FILM SOUND: LISTENING TO THE CINEMA
Explain the various ways sound is important to the film experience.
Describe how the use and understanding of sound reflect different historical and cultural influences.
Explain how sounds convey meaning in relationship to images.
Summarize how sounds are recorded, combined, and reproduced.
List the various functions of the voice.
Describe the principles and practices that govern the use of music.
Outline the principles and practices that govern the use of sound effects.
Analyze the cultural, historical, and aesthetic values that determine traditional relationships between sounds
The last of four chapters that deal with different elements of film form, Chapter 5 explores how speech, music, and
sound effects are constructed and how they are perceived by the film’s audience. Beginning with the chorus in classical
Greek theater, the chapter outlines the social and technological history of film sound. It then examines
voice, music, and sound effects in detail. Finally, it discusses the significance of sound in film; that is, how a
soundtrack re-creates sounds from the world around us and creates new patterns of sound that construct or
emphasize meanings and themes in a film.
This chapter encourages students to consider sound analytically, something they may never have done before. It is not
only viewing, but listening to movies that defines the filmgoing experience, and advanced sound technologies make that
experience even more immediate and immersive.
TEACHING THE OPENING VIGNETTE
One way in which an instructor might use this opening scene from The Piano (1993) to introduce film sound is by
placing it within a larger context of voice and music in film. Ask the class: How does our reception of Ada’s
“mind’s voice” change when we are familiar with actress Holly Hunter’s natural Southern accent? What does the
music—and noise—from the titular piano do to challenge and expand our traditional expectations about the role of
underscoring in movies? What is the difference between her voiceover and a male voiceover from film noirs like
Sunset Boulevard (1950) or Double Indemnity (1944), or from a magisterial voice of God like Morgan Freeman,
who narrates March of the Penguins (2005)?
TEACHING THE CHAPTER
Film is an audiovisual medium, but film studies frequently privileges the visual, referring to viewers and
spectators, words rooted in the sense of sight, rather than to auditors and audiences. A film’s soundtrack is
constructed out of many layers of sound, from the dialogue to the background score. Sound is a sensual experience
that potentially makes cinema’s deepest impression. To perceive an image, we must face forward with our eyes
open, but sound can come from any direction. During a particularly frightening moment in a film, we may cover ou r
eyes to hide from the image, but we remain connected to the action through the sound. Although film sound is the
least visible of the formal and technical elements of the movies, it is the element that engages us most viscerally.
Listening carefully requires being informed about film history and culture, as well as specific formal elements and
To teach this chapter, it can be useful to couch the evolution of film sound within a consideration of pop
compilation soundtracks from the past few decades of film history. The immediacy and ubiquity of a certain song
can lure audiences into a theater, but it can also wrench them out of their suspension of disbelief because of an extra-
filmic association. From there it may be easier for students to appreciate how more traditional film scores affected
earlier filmmakers and analyze how voice and effects work to convey a sense of authenticity and verisimilitude.
From a Historical Perspective
1895-1920s: The Sounds of Silent Cinema:
One of the more interesting examples of the “sounds of silent cinema”
is the benshi, or silent film narrator, in Japanese film culture. As celebrated as the silent film stars to which they
gave voice, the benshi popularized an art of narration by creatively interpreting silent Japanese films, as well as
silent film from the West, as they were screened, live, for audiences. If possible, you might consider visiting in class