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MUS 2310 Study Guide - Midterm Guide: Sound Film, Cinematic Techniques, Chromatic Scale

Course Code
MUS 2310
Genevieve Boucher
Study Guide

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Film Terms: The Sound Track and Film Narrative
Film Music
Film music: any music used in a film
oComposed for the film or pre-existing music used in a film
oHeard by the characters, audience or both
Image Track, Sound Track, Narrative
Two components that influence film
1) Image track: The visual component of a film.
What appears on screen
2) Sound track (audio track): The audio component of a sound film. The sound track has taken
different physical forms over the course of time.
What one hears through the speakers
Narrative films: films that tell a story through actions and interactions of characters
Realism: While many of us will brush off a film that doesn’t feel “real” (that does not make
sense), the reality of the film is often different from actual reality. Film makers often prioritize
clarity of narrative over fidelity, both in the telling of the story and in the musical components.
Clarity: Aesthetic priority favouring the film’s construction of a world that makes sense to us
rather one that is as faithful as possible to the real world. It is usually opposed to fidelity.
Fidelity: The principle of recording how something actually sounds. Although rhetoric of sound
design often invokes the principle of fidelity as a means of achieving realism, fidelity is rarely
the dominant principle.
The degree to which something sounds how it actually sounds in the film
The Sound Track
Three components of the sound track
1) Dialogue/speech: One of the three components of the sound track; human speech in language
(non-speech sounds such as grunts are usually considered to be more like noise).
Traditionally, dialogue has been given priority over effect and music. It typically occupies
the foreground, while music and effects occupy the background.
oForeground/background: A distinction of visual staging carried over to film and
affecting the sound track as well: in the classical model, dialogue occupies the
sonic foreground and music and effects the background.
Classical model = pre-1970s film
Elements of spoken sound
Provides crucial information about the plot/narrative (tells us what’s going on)
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oTypically heard from on-screen subjects (wide shot, or shot/reverse shot
Shot-reverse method: camera follows whoever is speaking
Usually the most effective at communicating important narrative content (besides music)
Voice-over (voice-over narration): A person not seen (and who may not belong to the
physical world shown in the film) talks directly to the viewer.
oOften provides additional information that we would not get from the straight-
forward narrative.
Except on rare occasions, dialogue is featured in the foreground.
oExceptions: when characters are physically far away (lower volume) or from part
of a crowd (generic sound – element of sound effect in this case).
oWhen dialogue isn’t in the foreground, music and fx usually take over
2) Sound effects (sfx, effects, fx, or noise): All sounds rather than music or speech.
Adds additional sonic layers to the narrative, adding depth to the scene by supplementing
sound for images on-screen, or to suggest elements we cannot see.
oEx: typing on laptop and coughing
Can provide new information, but typically they support the narrative, emphasizing or
highlighting the elements we see on screen.
Ambient sound (environmental sound; environmental noise): Background sounds
appropriate to the physical space being depicted, such as crickets, water, or birds. It
extends the physical space, sometimes beyond what we can see in the frame.
oClassic Hollywood films (1940s-50s) have little ambient sound, instead
prioritising the dialogue element of the sound track.
Stinger/accent: A sudden and sharp accent; most often applied to music (a loud chord or
cymbal crash) but equally appropriate to speech (a shout or loud cry) or effects (gun shot
or door slamming).
Foley: Sound effects, usually of important characters and figures, created through looping
and added to the sound track
oMost used for movement noise (ex: someone moving through the brush)
oWill not usually add crucial information to the narrative
3) Music: In silent-film performance, the principle sound element; in sound film, one of the three
components of the sound track. It has specific roles in the narrative:
I) Provides narrative cues (usually confirming what we see) (mimics the visual)
oMusical topic (style topic): Conventional musical figures that evoke, represent or
signify a particular mood, place, emotion, or some other character trait in the
narrative. The signification of a musical topic is general and is opposed in that
sense to the leitmotif, whose signification belongs to the specific film or
Ex: fast music for a chase sequence and ominous music for a villain
oLeitmotif: Term derived from 19th-century opera (Wagner) and applied to film
Usually represents a character, idea or place
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Trait of early silent films, but also a trait of the new epics genres, revived
by John Williams in Star Wars, and used extensively by Howard Shore in
The Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit trilogies.
Can “fill in the gaps” for an audience, recalling a character or event that is
not seen on screen or occurred in a previous scene.
Can also explain an important narrative point.
Ex: “Imperial March” in Star Wars Episode II
Ex: LotR The Fellowship of the Ring leitmotif, Gondor’s theme or
the ring theme
oMotif/motive: Short, memorable fragment of music that can acquire specific
meaning, but is not whole on its own (not a complete melody or theme)
In literature, recurring figures, in sound film, these can be either aural or
When a musical theme (usually short) is developed (varied, re-
orchestrated) within a film, the theme acquires some of the properties of a
word or symbol, with independent meaning or associations that can be
called up when the theme is repeated. The signification of a leitmotif is
specific to a particular film (or set of films) and is opposed in that sense to
the musical topic, whose signification is more general. Leitmotifs are often
also musical topics.
Trait of early sound films, but also a trait of the new epic genres, revived
by John Williams in Star Wars, and used extensively by Howard Shore in
The Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit trilogies
oTheme: Complete musical idea (more than one phrase). Can be repeated, altered
(change of range, instrument), and transformed (new rhythm and character)
II) Establishes mood in immediate and unique ways, often more effectively than
dialogue/effects and even images.
oVarious elements of music (rhythm, timbre, orchestration, tempo, tonality) can
suggest different moods, often more effectively than a particular melody.
oAdds emotional intensity and specificity
Levels of sound in scene is often 2-3 levels
Effective in underlining the unspoken thoughts of a character or the
unseen implications of a situation
oInfluences and organizes time
Often linked to scenes together, to smooth the transition from one scene to
the other
A sound advance: music heard before the source is seen, can likewise help
with transitions.
III) Music in the “foreground” or “background”, and heard and unheard music
oDistinction between music heard by the characters (diegetic, which is part of the
world of the film) and heard only by the audience (non-diegetic, or underscoring,
which works in the narrative register of the film, like a voice-over).
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