One of the many attributes of NPR’s This American Life is the music that is used throughout episodes of the show. Listeners often inquire about the various talented musicians and artists that are featured to help bring the stories to life. Music is often used to separate the segments of the show. These songs are generally mentioned in the specific show notes. Other tunes are employed to provide a melodic atmosphere in the background for the narratives; these songs are not always acknowledged in the credits. There are hundreds of performers and musical groups that have had their music incorporated into episodes. The majority of the time artists create new compositions meant specifically for This American Life. They have also curated playlists of their melodies for the program, so you can immerse yourself in the world of This American Life even when you’re not listening to a show.
Some astute fans of the show can identify certain instrumental songs and artists, but others are harder to isolate. Songs might sound familiar to listeners because they are from movie soundtracks. Common soundtracks that have been used include indie favorites Amelie, The Royal Tenenbaums, I Heart Huckabees, Donnie Darko, The Virgin Suicides, and Rushmore. Other common music comes from bands including Calexico, Yo La Tengo, and Bexar Bexar. Some have identified Orbitones, Spoon Harps & Bellowphones, Nightmares on Wax, DJ Shadow, Mogwai, Penguin Café Orchestra, Beastie Boys, Miles Davis, Airling & Cameron, and Brian Eno.
Below are some of the (harder to identify) artists commonly played in episodes of This American Life.
TV, film, theater, and other media score composer and pianist.
Song to check out: I’ll Fly Away
Film composer and multi-instrumentalist.
Song to check out: Home Again
composer, violinist, and singer-songwriter.
Song to check out: Stare Into The Sun
Grammy-nominated musician and composer, primarily organ and piano
Song to check out: Circus Haze
composer, synth designer, and audio engineer.
Song to check out: You Don’t Have To Live Like a Refugee
composer working in the mediums of film scoring, concert music, and radio drama. Multi-instrumentalist.
Song to check out: Goodbye to Childhood
composer, producer, and performer of music.
Song to check out: 1 Ships I
Merel & Tony
Theater and radio composer and musicians.
Song to check out: Some Planes
Providers of evocative instrumental music.
Song to check out: Beignet
Producer and turntablist.
Song to check out: Problems
Canadian music group.
Song to check out: Sewer Blues
If you’re looking for more outlets to find NPR’s This American Life music, playlists that have been compiled by fans and can be found on Spotify and YouTube.
If you’re still interested in how NPR’s This American Life uses music to score the episodes (i.e. the breakdown of when to use music, for how long, and mapping it to a narrative) check out the article Using Music: Jonathan Menjivar For This American Life. https://transom.org/2015/using-music-jonathan-menjivar-for-this-american-life/