The Sounds of Film

Written by: Brandon Ng (22-E4)

Designed by: Lee Chin Yi (23-E4

Have you ever stopped to think about the sounds in a film? While It’s easy to get caught up in the plot, characters, and visual effects, sound still plays a critical role in the overall cinematic experience. From the musical score to the sound effects, every sound in a film is carefully crafted to enhance the mood, atmosphere, and emotional impact of each scene. So, let’s explore the different ways sound is used by filmmakers to paint the picture that is their story…

When sound is used in a film, it typically can be categorised into two distinct types, that is diegetic and non-diegetic. Diegetic sound refers to sound that can be heard within the world of the film it is used in, for example, the majestic theme to Jurassic Park (1993) can’t be heard by the characters as they stare in awe at the benevolent Brachiosaurus, hence non-diegetic, while the mighty roars can be heard both to the characters and the audience, hence diegetic

“This is… Jurassic Park”
(Credit: YouTube)

Diegetic sound can be utilised to immerse the audience into the realm of the story being told, as they are able to experience first-hand what the characters are going through, in terms of the auditory aspect. While some simple uses of this technique can come in the form of dialogue (duh) and foley, more impactful cases can be through the music a character is listening to on the radio. 

One brilliant example of this is in the X-Men: Days Of Future Past (2014), where Quicksilver, played by Evan Peters, uses his superhuman speed to save the crew from oncoming bullets, and he does this all while listening to Time in a Bottle by Jim Croce through his headphones. 

Quicksilver in action
(Credit: YouTube)

The line, “If I could make days last forever” jibes well with Quicksilver moving normally whilst his surroundings stood still in time, seemingly making that moment last for eternity. The use of this song in this scene encapsulates Quicksilver’s identity as a speedster and serves as apt background music to him saving everyone in style. This example of diegetic sound is just one of the many ways filmmakers have made use of it to enhance their storytelling, 

Then, what about non-diegetic sounds, you may ask? Much like the theme of Jurassic Park mentioned earlier, background music or OSTs in movies are the more common instances of non-diegetic sound. But to narrow the scope, let’s delve into how these sounds evoke emotions in the audience. Unless you’re a robot, you are to expect to go through a rollercoaster of emotions in the viewing experience, depending on what the movie has in store for you. 

Pixar produces some of the most emotional, heart-wrenching animation films out there. I mean, let’s be honest, some people can’t sit through Pixar movies without crying their eyes out, and most would tear up even a little. Tears aside, it can certainly be said that Pixar  has mastered the art of conveying rich emotions through the medium which is their movies, and this is largely thanks to the music Pixar uses in particular scenes that can really strike the hearts of viewers.

In Up (2009), the song, “Married Life”, is the iconic melody that comes to people’s minds whenever they get reminded of the movie. Besides being nice-sounding, why exactly does this theme seem to stand out from the rest of the movie? Well, the answer may come from how this theme is used. 

At the start, it is first played in an upbeat tone with the use of trumpets (?) as the story shows how the 2 lovers first meet, them growing up together and eventually getting married. 

The Good Ol’ Days in “Up”
(Credit: YouTube)

However, as the story unfolds to reveal the obstacles the couple faces as time passes, and eventually the death of Ellie (the wife), the music takes a gloomier tone, with the use of solo piano to enhance the sadness tied to it. By sticking to the same melody, this particular “sad” scene draws stark contrasts to the start when love and optimism were all that was on their mind.

Carl has definitely seen better days
(Credit: YouTube)

More specifically, the adventurousness and fearless spirit of Ellie became tied to this melody, and so when it is echoed in such a different tone in the funeral scene, viewers are reminded of Ellie and experience perhaps a tinge of melancholy and nostalgia. That was probably what Carl, the now widower, felt as he sat on the steps of the same church they got wedded in, reminiscing the times they spent together, which was now lost in the past. 

Moving on from the emotional aspect of movies, sounds can also be used to deepen the meanings of storylines in movies. To better illustrate this, let’s take a look at one example from Interstellar (2016). Without going into too much detail, Interstellar can be summed up as a space exploration movie tied with themes of time, love and physics. In particular, there is a scene in the movie where the theme of time is nicely alluded to through the use of sound effects. 

The Interstellar crew on Miller’s Planet
(Credit: YouTube)

On their search for habitable planets, the crew stops at Millers’ Planet whereby time pretty much works slower compared to on Earth. How much slower exactly? Well, in the scene, there is a constant ticking sound in the background, where each tick signifies an hour passed on Earth and there is a tick every 1.25 seconds in the scene. The chilling part of this detail comes when the crew realises that they had spent 3 hours on the planet, meaning that time had elapsed 23 years on Earth in the 3 hours they spent. Without spoiling too much of the movie, the consequences of this really come into full effect when the crew returns to civilisation, with everyone else having aged 23 years during that measly 3 hours they experienced and this ties back to the overall theme of time, both in theoretical physics talk and in the value of time to humans in general, as time really is precious, isn’t it?

While there are still many other uses of sounds in film, what has been discussed above merely scratches the surface of the importance of sounds to film. Much like everything else in the production of the movie, every use of sound plays its own unique role in elevating the viewing experience. As famous fairytale writer Hans Christian Andersen once said, “Where words fail, music speaks”, and with that, I’ll confidently say that the sounds in film are an unsung hero to the world of movies.