Week 8:  Sound and Music

Two PowerPoint presentations this week – one that explains how sound functions in films, and a second one below it, that looks at the use of music in the cinema – from the silent days when musicians accompanied a film live, to the present day where specialized music composers create original, stirring scores that are often the most memorable aspect of the film.

Then scroll down the page for interesting and revealing examples of sound and music in films, plus a link to Dansmusicclass, for an indepth look at music in film and some of the all-time great music composers.

The little studio, Warner Brothers, made a prescient decision when they decided to try out synchronized sound – a system called “Vitaphone,” developed by Bell Research Labs and using records connected to the movie projector.  Although it was a clumsy and complicated system, it actually worked!  They hired a new singer named Al Jolson, who would be the twentieth century’s first superstar, and with their film The Jazz Singer, astounded audiences, ensured their success as a studio, and galvanized the other Hollywood production companies into moving forward into the sound era.

Singin’in the Rain, an MGM classic musical from 1952, is set during the days when Hollywood first began using synchronized sound.  While its intentions are mostly comic, it shows the upheaval to style and filmmaking process that the arrival of sound caused.

First efforts to use sound were clumsy to say the least!  Cameras were noisy, actors were not used to speaking clearly and many had strong accents or voices that weren’t as appealing as their appearance would suggest.  Film companies had to make all the equipment needed – microphones and mixing boards barely existed yet – and the early “sound on disc” systems like Warner’s Vitaphone – were not reliable about keeping the sound and picture synchronized.

This short scene from Blackmail (1929), Alfred Hitchcock’s first film with sound, shows how he immediately saw the use of sound as not just a burden, nor a gimmick, but another formal element to be exploited for its creative possibilities.

In this excellent short documentary, film directors and sound technicians pay respect to Alfred Hitchcock, whose use of sound was highly imaginative and self-assured and led the way for the rest of the industry.  Hitchcock used every technical and artistic possibility of film and sound was no exception!

Pay close attention to the sound in this scene from The Graduate (1967).  Main character Benjamin is going through a crisis – unsure about what he wants to do after graduating from university but certain he doesn’t want to be like his parents and their suburban friends.  In this funny scene, his father embarrasses him with a birthday present, and Benjamin uses it as an opportunity to escape for a few moments.  The quality of the sound plays a big part, as does the selective mixing that really highlights the family’s inability to communicate with one another!


Another example of selective use of sound.  Watch how the music takes over completely in this ‘operatic’ scene from The Godfather Part 3.  Pacino’s scream comes back just for a brief moment, to graphically show his anguish.

Try watching the scene below, from 1999’s Titanic, with the sound turned off, then watch it again with the sound.  You’ll see how the dense combination of dialogue, sound effects, atmosphere, and music transform it, making it a powerfully emotional sequence.  On your second viewing, watch and listen to how carefully James Horner’s music matches what’s going on onscreen, quietly entering to give what we are seeing a heartbreaking sadness, lifting to a higher pitch as we see children,  punching in perfect rhythm with exploding flares and other moments and finally taking over completely so that the music is all we hear.

A 2018 Danish film called The Guilty is one of the most powerful films ever, and keeps us riveted to its suspenseful story with a multi-layered, highly complex use of sound.  Find it and watch it in its entirety.  You will be stunned.

Here’s a terrific mini-documentary that gets into the technical aspects of sound design, explained in detail by sound supervisor and mixer of the film Ford Vs. Ferrari (2018).

A few examples of the over-the-top or hyper-real sound effects of Terminator 2.

Francis Ford Coppola’s Apocalypse Now (1979) was the first film to use multi-track sound in theatres, with helicopter sound effects originating from the back of the theatre and much more.  The editor, Walter Murch, received the first credit ever of “sound designer” and the work he did, with as many as 160 separate tracks of sound effects, dialogue, and music, added to the film’s surrealistic atmosphere.

In the opening sequence, the soundtrack uses “The End” by The Doors, jungle sounds, helicopter sounds, and real sound effects, all layered together to produce a hallucinatory scene about the horrors of war. 

Now go to the lesson on Music in the Cinema, on the website for my Music Complementary class.  There you will be able to see the different types of music used in films – traditional and non-traditional music scores, use of pre-existing or source music.  There are also profiles, with musical examples, of some of the greatest of the film music composers.