A Love Letter to The Perfect Sounds of Cinema

Whether diegetic or non-diegetic, sound can often be the overlooked hero of stories in motion.
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By  · Published on September 20th, 2017

Whether diegetic or non-diegetic, sound can often be the overlooked hero of stories in motion.

While they have their own Oscar’s category and on occasion take over the iTunes’ charts, the musical accompaniment to our favorite films and TV shows often seem invisible. This is both a good and a bad thing. To not notice a song or a score in the background of a scene means that the perfect song has been chosen or the perfect score has been crafted and the sound work is smooth, but noticing the impact this sound design has on the story of the film or television show should be something we always try to do. Especially when considering it has such a strong role in guiding our emotions to where the storytellers intended them to go.

Diegetic vs. Non-diegetic

Like everything in a film, the musical accompaniment is a choice. Whether or not the characters play their music at a party or fall in love to a tune that only we as the audience can hear, when it comes to telling a story, both options make a difference. To understand the use of music on screen, however, it is important to understand the basics of sound work. Diegetic sound is defined as sound that comes from within the universe of the film. This includes everything from dialogue to the music being played from an instrument or device within the movie/TV show. Ultimately it’s the sound the characters are aware of when venturing through the story. However, the non-diegetic sound is defined as sound that is not an actual part of the story, which is pretty much everything else; the score playing in the background or voice-over narration guiding us through a particular character’s’ life. It may not seem like too vast a choice, and the options may seem obvious, but in reality, the fluidity of sound work in films and television shows is very meticulously crafted and has a very important role in setting the tone of the film.

A great example of this is the opening scene of Jaws, a classic thriller. Film schools like to use this movie as a way to exemplify the immense impact sound work can give to the story, and it really does hold up. The same goes for much of the sound work in suspenseful Hitchcock films as well. Thinking back to Jaws, however, as the girl is swimming in the ocean, we hear the shark’s theme song, that “da da da da da da” tune that appears each time it makes an appearance throughout the film. It sets the suspense of the scene and also signifies to us when Jaws is near.

How tense would that scene have truly been had it not been for its background music? The shark would have served more for shock value than anything, and while it still gave us a shock, it did much more in establishing a villain in Jaws. This music though had to be non-diegetic. Had it been an actual part of the universe, that scene would have made for an entirely different story. If we heard the music and then saw a guy on the beach playing the music out of his boom box, essentially making a comment on the suspense, it would have been more fun than thrilling.

When thinking in terms of music as non-diegetic and diegetic sound, the choice for it to be non-diegetic is a little more common than using diegetic music to tell a story, but some films do an interesting job at combining both. Two films specifically that do an excellent job at this are About Time and Guardians of the Galaxy.

About Time

One of my absolute favorite films, About Time, does a near perfect job at blending diegetic and non-diegetic music to tell the story, which is probably one of the reasons why it is one of my favorite films. Most of the background music and theme songs are not a specific part of the universe, but a closer read of the film shows that many of the song choices actually are. The montage scene at the beginning of Mary and Tim’s relationship, which begins and ends in the subway station, uses a song that is part of their universe and their story, which they are constantly aware of throughout the scene. We see the band playing “How Long Will I Love You” at the very beginning, occasionally throughout the scene, and at the end of it. Though it seems like days and months have passed since the beginning of the scene, the song being played feels like background music, but it’s not since we never forget the band is there. It begins when Mary and Tim truly begin their relationship, and it ends with the song finishing, and Mary and Tim tip the band, their relationship now solidified and established. The song was an entertaining way to make the time pass, but because of the choice to make the song a part of the scene rather than an addition to the scene, we were guided in our understanding of the growth of their relationship over time.

Later on, when they are getting married and Mary is walking down the aisle to “Il Mondo” it begins with Tim happily noticing the song, which ultimately represents his love for that song because of his dad, as well as Mary’s love for him and his infatuation with the song, in her surprise choice to use it at their wedding.  After the wedding, however, the song continues to play, but it is very clear the characters do not hear the music we are hearing. What began as a song the characters were aware of, blended into a song that played over the scene. This switch from diegetic to non-diegetic to tell the story of that wedding day really set the tone of the scene and the character relationships within it.

The Guardians of the Galaxy Series

Something that makes both Guardians’ movies so much fun are their amazing soundtracks. Sure, the musical choices are classics that provide nostalgia, but they act as much more than that. They constantly give us insight into Peter’s character and his relationship with his mom, which is why their purpose as a part of the universe rather than background music, is one of the most important aspects of the film. They also at times provide comedic relief and act as a way to poke fun at typical hero tropes in superhero films, such as when the first film played “The Pina Colada Song” as Peter “valiantly” flew back to his ship after risking his life to save his music player. At the end of the film, playing “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough” was also a great choice at showing how the Guardians are now together, rather than the loners they were. Gamora slightly dancing to the song when Peter plays it lets us know the characters are hearing it in real time and that by enjoying it together, they have officially established a family.

The second film really utilized music to tell the story of Peter’s initial acceptance and then later rejection of his father. “Brandy” by Looking Glass being the song that his father and mother sang to, as well as the song Peter best remembers being his mother’s favorite, ties in for a dramatic moment later in the film, when Peter discovers how monstrous his father is, while hearing “Brandy” shakily play as his music player goes out. Even later on in the film, after Peter has defeated his father and Yondu has sacrificed himself so that Peter could live, “Father and Son” by Cat Stevens plays as he reflects upon his “father figures” and baby Groot comes to cuddle in his lap, signifying a new time in Peter’s life. He is finally at peace with himself and his desire to know his father.

Like any superhero film, the instrumental score does a great job at building up tension and drama during the action scenes, but what makes Guardian’s stand out from all of the rest is its choice to use songs as a tangible part of the universe to provide character development. The music also just does a great job at making us feel like these characters are just like us,  which helps the films’ overall theme of loners coming together and making a family with each other.

Red Dots

When thinking of musical choices in terms of musicals, it’s pretty much a given that much of the music in the film is a part of the story and the universe, but there can still be creative ways of incorporating additional arrangements that aren’t so obvious to the story. Using a recent example, La La Land has Mia’s “Audition” song near the end right before she lands her big role. However, listening closely to earlier scenes shows an arrangement of the “Audition” song playing as background sound during the scene when Mia first shows Sebastian around the studio lots. That song was always hers, and the fact that it plays so early in the film before the actual song is performed kind of gives us some foreshadowing as to Mia’s success later, which the film builds up to.

Aside from song choices, however, instrumental scores in films and TV shows are just as important, and sometimes end up becoming just as famous as the franchise itself. To name a few, the Star Wars theme, the Harry Potter theme, and now even the Game of Thrones theme are all memorable and easily recognizable even to those who have never seen them.

The talent that goes into these compositions from these musicians and orchestras is truly remarkable. Each of these has also had some kind of live tour in which the composers and their bands travel to live audiences and play their compositions, which is excellent at getting audiences more engaged with the sound work that goes into the story, which is what ultimately gives us that emotional kick we desire when going on a journey with a character. Drogon and Daenerys flying into the dragon pit in silence? That would not at all have the same intense impact as it did with the music.

So, it is clear that some of the true heroes in filmmaking and in television are the sound designers and composers that assist the story in fulfilling its true potential and getting us to feel some way about it. Music and movies definitely go hand in hand, and it’s interesting to think where some films would be without their musical accompaniment. Sure, in real life we don’t always have background music to enhance our most intense or emotional moments, but life would feel so much cooler if we did.

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Film lover and pop culture enthusiast.