Sound & Music in Film
Added Value – The illusion that sound creates for a viewer that it is the image
alone that create the meaning, however sound enriches as image in both
expressive and informative ways, both enhancing and directing meaning.
Ambient Sound - the normal sound which exists in a particular scene or
location eg. traffic noise, bird song and crowd chatter.
Ambient sound can exist in any location. To describe sound which exists only
in the fictional story of a film, see diegetic sound.
Anempathetic Sound – this refers to diegetic music that is conspicuous by its
indifference or opposition to the accompanying images.
Attack – the way a sound is initiated is called attack, this can be both fast or
Asynchronous Sound – an effect which occurs when the sound is either
intentionally or unintentionally out of sync with the image.
If the sound is unintentionally asynchronous, this is the product of bad editing.
If intentionally asynchronous, the film maker is usually attempting to indicate
to the audience that they are watching something unreal, that they are
watching a film and not observing real life.
Automated Dialogue Recording - it is sometimes necessary to re-record
dialogue; this is often called looping, in the post-production phase. The actor
watches the footage and hears a series of beeps which acts as a cue for their
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Character Theme - the part of a soundtrack which is associated with a
The character theme is a piece of music which is repeatedly used in
connection with a particular character.
The character theme might be used to introduce the character into a scene or
to indicate their status within a scene. If the character theme of one character
is evident, but he or she is no longer in the scene, it can also be used to
suggest the presence of the character in the mind of another character.
eg. John Williams’s famous music for Jaws, become the character theme for
the shark in the film. It is played to signify the presence of the shark, even
when this ‘character’ is not on the screen.
Contrapuntal sound - a term which refers to sound which does not seem to ‘fit’
with the scene or images you are watching.
eg. The song, Over the Rainbow, for example, is used in John Woo’s film
Face/Off, in a shoot out scene. It seems contradictory to the violence of the
scene, but is actually being used to calm a frightened boy. The song begins
as diegetic sound in the child’s headphones, but spills out onto the non-
diegetic sound track as if to highlight the innocence and vulnerability of the
boy in such an environment. The scene of Renton in his squalid room,
attempting to give up ‘junk’ in Danny Boyle’s Trainspotting, is accompanied by
a soundtrack of classical music. This seeming contradiction of tone allows for
an even greater degree of comparison between the affluent world often
associated with classical music and the drug saturated deprivation of
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Diegetic sound - sound which the characters within a film can hear. Diegetic
sound can include everything from traffic noise, telephone rings, doors
slamming and animal sounds, to industrial machinery and dialogue. These
sounds may be used to generate a reality effect for the audience, but can also
take on symbolic meaning.
e.g. The perpetual rain of the metropolis in David Fincher’s film Seven
creates a constant backdrop to the action of the film. It also becomes
representative of the inhospitable nature of the city. Diegetic sounds can also
become synonymous with particular characters and act to signal their
particular presence in a film. In the film Scream, for example, the killer(s)
harass their victims via the telephone. The opening image of the film is of a
phone ringing and the character who answers it becomes the first victim.
From then on in the film, the sound of a phone ringing becomes associated
with the disjointed voice of the killer(s) contacting their next victim. This
everyday and banal sound thus becomes threatening and creates tension for
Be aware that directors can also put sounds you would expect to hear in the
story world on the soundtrack. They may do this in order to heighten the
tension in a particular scene or suggest a connection between one scene and
Dubbing - Describes the process by which sound is added to a film, usually in
the form of a different language dubbed over the original language.
It is not just different languages which for dubbing in films, however, and
occasionally an actors voice is dubbed with that of another in the same
eg. Andy McDowell’s voice was dubbed with that of Glenn Close in the film
Greystoke: The Legend of Tarzan.
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Empathetic Sound – sound effects or music that match the mood and rhythm
of the actions on screen
Fidelity – this refers to ensuring that the sound is faithful to its source. A lot of
sound work is done in post-production and so it is important to maintain the
relationship between the sound a viewer is hearing and the sound the source
makes as perceived by the viewer. Often the reverse is done deliberately for
comic effect, i.e. a viewer can see a cat but it sounds like it barks like a dog.
Foley – a foley artist supplies the live action sounds that a production
microphone may have missed, i.e. the sound of swords locking together for a
fight scene. This is named after Jack Foley, a sound editor at Universal
Harmonics – This refers to an object's ability to vibrate and the resultant
frequency sound waves, this can make a sound much more interesting and
can alter the perceived enjoyment of a sound.
Hyper-real Sound – the exaggeration of sounds compared to the experience
of those sounds in real life, i.e. footsteps.
