Sound, voice and music are integral to most films and/or film viewing experiences. Even the earliest silent films were often shown with live musical accompaniment. Sound enhances the imaginary world, it can provide depth, establish character and environment, introduce a new scene or cue the viewer to important information. We have organized the page according to the following categories: sound source, sound editing and film music.
Diegetic vs. Non-Diegetic Sound
Diegetic sound is any sound that the character or characters on screen can hear. So for example the sound of one character talking to another would be diegetic. Non-diegetic sound is any sound that the audience can hear but the characters on screen cannot. Any appearance of background music is a prime example of non-diegetic sound. This clip from Edgar Wright’s Shaun of the Deadsimultaneously depicts both diegetic and non-diegetic sound. The sounds of the characters speaking, the records flying, and the zombies are all diegetic; the characters can hear them. Meanwhile, the beats and riffs of the background music serves as an example of non-diegetic sound that goes unheard by Shaun, Pete, and the menacing zombies.
Nonsimultaneous Sound – Emily Johnson
Nonsimultaneous sound is essentially sound that takes place earlier in the story than the current image. This type of sound can give us information about the story without us actually seeing these events taking place. In this example from Rent, Roger goes out in search of Mimi. The viewer sees him running around New York, but all they hear is earlier answering machine messages regarding previous events. The messages all describe parts of the story that have already happened, however, the viewer has not seen them happen.
Direct sound is all of the sound that is recorded at the time of filming. In this scene from Talladega Nights: The Ballad of Ricky Bobby, the only sounds are those that occurred when the scene was filmed. The main sound in the scene is the characters’ dialogue, but some subtle direct background noises, such as popping gum, can be heard as well. No postsynchronous sounds or music occur in the scene, which places emphasis on the characters’ dialogue and creates a more realistic, believable ambiance.
Synchronous sound is sound that is matched with the action and movements being viewed. An oft-used example portrays a character playing the piano, and the viewer hears the sounds of the piano simultaneously. In this clip from The Pianist, Adrien Brody finishes up a piece in front of a German guard.
Postsynchronization dubbing describes the process of adding sound to a scene after it is filmed. This sequence from Star Wars Episode IV: A New Hope illustrates many different forms of postsynchronous sound. In fact, hardly any of the sound in this scene is synchronous. The space battle scenes contain laser and explosion sounds that are artificial and added to the scene after it was filmed. These sounds increase the intensity and authenticity of the scene. Later in the scene, many of the sounds inside the Rebel spaceship, including the sirens, explosions, and the droids’ voices, are all dubbed postsynchronously. The nondiegetic, postsynchronous music in the scene contributes to the suspense of the sequence. Postsynchronous sound is a staple of the Star Wars films and many other action-adventure films.
Offscreen sound describes sound assumed to be in the space of a scene yet remains offscreen while the action takes place simultaneously. In this scene from The Boondock Saints the director uses offscreen sound to undermine the ideas of a detective who gives his thoughts on a recent murder. He uses this dialogue as background noise to introduce the all-star FBI agent who will be working the case.
Sound perspective refers to the apparent distance of a sound source, evidenced by its volume, timbre, and pitch. This type of editing is most common in how the audience hears film characters’ speech. While the scene may cut from a long shot of a conversation to a medium shot of the two characters to close-up shot/ reserve-shot pairing, the soundtrack does not reproduce these relative distances and the change in volume that would naturally occur. Actors in these situations are “miked” so that the volume of their voices remains constant and audible to the audience. Sound perspective can also give us clues as to who and where is present in a scene and their relative importance to the film’s narrative.
The following clip from Moulin Rouge! provides an example of the lack of sound perspective because as the camera tracks out from a medium-long to an extreme long shot of Satine, the sound quality and volume of the singer’s voice does not change as it realistically would as the viewer increases their distance from the subject. Editing devices such as this are especially important in musical films such as Moulin Rouge!, where the songs are what drive the narrative and thus maintaining the sound quality over realistic expectations becomes integral to the film.
In contrast to this, below is a clip from the opening sequence of Orson Welles’ Touch of Evil (1958) that shows a more realistic use of sound perspective. The sound’s distance is made obvious by the fading and increasing volume of the car’s music and people’s voices as they move toward or away from the camera. In this example sound contributes to point of view; we hear what the characters hear as they navigate the streets of a border town on foot.
– Sarah Kingsley
A sound bridge is a type of sound editing that occurs when sound carries over a visual transition in a film. This type of editing provides a common transition in the continuity editing style because of the way in which it connects the mood, as suggested by the music, throughout multiple scenes. For example, music might continue through a scene change or throughout and montage sequence to tie the scenes together in a creative and thematic way. Another form of a sound bridge can help lead in or out of a scene, such as when dialogue or music occurs before or after the speaking character is scene by the audience.
– Sarah Kingsley
A voice over is a sound device wherein one hears the voice of a character and/or narrator speaking but the character in question is not speaking those words on screen. This is often used to reveal the thoughts of a character through first person narration. Third person narration is also a common use of voice over used to provide background of characters/events or to enhance the development of the plot. As we see below in Wes Anderson’s The Royal Tenenbaums, a third person narrator voiced by Alec Baldwin provides background on key characters in the beginning of the film.
Sonic Flashback – Emily Johnson
A sonic flashback describes the technique of using sound from earlier in the film during a later scene. One character may be present on the screen, but they are hearing a voice or action from a previous time in their head. At the end of The Sixth Sense, Malcolm begins to piece together that he is actually dead. He hears earlier conversations of him in Cole in his head. As in this movie, the sonic flashback usually contributes to the character’s thought process, including emotional or psychological.
The following sequence, from Woody Allen’s Match Point, illustrates the director’s rather unique use of character theme music. It also provides an example of the sound bridge. As Chris Wilton wanders around his new friends’ estate, he is associated with an aria from Donizetti’s L’elisir d’amore, sung by Enrico Caruso. The recording exposes the early sound technology used to make it, giving it an unearthly quality. Throughout the film whenever Chris ambles, he is accompanied by Caruso’s voice, perhaps signaling to his own “operatic” circumstance. The spectral quality of the recording complements the many allusions to tragic tradition in the film, including an appearance by the ghosts of Chris’s victims. In a second place, sound initiates a transition in the form of a “bridge”. Toward the end of the sequence, we begin to hear a ping pong game – it grows louder as the opera music fades until Chris enters the new scene.