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The Importance of Sound Design

Sound Design explores how the dialogue is layered with the soundtrack and sound effects.

The true sound designer must be immersed in the story, characters, emotions, environments and the genre of the film. His work is to tell the story acoustically

Before we talk about music or sound effects, let’s talk about how we experience sound on the screen.

Diegesis refers to the world of the characters and the story within the film. Everything that happens to those people and in the environment portrayed on-screen is considered diegetic. Non-diegesis are elements that are not of the characters’ story world and would not be heard by the character or is not created by an event in the story. There are diegetic and non diegetic sounds.

Acousmatic is listening for the sounds one hears without seeing their originating cause. Where the source of the unseen sound is revealed, it is known as de-acousmatizing. The dramatic impact is to disempower the unidentified sound, taming and draining it of its mystery. Off-screen sounds are either active or passive. Active sounds raise questions and curiosity to see what is making the noise. Passive sounds create atmosphere and environment, enveloping and stabilising the image across edit cuts to make them seamless.

To focus on a character, focus on the sound the character makes

Sound mixing is how different components of sound relate to each other in the same period of time. Sound editing is where sound design elements are placed in time and how they interact with each other. Characters, settings and emotional motifs can benefit from having musical themes.

Soundscape is a piece of music considered in terms of it component sounds.

A soundscape is composed of several types of sound;

Keynote sounds – This represents the anchor and reference point to all other sounds.

Signals – This is the foreground sound that demands your attention eg sirens, bells, horns.

Sound marks – This establishes a particular place, as does a landmark, possessing some unique quality for only that location.

Archetypal sounds – These stir our ancestral memories, bringing us into an environment through a universal emotional reaction eg thunder eliciting the need to look for shelter.


Dialogue is an integral part of sound design and there are several types of speech possible.

Theatrical Speech – Characters generating the voices, serving to inform and affect one another on dramatic and psychological levels.

Textual Speech – Produced as voiceover or commentary to change a setting or call upon a memory, characters, or place at any moment.

Emanation Speech – When speech is not heard or understood completely or tied directly to the narrative line.

Elimination – When the characters are speaking on-screen, but the audience cannot hear what they are saying. It demands participation by the audience to imagine what is being said and can serve to build mystery or anxiety in the plot.

Sound effects are what make the visuals feel real in a film. Sources for creating sound effects are

  1. Production tracks

  2. Sound libraries

  3. Wild track recordings

  4. Foley – The reproduction of everyday sounds primarily created to accompany the noise making movement of actors in real-time.

  5. Samplers and synthesizers – Can be applied as a creative means to an effective narrative end


Music is a form of art; an expression of emotions through harmonic frequencies.

Programmatic music – It represents some action or event in the world and embodies the tone of the film

Anempathetic music – This music takes an indifferent stand to the drama and feelings taking place.

Music has numerous uses in film such as the following;

  1. It is used to help hypnotize us into the make-believe world of the film. It allows us to sense the invisible and inaudible, the spiritual and emotional processes of the characters portrayed.

  2. A sense of continuity is maintained when music is played over spatially discontinuous shots.

  3. It can be used to give emotional interpretation to an image and cue the narrative to give advance knowledge what is about to happen.

  4. It can aid in the formal unity of the film by employing repetition, variation and counterpoint thereby supporting the narrative.

  5. It is used in moments of physical or dramatic transitions such as a change of location

Listening begins with being silent

Sudden cessation of sound can give rise to the feeling of aesthetic perplexity or emotional anxiety. The power of silence at an unexpected moment can be deafening.

Experimentation within form is a way that art, energy, and drama can be created.

Sound References

Sound means different things to individual and audiences depending on context. Acoustic symbols have 4 reference levels:

Universal – Certain sounds resonate on an archetypical level for all people eg lion growl, heartbeat.

Cultural – Each culture carries its soundmark through the environment, religion, work ethic, social life, language and musical expression.

Historical – Each era had its sound. Music from another time can jog the memory of a character and audience towards the losses or joys of the past. Time also opens the way for extinction of certain sounds which become historical artifacts. Eg Telephone in the 21st century.

Film specific – Language, metaphors and clichés exist in the soundtrack of each genre eg gunshots in a cop movie.


  1. Read the script and immerse yourself in the written description of the scene and let your inner ear come alive.

  2. Environments must be established with sonic ambiance. For example, take cues from the scene heading.   EXT. FARM HOUSE. NIGHT

  3. Break down the scene and build a sound map.

  4. Look for keywords in scene and dialogue to give clues to emotions.

  5. Listen for people, objects, and actions that are described. For example, character action: breathing – forced or normal.

Sound design can be used to create acoustic illusions which substitute shooting at an expensive location such as Times Square or hiring props such as a helicopter. It should not be an afterthought.

Got The Picture?

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