Location sound – the sound that is recorded either on location or in a studio
during filming, this may include dialogue that then needs to be re-recorded
(also see ADR)
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Loudness – this doesn’t just refer to the volume of a sound but to the
alteration of realistic loudness in cinema. For example a bullet may not be as
audible when an aeroplane is landing but in cinema the sound of the gunshot
would still be foregrounded for dramatic effect.
Magnetization (spatial) – the perception that a sound source is coming from
the visual space in the screen rather than from the real point of origin; a loud
speaker in the cinema space, i.e seeing a car screeching from one side of the
screen to the other, the sound seems to follow the image.
Non-diegetic - sound which does not exist within the story of the film, but is
put onto the film in post-production.
This type of sound could be in the form of a music soundtrack, a voice-over or
extra sounds which enhance the meaning of elements within the film.
eg. Bernard Hermann’s haunting soundtrack for Martin Scorcese’s film Taxi
Driver, would come under the definition of non-diegetic sound. The shrill and
repetitive violin sounds which Hermann created as the soundtrack for the
shower scene in Hitchcock’s Psycho, function as a musical echo for the knife
stabs inflicted on the character of Marion Crane.
Pitch – the pitch of a sound is determined by its frequency, whether it belongs
in a low (bass), midrange or high (treble) frequency grouping. Low
frequencies are often used to invoke a powerful or warm feeling, midrange
frequencies give sound its energy and high frequencies give a sound its
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Rhythm – a recurring sound that has both strong and weak elements. Music,
voices and sound effects all have rhythm and these often have a
complimentary relationship with the rhythm of the images.
Soundbridge - sound which is sustained from one scene into the next. A
soundbridge is used to extend a piece of music on the soundtrack or a sound
from the story world over an edit. A sound may begin within a particular
scene, but does not end when the next scene begins.
e.g. A director may decide to continue a piece of music associated with one
character into the next scene where that character is not present, thus
indicating that the presence of the character is felt even in their absence.
Being able to recognise the importance of elements such as soundbridges in
the generation of meaning within a text, shows an understanding of the less
obtrusive elements of a film text.
Sound Effects - sounds which are added to a film in the post-production stage
in order to increase the impact and potential meaning of particular moments
within a film.
eg. During the making of the 1960s classic Bonny and Clyde the director
Arthur Penn had the sound engineer shoot bullets into a metal drum. The
effect was of a much more jarring gunshot and this was then placed onto the
film’s soundtrack during the shoot out sequences.
Sound motif - A sound effect or combination of sound effects that are
associated with a particular character, setting, situation or idea through the
film. The use of sound motifs can help shape a story that requires many
characters and many locations and help unify the film and sustain its narrative
and thematic development
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Sound loop - A continuous loop of recorded sound, designed to provide
background sound throughout a scene
Soundscape - The characteristic types of sound associated with a particular
period of time or location
Sound Track - music and voiceovers are examples of the type of sound added
to a film in post-production.
These sounds are not heard by the characters within a film, but by the
audience solely. Soundtracks are an essential part of the generation of
meaning within a film and music or tracks used can relay information
concerning character, settings, genre and atmosphere. The voice-over for a
film can offer the viewer information about characters or events which the
other characters in the film are not privilege to. Voice-overs can be mis-
leading, however, and it is important to realise that the character speaking the
voice-over might have their own motivation in seeing an event in a particular
eg. Bernard Hermann’s haunting soundtrack for Martin Scorsese’s film Taxi
Driver, evokes a New York of loneliness and alienation. Van Gelis’s
soundtrack for Ridley Scott’s film Bladerunner, uses extended notes and
industrial sounds in order to signal the futuristic and commerce dominated
environment of the film.
Timbre – A combination of frequencies that give a sound its unique character
Vococentrism - The privilege of the voice over all other sonic elements.
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Voice-over: a commentary or narrative guide, only heard by the audience of
the film and not the other characters, which describes and comments on
events portrayed in a film.
As part of a documentary film, the voice over acts as a means of explaining
and discussing the images presented. As part of a feature film, the voice over
has the same function, however, it is often a character from the story world
who is acting as the narrative guide.
e.g. Sam Mendes’s film American Beauty ( 1999 ) opens with a voice over
from the central character of Lester. The audience is aware from this point
onwards which character will be the focus of the film. Leonard Shelby, the
narrator of Christopher Nolan’s film Memento, for example, cannot remember
recent events and is, therefore, completely unreliable when giving information
concerning what has happened in the recent narrative.
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