Chapter 7: Sound in the Cinema
I. Sound decisions
Sound is very hard to study.
We usually ignore sounds in our environment. It is often a background for our
Sonic information draws us into the story.
II. The powers of sound
Meshing of image and sound appeals to something deep in human
1. Shapes our understanding of images
Sound can shape how we understand images.
The audience will construe the same images differently, depending on the
2. Directs our attention
Sound can direct our attention within the image
It can guide us through shots
It can clarify image events, contradict them or render them ambiguous
It cues us to form expectations
It also gives a new value to silence (creates unbearable tension)
III. Fundamentals of film sound
1. Perceptual properties
Loudness: The amplitude or breadth of sound vibrations produces
our sense of loudness or volume. The soundtrack of a film seizes
our attention through contrast. Loudness is also perceived distance
(the louder the sound, the closer we take it to be). A film can startle
the viewer by exploiting abrupt and extreme shifts in volume (we
call this a change in dynamics)
Pitch: Refers to the perceived highness or lowness of the sound.
Pitch helps us distinguish music and speech form noises and it
serves to distinguish among objects. Thumps can suggest hollow
objects while higher-pitched sounds can suggest smoother or
harder surfaces and denser objects.
Timbre: The harmonic components of sound give it a certain color
or tone quality – what musicians call timbre. It is indispensable in
describing the texture or “feel” of a sound. Loudness, pitch and
timbre interact to define the overall sonic texture of a film.
2. Choosing, altering and combining sounds
There are 3 types of sound in cinema: speech, music and noise (or sound
effects) Choosing and manipulating sounds: A soundtrack is created
through selection and assembly (you can choose what exact bit of
sound will best serve the purpose). Sound can be processed to
change its acoustic qualities, we can join 2 sounds end to end or
place them one over the other. Many sound effects are generated
by the Foley process. Also, wholly new sounds can be made of old
ones (by overlapping for example).
Selection guides our attention: Usually, the sound track is clarified
and simplified so that the important material stands out. Sound
effects are usually less important than speech – they supply an
overall sense of a realistic environment and are seldom noticed.
Sometimes, however, dialogue doesn’t rank as most important
(sound effects are central to action sequences and music can
dominate dance sequences). The filmmaker guides our perception
of the action by choosing certain sounds. Often, sound is used
quite unrealistically to shift our attention to what is narratively or
Sound mixing: Guiding the viewer’s attention depends on selecting
and reworking particular sounds, as well as mixing (combining)
them. The sound track is an ongoing stream of auditory
information. Sometimes the current carries auditory elements to
the surface, other times it sinks them out of awareness as time
Dialogue overlap = when the filmmaker continues a line of
dialogue across a cut, smoothing over the change of shot. This can
provide a sense of auditory continuity.
Also, the sounds flow in layers (not only waves). The mixer can
control the volume, the duration and tone quality of each sound,
weaving them in and out, making them momentarily clear or
pushing them out of hearing. In modern filmmaking, a dozen or
more separate tracks can be layered at any moment. The filmmaker
can create a mix in which each sound blends smoothly with the
others (which is usually the case when music and effects are mixed
Sneaking in and sneaking out = when music comes and goes
without being noticed.
Sound perspective = the closer the camera is to a source, the louder
Sound and film form: Choice and combination of sounds can
create patterns that run through the film as a whole (ex: A melody
or musical phrase can be associated with a particular character,
situation, setting or idea). A single musical theme can change its
quality when associated with different situations.
IV. Dimensions of film sound Sounds consist of and how the filmmaker can select among the different kinds
of sounds available. Sounds can also guide the viewer’s attention and create
patterns across the film.
Sound unfolds over time -> it has a rhythm.
Rhythm involves a beat (= pulse), a tempo (= pace), and a pattern of
accents (= stronger and weaker beats). We also find rhythmic qualities in
Speech has rhythm (people can be identified by voice prints that show not
only characteristic frequencies and amplitudes but also distinct patterns of
pacing and syllabic stress)
The movements in the image have a rhythm as well. Even editing has a
rhythm -> succession of short shots creates a rapid tempo while longer
shots slow down the rhythm. In most cases, the rhythms of editing, of
movement within the image and of sounds all cooperate. Filmmakers try
to match visual and sonic rhythms to each oth