Sound is one of the most important aspects of a narrative. Don’t believe me? Grab your favourite film and take a listen. Turn off the screen and focus your attention on how much information is conveyed by the soundtrack. What can you hear? How do ambient sounds contribute to a sense of setting and atmosphere? How do foley sounds and other effects help tell the story? What effect does the score have? How important is music? It only takes a few minutes to realise the significant contribution that sound makes to storytelling and audience engagement.
Horror films are a great example. Think of a film that really scared you and watch it without audio. Not so terrifying now, right?
When studying films, it’s important to think about the contribution that sound makes to storytelling and audience engagement. For convenience, we categorise sound into the following categories: sound effects, score, music and dialogue.
Imagine a horror film in which the main character is hiding in a wardrobe of an abandoned house. We see a close up of the character’s face. The sound of soft, furtive footsteps and floorboards creaking echoes down the hallway. We hear ragged breathing and the rumble of distant thunder. As the scene progresses, orchestral music becomes more and more intense until the closet door finally swings open.
This is a great example of how sound effects can contribute to storytelling and audience engagement.
The opening sequence of Wes Craven’s Scream is a masterful example of how sound effects, sound editing and music can contribute to the narrative and engage the audience. In the opening scene, Casey Becker begins to suspect that there’s something sinister about her mystery caller. “Why do you want to know my name?” she asks. Marco Bertram’s score strikes a dramatic, low-pitched note when he replies, “So I know who I am looking at.” In the distance, a dog barks. When first viewing the film, this sound effect isn’t immediately obvious. Nevertheless, this sound effect has very purposefully been placed in the film to create the unnerving sense that Casey is being stalked by someone outside the house. As the scene progresses, Craven repeatedly cuts back to stovetop popcorn that crackles as the intensity of the scene increases.
Another great example of sound is M Night Shyamalan’s Signs. Riding out an alien invasion in their basement, a family is suddenly plunged into darkness. Before the lights come back on, the audience hears a furious struggle, the sound of broken glass and voices. For a few tense moments, deprived of light, the audience must rely on sound to convey the narrative. This combination of sound and lighting creates one of the most tense and frightening moments in the film.
Whatever film you’re studying, it’s important to remember that all of the sounds you can hear – including sound effects, music and dialogue – has been carefully selected and mixed into the soundtrack.
Many people hardly notice the orchestral score for a film or recognise its important contribution to their emotional engagement with the narrative.
In narratives, orchestral music performs a number of functions. It can establish setting. In the opening shot of Braveheart, the camera soars over the Scottish highlands and James Horner’s score, which makes extensive use of bagpipes commences. In conjunction with the visuals, the music helps to establish the setting of the film within seconds. Similarly, in the opening sequence of Equilibrium, Klaus Badelt’s score helps to create the impression of an oppressive, totalitarian government through its use of a Soviet-style choir.
The score also conveys information about character. In The Dark Knight, composers Hans Zimmer and James Newton Howard collaborated on a theme for The Joker: a single note played on the violin which increases in intensity and pans rapidly from left to right, gradually joined by other discordant and distorted electronic instruments. As James Newton Howard notes: “What’s great about the Joker theme to me is that it feels totally untethered. It just kind of exists. It lives somewhere in the cracks.” The jarring, incessant wall of noise contributes significantly to his sinister characterisation. John William’sImperial March is another great example of music being used to characterise a villain. Of course, film scores also help to characterise heroes as well. Take John William’s Raider’s March or The Theme from Superman.
Film scores also contribute to audience engagement. They heighten suspense and pluck at the heartstrings. Midway through Ridley Scott’s Gladiator, Maximus is forced to fight for his life in a brutal and bloody battle in the Colosseum. Ridley Scott created a tense, furious and brutal scene which made all the more effective by Hans Zimmer and Lisa Gerrard’s orchestral track, The Barbarian Horde. This is a good example of music underscoring and accentuating the action in a narrative. Music can also be used to create atmosphere.
The man behind the music for Doctor Who, Murray Gold is responsible for much of the program’s emotional impact, writing a number of leit motifs for a character that is continually evolving, from the haunting Doctor’s Theme which was used with Christopher Eccleston and David Tennant to the heroic Doctor’s Theme Series 4, I Am the Doctor and The Majestic Tale (Of a Madman in a Box). (Photograph: Richard Ecclestone)
If you’ve watched a movie trailer in the last decade, you’ve probably heard the music of Clint Mansell. Mansell’s Lux Aeterna, which was written for the film Requiem for a Dream, has been re-orchestrated and used in the trailers for films including Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers and Sunshine. Mansell also wrote several tracks for the video game Mass Effect 3, including the emotive and minimalist Leaving Earth.
Famous for his collaboration with filmmakers like Sam Mendes and Frank Darabont, Thomas Newman has written the scores for a number of critically acclaimed and high grossing films, including The Shawshank Redemption and American Beauty. Some of his notable pieces include End Title and Any Other Name.
Although his early work included lighthearted comedies like Pretty Woman and Three Men and a Little Lady, Newton Howard went on to write scores for films like The Sixth Sense, Blood Diamond and The Dark Knight. Although these are remarkable scores, I’ve always been a big fan of his atmospheric work on the thriller Michael Clayton.
Although he is best known for his flawless work on The Lord of the Rings – The King of the Golden Hall, Samwise the Brave and The Steward of Gondor are all worth listening to – he also wrote some terrifically suspenseful scores for smaller films like The Silence of the Lambs and Panic Room.
Hans Zimmer is responsible for some of the most powerful action scores ever written. One of his early standouts was the music for the submarine thriller Crimson Tide. His long list of memorable scores include Inception, Gladiator, Sherlock Holmes, The Dark Knight and Backdraft.
Popular music can also make a significant contribution to narratives. When the T-800 travels back through time in James Cameron’s Terminator 2, he arrives in the present day completely naked, finds the nearest seedy bar and demands the clothes, boots and motorcycle of one of its patrons. He emerges from the bar clad completely in black to George Thorogood’s ‘Bad to the Bone’. Although music is frequently used in to complement a scene like this, filmmakers often use music in an ironic or unexpected context. In John Woo’s Face/Off, a child caught in a massive gun battle between criminals and police listens to the song ‘Somewhere Over the Rainbow’ through a pair of headphones. Windows explode, machine guns flash and spark as the room is showered with bullets. The scene plays out in slow motion to this unexpected music. A similar example occurs near the beginning of I am Legend, when Robert Neville (Will Smith) is bathing his dog and singing along to the Bob Marley song ‘Three Birds’. Contrary to what the lyrics suggest, everything is not going to be all right. How could it in a nightmarish, post-apocalypic world filled with bloodthirsty vampires? Rather than make the audience feel comforted, this song creates a deep sense of unease.
WRITING ABOUT SOUND
When you’re studying important scenes in a film, turn off the screen and listen to the audio. Consider the following questions.
• What can you hear? Sound effects? Ambience? Score? Music? Dialogue?
• What information do the sound effects convey?
• What effect does the timbre and pitch of the sound effects have?
• How do sound effects make the audience feel?
• Apart from the music are there any non-diegetic sounds that contribute to the scene?
• Does the orchestral score tell the audience about the setting or characters? Does it contribute to the mood or atmosphere of the scene?
• What contribution does popular music make to the narrative? Is it diegetic or non-diegetic?
• How does dialogue contribute to the audience’s understanding of the narrative. Remember that the tone and delivery of dialogue should be addressed as acting.