Designing A Movie For Sound

For Class #8

 Instructor: Norman Hollyn T.A.: Beth Moody
 Office: 310-821-2792 Phone: 323-472-1164

 E-Mail: nhollyn [at]

E-Mail: elizabethmoody [at]

The Roles Of Sound

By Tomlinson Holman

Sound in film has a.

(1) Narrative role

a) Direct Narrative role Many kind of sound have direct storytelling role in film making. Dialog and narration tell the story and narrative sound effects can be used in such capacity too, for example to draw the attention of the characters for an off screen event. Such direct narrative sound effects are often written into the script, since their use can influence when and where actors have to take some corresponding action.

b) Subliminal Narrative role Sound has a subliminal role. Sound is working on its audience unconsciously. While all viewers call tell apart the various objects in a picture - an actor, a table the walls of an room, listeners barely ever perceive sound so analytically. They tend to take sound in as a whole, despite its actually being deliberately constructed from many pieces.

Herein lies the key to an important storytelling power of sound The inability of listeners to separate sound into ingredients parts can easily produce " a willing suspension of disbelief" in audience, since they can not separately discern the function of various sound elements. These fact can be manipulated by filmmakers to produce a route to emotional involvement in the material by the audience

The most direct example this effect is often the film score. Heard in isolation, the actual score played with the film often do not make much sense. The music is deliberately written to enhance the mood of a scene and to underscore the action not as a foreground activity, but a background one. The function of the music is to "tell" the audience how to feel, from moment to moment: Soaring strings mean one thing, a single snare drum, another.

The emotional sound equation

An example is the emotional sound equation that says that low frequencies represent a threat. Possibly this association has deep primordial roots, but if not, exposure to film sound certainly teaches the listener this lesson quickly. A distant thunderstorm played underneath an otherwise sunny scene indicates a sense of foreboding or doom, as told by this equation. An interesting parallel is that the shark in Jaws is introduced by four low notes on an otherwise calm ocean, and there are many ther such examples.

(2) Grammatical role

Sound plays a grammatical role in the process of film making too. For instance if sound remains constant before an after a picture cut, the indication being made to the audience is that while the point of view many have changed, the scene has not shifted - we are in the same as before. So sound provides a form of continuity or connective tissue for films. In particular, one type of sound represented several ways plays this part. Presence and ambience help to "sell" the continuity of a scene to the audience

Excerpt from Tomlinson Holman's Introduction to Sound for Film and TV © 1997


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Last Modified - September 30, 2008