“What we hear on screen gives auditory clues to our brains and works in concert with what we actually see, and in essence, that unique collaboration provides meaning for the viewer.”
– Benny MacGyver, Award-winning film sound designer
The importance of understanding sound design and the use of music is something that directors think about in nearly every stage of the filmmaking process (pre-production, production, and post-production). Many directors know exactly which composer, music director or sound designer they want attached to a film before they even sign on the key cast members. The also have an understanding about the atmospheric sound they want conveyed to the audience as well.
Film sound can come in many forms and fashions; let’s take a look (and listen).
There are four types of sound used on film:
- Vocal (dialogue and narration)
- Environmental Sounds (ambient, sound effects, and Foley)
To fully appreciate the “Art of Sound” take a look/and listen at these examples:
Much of what we actually hear on film has been recreated or manipulated. This video offers a clear understanding of the art of Foley and sound effects creation.
- Importance of Music in Film
Music and film have always had a companionship, even before the launch of the “talkies.” In silent cinema, live musicians would play pianos, or organs. Some theatres would even have live orchestras or bands to offer musical accompaniment to the films. Although we don’t have the opportunity very often to hear live musical scores performed at the movie theatre now, the impact of the music still serves a very integral part for our experience.
Check out how the same film can take on unique meanings with a different soundtrack
How is Music Used in Cinema?
- To Express Emotion for the Character
Before the advent of sound on screen (in the silent film days) music was a supporting (and sometimes driving) force for audiences to interpret the director’s intent. Dialogue cards (captions on screen), the actor’s facial expressions, and the musical score had to work collaboratively to communicate emotions to the audience. In a silent film, if a character seems sad or depressed, one should expect the music to relate those feelings. If a silent film character offers a serious and tense speech, the music should reflect that as well. In filmmaking today, composers are still faithful to these original standards. Songs with lyrics can also provide a great reference for connecting emotionally with a character. The film “I Am Sam” with Sean Penn used only songs written by The Beatles throughout the entire film to represent the feelings of the characters. This is a stellar representation of the power of lyrical song and film combined to epitomize the character’s situations and feelings.
2. To Amplify Drama
Music can enhance or complement the emotional state of characters, but it can do the same for scene selection and story. Genres aside (drama, mystery, comedy, western), a musical score can enrich almost any frame of film. In a fight scene, or a space battle in a sci-fi flick, the music will correspond to the on-screen action with the same power and intensity. That is in contrast to a comedy scene, where the music may come across as light, airy, bouncy, or silly. Music provides the auditory cues for the visual mind. Together, if mastered properly, sound combined with sight can help provide for greater understanding of the film’s story.
- To Provide Atmosphere of Mood
Sometimes before any action ever takes place in a film (or scene), music may be used with establishing (visual) shots to set the stage for the audience. Imagine an opening shot of a horror thriller where a spooky mansion sits in the background, on a dark, dreary, storm-filled evening. The wind is tearing through the trees around the home, while a shadowy hooded figure slowly approaches it. Before any of the action has actually ever happened, by just adding ominous, threatening music to the scene, audiences are introduced to what is yet to come. The music can serve to foreshadow the film’s atmospheric direction.
- To Establish a Time Period or Setting
In many period films, musical scores reflect and reinforce the actual era of the film’s setting. This is used in hopes of placing the audience into that time period with more than just sets and costumes.
Example: A film set in time of the Renaissance, may use original source-era music to recreate an atmosphere of authenticity for the audience. But, if The Weekend’s “Blinding Lights” began playing during a jousting competition, it may feel out of place. It sure wouldn’t be music indicative of the era.
Music is also a great source of providing context for physical locations. Hearing mandolins and banjos may transport audiences to the North Carolina back hills, while bagpipes could offer auditory visions of kilts in Scotland, and the definitive sounds of sitar strings may summon impressions of India. Music can be as much about place and location as anything else.
- To Serve to Advance the Story
One of the best examples of using music to advance the story is through a musical montage. By doing this, filmmakers can show a series of scenes in a condensed time capturing the elements of the action with music as a support. The perfect instance of this is represented in the film “Up” where nearly the entire life of a couple is captured in only a few minutes using this technique. *Grab a hankie for this scene folks!
Using a very specific song (for lyric’s purposes) or a particular score in combination with corresponding shot selections (hero preparing for battle, man and woman falling in love, lead character facing a series of tragedies, etc.) in a montage can serve to advance the story without wasting the audience’s time by showing them in all the action in real-time (days, weeks, months, years).
- To Deceive the Viewer
Musical misdirection is used many times in horror/thriller films to place the audience into a false sense of security and safety.
Example: The female teenager walks into a bedroom; a soothing musical score accompanies the scene; the girl is surprised by a killer hiding in the closet; immediately we hear intense, traumatizing music.
This can also work the opposite way; the female teenager walks into her bedroom, with nail-biting and frightening music supporting the scene, we as an audience anticipate a murderous attack, only to discover that it is a cat hiding in the closet.
Music impacts the audience
Think about this: Can you imagine your favorite epic film without an inspirational musical score? In many ways, the music offers that enhanced energy, excitement and stimulation for audiences. Now, think about this: Have you ever turned down the volume on your television, computer, or mobile device while watching a horror movie? If you have, then you may realize that the fear factor is almost completely eliminated.
Directors and their musical choices
Great directors choose excellent cinematographers to assist in capturing the perfect shot, but they also understand the importance of securing a great music director or composer for a film. Directors like Martin Scorsese, Michael Bay, James Cameron, Tim Burton, and Steven Spielberg are all deeply involved in the musical selections and styles of their films. Many times audiences will discover that these directors associate with the same music talents from film to film. For many directors and composers (or music directors) the bond becomes a lifetime one. The musical choices for films can be as important as the shots selected; great filmmakers understand that.
When we allow ourselves as audience members to engage fully into the musical selections (or the silence) of a film, we can gain a greater understanding of the director’s intent, and our own interpretations.
Silence is Golden
Silence is considered an incredibly important sound effect for film. It may sound strange to many, but using silence in films can actually be used to boost the ambient (or natural) sounds in a scene. In many ways, the absence of background music, and the enhancements of acoustical atmospheric sounds can present loud messages to audiences, sometimes in volumes.
Using silence can give significance to films and create tension and anxiety within scenes as well. In “Castaway” with Tom Hanks, almost the entire second act of the film is edited without any musical soundtrack. The only things the audience hears is exactly what the character would hear on a deserted island.
The film “A Quiet Place” used silence, ambient sounds, and very limited dialogue to tell a story about family, survival, loss and sacrifice. Sound editors Ethan Van der Ryn and Erik Aadahl share their behind the scenes efforts on this award-winning film with Cinemablend.
If you’ve ever wondered where some of the sound effects come from for popular films, take a look at this visual rundown. You may be surprised at just how insanely crazy some of them were to create.
Sound matters. Can you think of examples in films you’ve seen where the auditory experience was as impactful and the visual one?
Abbit, G. (2015, December 8). Film sound techniques and theory. Retrieved from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=nkt-vRpF7sE
Barsam, R. M., & Monahan, D. (2010). Looking at movies: An introduction to film (2nd ed.). New York, NY: W.W. Norton & Co.
Cinefix. (2014, December 22). Top 10 best sound designed films of all time. Retrieved from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GBrl96hyChc
Hess, J. (2014, November 17). Introduction to foley and sound effects for film. Retrieved from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_Jznye0iqYE
Manning, N. T. (2020, September 22). Why sound matters to film [PDF].
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