What a Good Soundtrack Does

By Evan Narcisse on at

Last weekend, while driving my kid to swim class, I was nodding my head along to the bassline of a song playing in the car. “Do you like this song, Daddy?” my daughter asked. My answer was yes. Yes, I like that one song from the My Little Pony: The Movie soundtrack.

A month ago, I took my daughter to see My Little Pony: The Movie and, as has become the norm, found the soundtrack on Spotify and added it to the rotation of songs she can listen to. In the weeks since, the music has wormed its way into my brain and I’ve had to struggle to parse whether the lyrics constantly float into my brain because I hear them everyday or because they’re good.

The answer is: They’re good.

The songs that work on the My Little Pony: The Movie soundtrack are good because they reinforce the ideas and emotions rustling around in the movie. The film is essentially a musical and the tunes do the standard duty of exposition and character development. But the best tracks do so with a force that simultaneously grounds certain plot points in the movie and allows them to exist away from that frame of reference.

Every time “Open Up Your Eyes” comes on, I’m gob-smacked at how well it works as a crystallisation of the “come to the dark side” trope. The musical arrangement is sweeping, dark, and lushly seductive and the lyrics sound appropriately haunted. Day after day, as my daughter sings along, I think “Damn, this pony has been through some shit.”

In her own way, my daughter gets it, too. Sometimes, while this track is playing, she reminisces in a matter-of-fact way about the scenes that played with the song. She doesn’t reference every relevant movie sequence when their companion songs come on—“This is when the other ponies didn’t want to play with her”—but I think she does it with this one because “Open Up Your Eyes” stands out.

I have a similar reaction to a song from an old video game soundtrack. Released by Ubisoft in 2003, Beyond Good & Evil tells the story of Jade, a freelance journalist uncovering a conspiracy on the planet of Hyllis. It’s one of my favourite games of all time but I’ve only played through it a handful of times and haven’t touched it in years.

Yet, every time I play “Safari”—composed by the criminally underrated Christoph Heral—moments from Beyond Good & Evil come rushing back to me. I remember the exact circumstance when the song first comes on: Jade has adopted children orphaned by the years-long cosmic war that’s devastated Hyllis, but the power in their lighthouse home has been turned off because she’s behind on the bills. Jade then has to go out and take pictures of various exotic animals and send them to a zoologist cataloguing Hyllis’ fauna. The sequence is really a gameplay tutorial on how to use Jade’s camera but that’s not what I remember.

The marimbas sounding off in the background pull up memories of how the art direction made Hyllis feel tropical and far-flung. Zinging strings call up the urgency of the situation: “These kids need me! I better get my act together and make some money.” The melodies and chord progressions mimic the playful hide-and-seek that characterized the act of photographing wildlife in the game. And when everything drops out to make room for that minor-key piano riff at around 1:25, the sadness of the orphaned kids and war-borne attrition happening on Hyllis hits me right in the chest. The upward movement of the strings right at the close of the song end it on a hopeful note. All in all, “Safari” is a little musical fable, an acorn that holds the arc of the whole game waiting to grow as you play.

My most cherished soundtrack moments function in the same way, Whether it’s the icy loneliness contained in Mr. Freeze’s theme from Batman: The Animated Series or the repetitive bobbing-and-weaving urgency of “Derezzed” from Tron: Legacy, these tracks tell their own story and reinforce the larger narratives they’re embedded in. A good soundtrack keeps the visual experience in your head, even when you’re not watching the thing it came from.