Dawn Pisturino's Blog

My Writing Journey

Creating Soundtracks in Movies

on February 15, 2022
(Wayne’s World)

How Sound Focuses Attention on Spatial and Temporal Relationships

       Sound affects the movie audience on the physical, emotional, and psychological levels.  This is true even if the audience is not aware of the effects.  Sound can contribute to the suspense or romance of the story.  It can help to establish the time period and genre.  Sound colors audience perceptions and expectations.  It contributes to the meaning of the movie.

       Sound is part of the total world (diegesis) of a movie (Barsam and Monahan, 136, 371).  Footsteps, doorbells, bird songs, gunfire, brakes screeching, crickets creaking, etc., add to the realism of the movie.  Without real-world sounds, modern audiences would perceive that something is missing.

       Diegetic sounds originate from within the world of the movie.  Both the audience and the characters hear the sounds, even though the sounds are not usually added to the movie until later (Barsam and Monahan, 371).

       Nondiegetic sounds, which originate from outside the world of the movie, can be heard only by the audience.  They play on the audiences’ senses, but they do not affect the characters in the movie (Barsam and Monahan, 371).

       The sound most often heard in movies is diegetic sound.  It can be “internal or external, on-screen or off-screen, and recorded during the production or constructed during postproduction” Barsam and Monahan, 372).  Diegetic sound gives the audience “an awareness of both the spatial and the temporal dimensions of the shot from which the sound emanates” (Barsam and Monahan, 371).

       If a character knocks on a door, the diegetic on-screen sound of knocking “occurs simultaneously with the image” (Barsam and Monahan, 372).   If a narrator explains why the character is knocking on the door, only the audience hears the narration.  This is nondiegetic off-screen sound.  If the character starts thinking about why he is knocking on the door, this is internal sound.  If an unseen bird starts singing in the background, the character can hear it, and this is considered external sound (Barsam and Monahan, 372-374).

       In Dennis Hopper’s 1969 movie, Easy Rider, the nondiegetic soundtrack sets the time period as the 1960s.  The music is consistent with the costumes, the action, and the story. The loud shotgun blasts which kill the two protagonists are diegetic sounds heard by both the characters and the audience.  The suddenness of the sounds simultaneously occurring with the action, shocks and disturbs the audience.

       Orson Welles pioneered the use of multiple layers of sound in Citizen Kane.  The party scene at the Inquirer’s offices uses “deep-focus sound that functions much like deep-focus cinematography” (Barsam and Monahan, 397).  The characters in the scene include musicians, dancers, waiters, journalists, and the main protagonists.  While the band plays, the dancers dance, and Charles Kane (Orson Welles) sings, Mr. Bernstein (Everett Sloane) and Jed Leland (Joseph Cotton) talk to each other in a corner.  Deep-focus cinematography keeps the camera focused on Charles Kane as the main subject, but a microphone makes the voices of Jed and Bernstein stand out from the rest of the sounds at the party (Barsam and Monahan, 397-398).

       The spatial and temporal relationships of the characters within the setting are established through Welles’ use of sound.  Jed and Bernstein’s conversation is distinctly heard by the audience because the camera is closer to these two characters (Barsam and Monahan, 399).  Jed and Bernstein are free to discuss their impressions of Charles Kane while Kane celebrates his own success.  Kane dominates the room while everyone else is shown celebrating his celebrity and worshipping at his feet.  Money and power talk louder here than anything else, and the scene clearly depicts Kane’s megalomania and domination of his employees.  At the same time, Jed Leland’s conversation reveals his disappointment and disillusionment with Kane.  The sound mix allows for a realistic portrayal of the scene.

       Consciously or unconsciously, the audience is affected by sound and how it is manipulated and incorporated into a movie.  As technology progresses, sound engineering will become a bigger component in movies.

Dawn Pisturino

Thomas Edison State University

February 6, 2018

Copyright 2018-2022 Dawn Pisturino. All Rights Reserved.

Works Cited

Barsam, Richard, and Dave Monahan. Looking at Movies, 5th ed. New York: Norton, 2016.


4 responses to “Creating Soundtracks in Movies

  1. balladeer says:

    Talkies are just a fad. (I’m kidding!)

    Liked by 1 person

    • LOL! That’s what they were hoping! Seems kind of ridiculous now to believe that sound movies would just be a “fad!” Can’t help thinking of “Sunset Boulevard.”

      Liked by 1 person

      • Iowa Life says:

        Interesting post. The furthest I ever got on soundtracks was the music. I looked up Sunset Boulevard that you mentioned. Bizarre. It gets a really high 8.4 for IMDB.

        Liked by 1 person

      • Oh, you really must see “Sunset Boulevard” if you haven’t seen it! It’s exactly what we are talking about – silent movies versus talkies! Stars Gloria Swanson (who was a silent film star) and William Holden. Fabulous movie!


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: