Sound in TV andfilm is used almost all the time and if it is missing or out of place itbecomes very noticeable. Even when no dialogue is occurring, it is very rarethat the footage is completely silent as there will be almost always somethinggoing on in the background either from the shot or added in later in postproduction. The quality of sound can also make or brake a film more so than apoor quality image; for example, if you were to watch a short clip from ahorror film but put it on mute, you wouldn’t get the full effect and the impact ofthe scare is hindered.
In this essay I will explore what role sound plays inthe films we watch and just how important it is in telling the story. Types of sound Before lookinginto the importance of sound, we first need to understand what is actually isand what different forms it can appear in. There are two main ways in whichsound appears on our screens; diegetic and non-diegetic.
Diegetic sound issimply sounds that the characters would be able to hear. Examples of this typeof sound can include; dialogue coming from the characters present in the scene,sounds made by objects in or off camera, or perhaps music that is implied to becoming from instruments or music devices such as speakers. In that casethen non-diegetic sound must be sound where the sound is not visible on screenor implied to be there.
Examples include; narration or voiceovers, soundeffects that have been added in for dramatic effect or music that has beenadded over the top to convey a certain mood.The differencebetween the two sounds depend on how well we understand the conventions whenwatching or listening to a film. As the audience, we know that specific soundsare represented to be coming from the same world where the action is takingplace, while other sounds are portrayed to be coming from outside the eventsthat are seen on screen. By playing around with the conventions of diegetic andnon-diegetic sound, the director can create ambiguity as seen in a lot ofcomedies, or to surprise the audience like in a horror film. Sound can alsoeffect the way in which the audiences consume what they are watching as it cancontrol what direction the narrative can go. The most common use of sound narrationin film is being direct to the audience. For example, Dialogue and narrationtell a story and other diegetic sound effects can be used to draw attention ofthe characters to something that is happening off screen.
Direct sound effectsare written in the script as a method to tell actors when and where they haveto be or do something to keep the pacing of the film in sync so that any addedmusic will be in time. The opposite ofdirect sound in film is the subliminal sounds to control what the audience isthinking and feeling unconsciously. All viewers are able to pick apart whatthey can see in the scene such as actors, furniture, photos on the wall andmake strong connotations on their own. However, our ears are not as analyticalas our eyes and tend to take sound in as a whole, despite being deliberately constructedin a lot of detail on and off set by numerous people. Subliminal sounds are extremelyimportant storytelling devices as the inability of the audience to distinguishindividual sounds enhances the experience and creates a more realistic world tobe immersed in. Filmmakers take advantage of this and other connotation techniquesto create an emotional involvement for the audience in the film and the thecharacters in it despite just meeting them.
The film score of any film playsone of the biggest roles in moving the narrative forward. Hearing the scoreisolated to the action taking place on screen often wont make much sense as themusic is deliberately written enhance the mood of what is happening and to actas an underscore to the foreground activity being viewed. The music used infilms is used to tell the audience what to think and feel without the audiencehaving to think too hard about what is happening. This is often used in Americansitcoms, however instead of adding in music in post production, they add incanned laughter to signal the audience that there was a joke and the show isentertaining instead of thought provoking. Now that weunderstand what sound actually is, we can begin to look at the connotations ofspecific sounds and how we can use them. The soundtrack is made up of threeessential categories; dialogue, sound effects and music.
All three of thesetracks need to be perfectly mixed to create a believable world that can beeasily manipulated to get the desired effect for the audience watching. The most noticeablesound heard in film is people talking, most commonly referred to as dialogue. Dialoguecreates the illusion that the person speaking is real as appose to an imaginarycreation constructed by the script writer. Dialogue is used in stage plays andis used as a story telling device and express the feelings and motivations ofthe characters in the scene. In film the characterisation portrayed by theactors allows the audience to distinguish the character as an actor if thedialogue is done correctly.
