Sound in Film


Sound is an integral part in a film. It refers to everything that the audience hears including sound effects, words and music. Sound is used in films for various purposes, including: providing the information to the viewer about the location of the scene, heightening the mood, telling the audience about the characters and advancing the plot. Every person who watches a film realizes that the choice of voices, soundtrack and music present in a film affect the way that the viewer perceives a particular film. As a result, the sound is an important and integral element of the film, one that determines the way that the viewer experiences and understands a film as a visual experience. The following discussion explores in depth the roles and importance of sound in a film, especially in terms of simulating reality, creating a mood and creating or adding something off the scene that is not there.


It’s important to mention at this juncture that there are two categories of sound in film: Non-Diegetic and Diegetic sounds. Non-diegetic sound refers to all the audio elements in a film that are coming from outside the world that the viewer is seeing on screen, including the sound effects such as screeches in a shower scene and music from a store. Diegetic sound refers to the audio elements coming from sources inside the fictional world on the screen and may include footsteps, slamming doors and dialogue from the characters on screen.

Shaping Film through Sound Effects

Sound effects in a film can be used by the filmmaker to add mood or a certain atmosphere to the film by the creation of a soundscape that adds a layer of meaning to the images on the screen. According to Rothbart (2013), volume, tempo and pitch in a film may be altered so as to indicate how the filmmaker intends the audience to respond to a particular noise in a particular scene (Rothbart, 2013). For example, high pitched sounds such as squealing of tires and human screams help in the creating of a sense of anxiety.

On the other end, a low-pitched sound such as the swinging of a door or the sound made by waves may be used to create a sense of mystery or calm. Moreover, sometimes, the most interesting sound in a film is the absence of it. Silence is often used by the filmmaker in the same manner as freezing a frame. This has the effect of attracting and suspending the attention of the viewer there in order to signify a change in the direction of the plot or highlight some action. In some circumstances, silence may be used to foreshadow impending doom or build up intensity.

In recent years, aided by advancement in Information Technology, special sound effects have been added in order to heighten the viewer’s experience as Sergi (2004) observes (Sergi, 2004). These sounds include phaser blasts, explosions and animal sounds from sound effect libraries in the computer. They are added after a movie has already been shot. The use of these sounds has tended to draw the viewer’s attention towards the movie sound especially with the advancement in surround sound, thereby leading to the development of a directional element of sound. This has especially been important in creation of a sense of three-dimensional in a film.

How the Spoken Word Contributes to the Shaping Of a Film

On top of giving voice to the characters in film, the most interesting ways the spoken words have shaped movies is through the provision of subtext in scenes and voice-overs. Typically, voice-overs are used in documentary films and occasionally in fictional films. The voice-overs are used by the filmmaker to provide background to the story and also to move the story from one event to another. If used well, this device can add to the movie experience. However, if used poorly, they can be obstructive and limit viewers’ freedom (Sergi, 2004)). As a result, some filmmakers prefer not to use this element so as to give viewers freedom in determining the meaning of a film.
Turning to subtexts, when included in a film, they help in revealing the implicit meaning behind the language that the audience actually hears. This element is especially left to actors to shape a scene without actually saying what one means. For example, John Malkovich had an aloof and distant voice which helped in creating a sinister edge to his on-screen performances.

Shaping a Film through Music

Music is one of the most peculiar conventions in film. Taking a step back and thinking about it, nobody questions why music should be part of film because everyone has grown up with that idea that in a film, when two people are kissing, there should be some matching music in the background or in a war film, as a platoon is attacking a beach, a symphony music provides their inspiration for assault. In reality, nobody has a soundtrack to accompany their real-life actions, but in the films, the audience has come to expect this convention and indeed demand it (Beck & Grajeda, 2008).
In film, music has a wide application. The most common and often obvious is to guide the emotional response of the viewers. Music provides huge signposts and clues on what the filmmaker wants the audience to react to a certain scene. It’s no wonder that the audience was shocked in a 1971 film when Stanley Kubrick used the music “singing in the rain” as background music to a horrible rape scene in the film “A Clockwork Orange.” The audience was shocked because they did not expect that (Altman, 2004).

When used as a backdrop in the opening credits, music can be used as overture for a film. The theme music by John Williams, composed for “Star Wars” is a parodied and famous example that has set the benchmark towards this end. It’s brassy and has come to be associated with the opening scene of that film wherever it is heard. In other instances, the filmmaker uses music to foreshadow an upcoming event and this is particularly employed in horror films.


This paper has explored the role and importance of sound in film. As outlined, sound is composed of three major ingredients: music, sound effects and the human sound. The three are used by the filmmaker to produce the required emphasis and ultimately to create the desired effects in a film. As observed, sound in film is used to tell the viewer about the characters in the story, to create and heighten a specific mood, advance the plot and give information about the location of a specific scene. Sound is an integral part of the film and viewers have come to expect and demand a good mix of the three ingredients as part of a good film experience.


Altman, R. (2004). Silent film sound. New York: Columbia University Press.
Beck, J., & Grajeda, T. (2008). Lowering the boom: Critical studies in film sound. Urbana: University of Illinois Press.
Rothbart, P. (2013). The synergy of film and music: Sight and sound in five Hollywood films. Lanham, Md: Scarecrow Press.
Sergi, G. (2004). The dolby era: Film sound in contemporary Hollywood. Manchester [u.a.: Manchester Univ. Press.

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