thanks to Daft Punk’s incredible work on this score. “Outlands” is exhilarating — it’s the part of a story when an adventure has just begun and a new threat is being confronted head-on.


Ludwig Goransson (“Black Panther”)

This track introduces us to a previously unseen antagonist (in this case, Killmonger from “Black Panther”). It stands out for its energetic blend of classical European orchestra with African and hip-hop-inspired themes.

Act Two 

“Life in the Canopy”

Jacob Shea and Jasha Klebe (“Planet Earth II”)

Somber and introspective, “Life in the Canopy” embodies recuperation after sudden transformation or loss. At this point, we know that we can never turn back to the way things once were — and thus begins the second act. “Life in the Canopy” shows us our capacity to adapt in the face of instability.

“Grandma on the Roof”

Alex Weston (“The Farewell”)

The vocals in this song have haunted me ever since I first watched “The Farewell.” “Grandma on the Roof” immerses us into the experience of being in a foreign space, unsure of who we are or what, exactly, we are searching for.

“The Birds Are Doing That”

Cliff Martinez (“Contagion”)

Here, echoing synth beats communicate curiosity, the collection of vital information and an ominous revelation. 

“Old Souls”

Hans Zimmer (“Inception”)

Building off of the tension from the last track, “Old Souls” places the protagonist’s recent revelation into a more personal context. This song offers us vivid insights into how the characters are changing and what’s at stake for them. 

“Call Me Joker”

Hildur Guðnadóttir (for “Joker”)

In 2020, Hildur Guðnadóttir’s score for “Joker” won a Golden Globe and was nominated for an Oscar — this track will illustrate why. It’s confused and crushed by its own emotions — it resembles the dark night of the soul in which all options seem to have been exhausted and the end is near.

“Lighthouse Chamber”

Ben Salisbury and Geoff Barrow (“Annihilation”)

This is a piece of music that always sends a shiver down my spine. The reverberating bass is unspeakably unnerving as it carries the protagonists closer to their existential threat than they’ve ever been before.

Act Three

“Anakin’s Dark Deeds”

John Williams, London Voices and London Symphony Orchestra (“Star Wars: Revenge of the Sith”)

An iconic track of the Star Wars prequels, “Anakin’s Dark Deeds” sparks the start of the climax. It combines classical orchestra and colorful Star Wars flare to create a battle of epic proportions. 


Hans Zimmer (“Inception”)

This track from “Inception” connects the climax back to the very beginning of the story. We receive glimpses of the past that remind us how and why we arrived at such an urgent crisis.


Hans Zimmer (“Interstellar”)

Closing the climax is the impossibly intense “Mountains.” It drowns us in the gravity of the story’s most decisive moments.

“Metal Tears” 

Dan Romer (for “Maniac”)

Chilling vocals ease us out of the climax and into a season of grief for what was lost during the journey. “Metal Tears” is a eulogy whose ethereal energy is impossible to capture in words. 

“This Is Goodbye for Us”

Dan Romer (“Maniac”)

In this track, grief undergoes a metamorphosis. It becomes something softer — something that looks to the future. These mellow strings and bass are aware that death will always become new life, but this doesn’t make it any easier to say goodbye.

“The Journey, Not The Destination”

Max Richter (“Black Mirror”)

A prominent piece in the “Nosedive” episode of “Black Mirror,” this track creates a feeling of nihilistic optimism. It invites us to embrace the chaos of existence and build something meaningful out of it. 

“Annie and Owen”

Dan Romer (“Maniac”)

“Annie and Owen” is the spirited, meta outro to “Maniac.” It congratulates us for concluding one story as it simultaneously opens up another.


The full Spotify playlist can be found here.


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