For example, Robert Downey Jr; who portrays IronMan in Marvel films, is able to seamlessly merge his real life personality andfilm persona to create a believable character for the audience to root for. Inthis case the audience no longer sees the actor acting, but another person entirelyin a new universe. However, dialogue can be used more or less frequently indifferent types of films to convey different meanings. For instance, in StanleyKubrick’s‘2001:A Space Odyssey’, there was very little dialogue used. The dialogue that wasused was so lacking in originality that it appeared to be obvious and boring,this was done to create a sense of realism and to portray the ‘inadequacy ofhuman responses when compared with the magnificent technology created by manand the visual beauties of the universe.’ Howeverin comedy films such as ‘Step Brothers’ the dialogue is practically non-stop throughout the film. The useof dialogue in this instance works in this type of film as the characters in itand the film itself are designed for comedic purposes and to get as many quickjokes in as possible. The audience is thrown from joke to joke and allows forno time for them to reflect on the plot as that is not the main selling pointin these films and sells escapism to the audience instead.
As well as character spoken dialogue, another way spoken words canbe used is in voiceovers or narration to provide subtext into a scene.Voiceovers are usually used in TV more than films in things such asdocumentaries although they do sometimes make an appearance in action filmslike 1982’s ‘Blade Runner’ to provide backgroundinformation or to lead the story to change to the next event without an onscreenexplanation. When used correctly, voiceovers do not bring the audience out ofthe story they are watching, however when done incorrectly they can often seemout of place and make the film maker look lazy as it a cheap way to give expositionand doesn’t allow the audience tothink for themselves. This is the reason why it is not as common in films as somedirector’s refuse to use it in their films to let the viewershave more freedom when interpreting the meaning of the film. The next sound in the soundtrack is sound effects, sound effects caneither be synchronous or asynchronous. For sound effects to be synchronous, thesound must be synchronised or matched with the action it is representing onscreen.
If a man was playing a piano in the film and the sound of the keysbeing played were in time with the man playing, then the sound effect would besynchronous. Synchronous sounds enhance the realism of the film and also aid increating the desired atmosphere and tone of the film. As an example, the noiseof a door is used as a familiar noise that the audience will recognise thesound of so can just be used as an element to show the realistic noise of adoor. This can also becalled pleonastic sound, which is where the sound is exaggerated for dramaticeffect like in a horror film where things like stabbing or a tap dripping islouder than it would be in real life. But if you were too add some ominousbackground music and build up a creepy atmosphere before the door openingsound, then the door opening sounds more suspenseful and engages the audienceinto being curious about who or what is opening the door.
To enhance thisfurther the editor may increase the sound effect to add to the tension. The opposite is asynchronous sound effects. These are the sound effectsthat do not match the action that is on screen, these could be sounds thatcreate a subtle difference in tone or again to add to the authenticity of theworld created in the film. This technique is often used in disaster films suchas “Shaun of the Dead’ to fill parts of a scene where no one is talking to fill thesilence. There is a scene in the film where the two main protagonists aresneaking round their back garden, instead of them walking around in silence youcan hear car alarms going off in the background to connote the chaos going onaround them.
As well as the connotations the alarms bring, it also what wewould imagine the end of the world would sound like so as the audience we are throwninto the world seeing it as realistic despite the zombies. Finally, the last and one of the most important pieces of the soundtrack,the background music. By adding in background music you can again control thetone of the scene but you can also control the pacing of the film itself orcharacter movement; Edgar Wright does this in most of his films. Particularly inhis most recent, ‘Baby Driver.’ In this instance, Wright wrote the music soundtrack along at thesame time with the rest of the script which is the exact opposite of what mostother writers do.
The opening for this film is shot in time with the song ‘Bell Bottoms’, which is a song that hasa distinctive tone change halfway through the song. So Wright decided to usethe first two minutes of the song as a timer for the heist crew to rob the bankand when they return to the car, the music kicks in and a car chase begins witheach tyre screech and police siren set to the beat. Sometimes, film makersdecide to fade music in slowly to foreshadow something that is about to happen,for instance in HBO’s Game of Thrones TVseries, a song called ‘Reigns of Castamere’ plays before something tragic happens to the Stark family caused bythe Lannister family. However, music in films doesn’t needto play along with our expectations with the connotations associated with thesong, this is when the song playing is contrapuntal to the action taking placeon screen. Music is usually used to guide the audiences’ emotions so that they don’t haveto think as hard, but when contrapuntal music is played the audience begins toquestion what they are actually watching and engages them more to be disturbedfurther when they realise. The two most famous examples are the torture scenein ‘Reservoir Dogs’ and ‘A Clockwork Orange’s useof ‘Singing in the Rain.
’  Thomas Sobochackand Vivian Sobochack, An Introduction to Film, p.177.