Music in Film

sound-design-film

The iconic Jaws theme is a classic example of music that unnerves viewers.

Music is one of the elements of a film’s sound design. It is different from dialogue and sound effects in that usually it does not have its source as part of the filmic space. Gunshots and door slamming, for instance, are heard when they happen on the screen (diegetic sound).

But music, on the other hand, is often an “additional” component of sound design, written by a composer during post-production. Like most elements of filmmaking, the goal of music is to augment emotions and manipulate viewers. More often than not, the source of music, or score, is not produces by a source in the filmic space (non-diegetic sound).
This clip from FilmRiot illustrates how different types of music can invoke different emotions in the audience:

When Should You Not Use Music?

Too much music can be overwhelming. Sometimes it is preferred to let the audience hear the dietetic noises and sounds of the film world. In the documentary The Cutting Edge – The Magic of Movie Editing, it is discussed how music implemented over a specific scene of Dante’s Peak made the scene less effective because the music disguised the eerie sound of settling dirt in a mine shaft about to collapse. In this scene, music was a distraction that minimized the audience’s reaction.

Remember: as a filmmaker, your goal is to immerse the audience in your film. Music usually does just that. But if the sounds of the film world can achieve a similar effect, then you should ask yourself if you need music at all. As a general rule, you should never replace a visceral sound, like a woman screaming or a building exploding, with music. Maybe you can use music to augment the emotional beat, yes, but don’t let it overwhelm your sound.

And then there’s contrapuntal music, which goes to other extreme, countering exciting, sometimes even explosive scenes with mellow music.

Diegetic and Non-Diegetic Sound

Diegetic

diegesis

The iconic intro of the James Bond movies has a diegetic sound effect because we hear the gunshot as it happens on the screen.

Sound is called diegetic when its source is visible or implied in the world of the film. Common diegetic sounds present in most films are:

  • actors speaking to each other (dialogue)
  • sounds originating from any object on the screen, like footsteps and police sirens
  • music that comes from a sound system or orchestra
Diegetic [di-a-JE-tic] comes from the greek word diegesis and it means to recount a story. Diegetic is also known as actual or literal sound.
Diegetic sounds can further be categorized as source-connected or source-disconnected depending on whether the sound source is visible or implied on the screen. A visible source is shown on the screen, while an implied source is still part of the film world but not shown on the screen.

Non-Diegetic

Sound is said to be nondiegetic when its source is not present or implied in the narrative universe. Common instances are:
  • music or score, used to augment emotions
  • actor’s commentary or narration
  • any extra sound added for effect
Non-diegetic is also known as commentary or nonliteral sound.
Below is an extra credit video assignment I did with a couple friends. It’s about sound in a broader sense, but at 3:27, we discuss and exemplify the difference between diegetic and non-diegetic sound:

Combining Diegetic and Non-Diegetic Sounds

In the textbook Sight, Sound, Motion: Applied Media Aesthetics, Herbert Zettl explains:

diegesis definition

In Rocky, the punches and crowd cheering is diegetic. Rocky’s fanrare, the musical theme, is non-diegetic.

“Most often literal and nonliteral sounds are combined in the same scene. Assume that we see a mother and her son walking along the beach. We hear their dialogue (literal, source-connected), the pounding of the surf (literal, source-disconnected). When their conversation turns to the recent funeral of Gradma, music comes in to underscore the sad memories (nonliteral). Such a mixture of literal and nonliteral sounds communicates what the event is all about and also how it feels. It “shows” the outside and the inside of the event simultaneously.” (Zettl, page 337)