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Sound and Music

Synchronised sound has been a key part of filmmaking since the late 1920s. The soundtrack will usually comprise diegetic sound, which means sound motivated by the action in film, as well as non-diegetic sound. Non-diegetic sound is not directly connected to the action on screen, typically a musical score which is added in post-production.

There are three main areas of sound to be aware of:

  1. Synchronised dialogue and recorded sound – this is diegetic sound which is the aural accompaniment to the action observed on screen. Speech may be recorded with the images or added later in a dubbing studio.
  2. Sound effects (both on and offscreen) – these tend to be diegetic; however, these effects may be created in a Foley studio or exaggerated in post-production.
  3. Music (which can be diegetic but is more often non-diegetic).

Sound has a very strong influence on our experience of the action in a film. It can establish realism, contribute to setting, or aid continuity of action. Sound also carries a great deal of a film's emotive content and conveys information relating to the mood, genre and structure of the narrative.

Activity: Sound on / vision off

Play a clip (preferably one without a voice-over) without showing the picture.

List all the sounds you hear, as precisely as you can, in order. Discuss what you heard:

  • Where do you think it is set? (country, rural/urban, inside/outside?) And what makes you think that?
  • When do you think it is set (past/future/contemporary? Day/night?) And what makes you think that?
  • Who is in this scene? (old/young, male/female, how many characters?) And what makes you think that?
  • What’s happening? And what makes you think that?
  • Mood and tone? (sad/happy, comedy/tragedy?) And what makes you think that?
  • How will it end? (badly/happily ever after?) And what makes you think that?
  • What does it look like? Do the sounds suggest a particular visual style? (animation/live action, colour/monochrome, bright/dark?) And what makes you think that?

Watch the clip only after full discusssion and you'll see how much you were able to 'work out' in advance.

Ask yourselves how the sound and music affected your perception of the action, your understanding of the narrative and your involvement in it, in particular:

  • Pace
  • Mood
  • Character/s and their motivation
  • Narrative tension and suspense
  • Genre
  • Unusual or repeating sounds, or use of music.

1. Synchronised dialogue and recorded sound

Though recording sound may seem straightforward, it is seldom as simple as appears. In everyday life, our brains are very good at filtering out distracting noises such as road works or seagulls, so simply recording sound at a location would never render it the way most people hear it.

Dialogue in films has usually been carefully recorded and edited to create a sound balance or mix that draws the audience in, even if it isn't exactly realistic. Sound mixing is one of the more complex areas of film post-production. It is the job of the sound designer to create a credible but emotive soundscape that will move the narrative forward.

To control the relative volume of all the sounds (dialogue, sound effects, background sound, room tone, music), the different sound elements are laid out on a variety of tracks on the editing suite which can be independently adjusted and then mixed to create the film soundtrack.

2. Sound FX

Sound effects can be used to punctuate and reinforce action (spot FX), guide audience attention, motivate reactions or cuts, build pace, bridge scenes, establish location (Atmos FX), establish genre, and enhance mood. They can be:

  • Diegetic and realistic – a realistic-sounding part of the action (even if they are not actually recorded at the same time as the film), like the sound of a book being dropped or horses coming up a road.
  • Diegetic and realistic but exaggerated – this is a technique frequently used for Spot FX in children's films to help them understand the action, e.g. the tinkle of a bell or the bursting of a balloon.
  • Diegetic and non-realistic – this happens where filmmakers know audiences would expect to hear a sound even when no sound would be there. For instance, the sound of a spaceship travelling through empty space (no air, no sound), the sound of a ghost, or horses' hooves on sand.
  • Non-diegetic – these sound effects are used to suggest movement, either on screen or between scenes, travelling back in time (in connection with a flashback), or an inner response from one of the characters to the action, e.g. to accompany a hair-raising moment in a ghost story.

3. Music

Whether played by a full orchestra, a single instrument or a synthesiser, music's basic functions are similar to the use of Sound FX. Music establishes mood, provides character motifs, establishes themes (e.g. order vs chaos), heightens suspense, reinforces action, changes narrative pace and provides links between scenes.

Film music's primary function is to serve the film narrative. Despite its often powerful role, film music is often integrated in a way that avoids drawing attention to the score. For this reason, it is unusual to find films where the music is mismatched with the action, unless this happens as a deliberate counterpoint, where the music might well be at odds with what is seen for a particular dramatic or comic effect. The obvious exception to this is musicals and music videos, where the narrative is driven, and characters' feelings are expressed, by the music.

Not all films use music the same way.

  • Hollywood films often use traditionally orchestrated music throughout the narrative to help guide the audience's emotional response to characters and action, support narrative continuity, and to help punctuate the key moments in a film.
  • Romantic films tend to use highly emotional music filled with melody, harmony and rhythm.
  • Horror and thriller films often use more discordant or chromatic music that does not employ traditional musical phrasing but can instead turn quickly to reflect the dramtic tension within the scene.
  • Documentary filmmakers (particularly British TV documentary makers who can make use of the block music agreement) often use existing, 'found' music to build a soundtrack.
  • Some independent filmmakers regard film music as overly manipulative and may choose to avoid using music that is motivated within the action of the film, with the exception of titles or credits or music used for the purposes of subversive counterpoint.

How and where music is used, the type of music, and the choice of instrumentation are key artistic choices which have a major impact on the way audiences respond to the film.