FILM 101: Diegetic and Non-Diegetic Sound

In my first installment of Film 101, I discussed Three Act Structure as it pertains to film. Here, in the second installment, I will talk about the difference between Diegetic Sound and Non-Diegetic Sound. I am reassured that this is fairly obscure language if only because WordPress keeps insisting that I am not spelling it correctly.

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WHAT IS DIEGETIC SOUND?

Diegetic sound is anything within a movie which is made within the world of the film. This means anything the characters can hear or anything which is implied to have been born from the film itself. Examples are:

Dialogue. If two people are talking to each other, that is obviously within the world of the film.

The music coming from John Cusack’s Boombox in the picture above. The sound’s source is known to come from inside the movie. Anybody walking by John Cusack would hear that music.

Gunshots. Swords clanging. Rocket ship’s igniting, and other stuff that is usually foley sound. This is the one that seems odd. We know that, often, the sound of a gunshot is not the actual sound made at the time of the filming. The sound effect is usually added in post. But the assumption is that the people within the movie’s reality heard that gunshot. Even though it is added after the fact, it is still a sound which occurs within the world of the film.

Off-screen sounds. If mom calls for someone from off-screen, it still happens within the world of the film, even if we don’t see it. It is still diegetic.

SO WHAT IS NON-DIEGETIC SOUND?

If diegetic sound is everything within the world of the film, then non-diegetic sound is everything the audience hears but the characters within the film wouldn’t. Examples?

MUSICAL SCORE: The characters of a film don’t get to hear the exquisite musicality of John Williams or Bernard Herrmann. Only the audience gets to hear this music as a way of heightening (or manipulating) our appreciation of the scene.

NARRATION: When a character is directly addressing us through voice-over, that is a device a director is using to speak to us directly. Often, a movie will try to find a way of introducing this narration as a character talking to other characters in the film. This gets muddy because a narrator is usually talking over a scene which he is not actively speaking in (think DOUBLE INDEMNITY).

WHY SHOULD I CARE?

Utilizing diegetic versus non-diegetic sound is another way in which filmmakers focus our viewing. The score helps us connect to a scene. The correct sound effect makes us jump. But those are the basics.

Can you think of a film in which you thought that a certain piece of music was outside of the world of the film, and then someone shuts off a radio, or takes off a pair of headphones, or ends or changes the music in some other way? Often this is a way of turning non-diegetic sound into diegetic sound. It takes our assumptions (the music playing over the credits cannot be heard by the characters) and turns them on their head (the character has control over the music).

While this is in no way a mind-blowing or landmark concept, it can be interesting to note when directors are playing with the minds of an audience. At other times, the lack of diegetic sound can be a source of frustration for the audience. I just watched THE FRENCH CONNECTION, so I’ll use an example from that. In that film, Gene Hackman and Roy Scheider are tracking a couple of assumed criminals. The cops stand outside in the cold while the bad guys are inside eating a gourmet dinner.

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The camera sits a few feet from the criminals as they engage in conversation. At every other point in the film, a camera that close, trained on dialogue, allows us to hear the spoken words. At this point, though, Director William Friedkin chooses to have the dialogue be silent, forcing the audience into the same perspective (in an auditory sense) as the cops. Even if we see better than they do, our inability to hear what is happening adds to the frustration.

Perhaps the most famous uses of non-diegetic sound are those which we forget are non-diegetic. The example which comes to mind is the film score which accompanies the stabs in the shower scene of PSYCHO. How many times has a parody had someone making downward slashing motions while vocalizing the intense sounds of the film score? We associate the stabbing with that music, even if poor Marion never got to hear them.

SO WHAT DO YOU THINK?

Can you think of films which manipulate the use of sound to heighten the experience? Horror films do this with regularity. Spoof movies do this all the time (often with less effect). Are there certain directors who are more effective with their use of sound design than others? Has sound ever taken you out of a movie or put you more directly into it?
Coming next on FILM 101: The Hays Code

Previous FILM 101 articles: Three Act Structure

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~ by johnlink00 on February 3, 2013.

3 Responses to “FILM 101: Diegetic and Non-Diegetic Sound”

  1. Like the Psycho reference, I think the famous Jaws music is a good example of forgetting the music in non-diegetic. It almost feels as if it’s created by the shark itself.

  2. Absolutely! In fact, if you ask my two-year-old son what sound a shark makes, he starts humming the Jaws theme.

  3. […] For the third installment of Film 101, we will take a look back at The Hays Code and how it both effected and affected film so dramatically for such a long period of time. For previous installments of Film 101, punch the links for Three-Act Structure or Diegetic vs Non-Diegetic Sound. […]

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