The Sound of Music

Music cannot directly communicate narrative in the same way that dialogue can. However, it can provide a backdrop to visual events and dialogue and it is this subtlety that may position an audience in a way that dialogue cannot. Music is representative and emotive. It can engage an audience at a different level and capture their emotions rather than their conscious mind. It is difficult to avoid the emotive of a well-executed score.

Ways of Working with Music

There is one mode of storytelling that exists in cinema beyond that of showing and telling: music.  This facet of cinema can have a dramatic effect on character. Music can impact on our emotions and as such can limit what emotional impact a scene has upon us; and this is different in every film. It doesn’t matter whether it is the incidental music, a popular soundtrack or a themed score; it all affects us as an audience. This use of music has been treated by theorists as an aspect of narration, but it cannot tell, it can merely aid focalisation in relation to that which is being shown and told by affecting mood. This is the aspect of film that acts as a backdrop and some film-makers, such as Ingmar Bergman, feel it should not be included as it clearly breaks with presentation of both characters and events in terms of relating them directly to the real world.

Whatever the use of music is within any film it is complex to identify its precise meaning – such is the nature of music. However, to ignore it is to ignore a powerful part of the signifying practice of cinema.


Manipulating sound – Redubbing a film is always an interesting exercise. In doing this you can see how the replacement of, say, a specific score with tangentially related popular music tracks fundamentally impacts on your ability to read the film, even down on the point of being able to view who the main characters are and what they do.

Sound in the Cinema 

Loudness – The Sound we hear results from vibrations in the air. The Amplitude, or breath, of the vibrations produces our scene of Loudness, or volume. Film sound constantly manipulates volume. A dialogue between a soft-spoken character and a blustery one is characterized as much by the difference in volume as by the substance of the talk. In many films, a long shot of busy street is accompanied by loud traffic noises, but when twp people meet and start to speak, the volume of the traffic drops.

Loudness is also related to perceived distance. All other things being equal, the louder the sound, the closer we take it to be. This sort of assumption seems to be at work in the street traffic example already mentioned: the couple’s dialogue, being closer to us, is sensed as louder, while the traffic noise recedes to the background. In addition, a film may startle the viewer by exploiting abrupt and extreme shifts in volume (usually called changes in dynamics), as when a quiet scene is interrupted by a very loud noise. Changes in loudness may be combined with cutting or camera movement to reinforce our sense of moving toward or away from the source of the noise.

Pitch – The frequency of sound vibration affects pitch, or the perceived highness or lowness of sound. Certain instruments, such as tuning fork, can produce pure tones, but most sounds, in life and on film, are complex tones, batches of different frequencies. Nevertheless, pitch plays a useful role in helping us pick out distinct sounds in a film.

Timbre – The harmonic components of sound give it a certain colour, or tone quality what musicians call timbre. When we call someone’s voice nasal or a musical tone mellow, we’re referring to timbre. Timbre is actually a less fundamental acoustic parameter than amplitude or frequency, but it’s indispensable in describing the texture or “feel” of a sound. In everyday life, the recognition of a familiar sound is largely a matter of various aspects of timbre.

Filmmakers manipulate timbre continually. Timbre can help articulate portions of the sound track, as when it differentiates musical instruments from one another. Timbre also comes forward on certain occasions, as in the clichéd use of oleaginous saxophone tones behind seduction scenes. Loudness, pitch and timbre interact to define the overall sonic texture of a film. For example, these qualities enable us to recognize different characters’ voices. Both John Wayne and James Stewart speak slowly, but Wayne’s voice tends to be deeper and gruffer than Stewart’s querulous drawl.This difference works to great advantage in The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, where their characters are sharply contrasted.

Knowledge Nugget: When Bernard Herrmann obtained the effects of shrill, birdlike shrieking in Hitchcock’s Psycho, even many musicians could not recognize the source: violins played at extraordinary high pitch.

REFERENCE BOOKSFilm Art An: Introduction, Tenth Edition, David Bordwell and Kristin Thompson. The Language of Film, Robert Edgar-Hunt, John Marland and Steven Rawie.

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