“If you listen to nature, all the sounds are done in a confident way. I’m trying to do that.” – Roscoe Mitchell
When working on my own projects, I always treat sound with the utmost respect as it is one of my favorite ways to drive a narrative. Think about it: every single sound you hear in a movie is deliberate, but you don’t always notice because you expect it to be there. How many times do you watch an outdoor scene and say, “Dude…BEST PYGMY NUTHATCH SOUND EVER?!” K. That’s what I thought. But what if that sound wasn’t there? A sunny day but no birds? Your ears would tell you that something is missing. This is an example of diegetic sound.
Diegetic sound is also known as actual or literal sound. It is sound originating from the film’s world.
INT. HOUSE – MORNING
A woman taps her thermostat and the air conditioner hums as her bare feet slap against the tile on the way to the kitchen. She carefully pours a cup of coffee while clicking through her playlist to find a song to jumpstart her day. She lands on Roxette’s It Must Have Been Love and settles into her favorite chair. Off screen, her phone begins to ring incessantly…
Can you close your eyes and imagine all the diegetic sounds in my scene or did you just click my link to It Must Have Been Love and decide it’s way better than whatever is going on here? It’s okay. I won’t judge you.
If you’re still with me…she slowly turns her head toward the maddening sound and flails at her end table for a pair of headphones, knocking over picture frames, spare change and Kleenex. She covers her ears, closes her eyes and cranks the volume, drowning out everything but the enchanting sounds of the late 80’s. After the first chorus, her eyes dart around the room and land on the broken glass at her feet. She pulls a picture from what is left of the frame and a single tear drops on the face of a man she once knew.
In the next scene, we see the man from the picture staring out his office window. It Must Have Been Love continues to play from where the last scene left off, but now we’re not hearing it from her perspective. This is an example of non-diegetic sound.
Non-diegetic sound is outside of the world in the film but helps set a tone. The man in the next scene can’t hear the song because he is not actually listening to it in his world. The music serves as a transition and tone-setter, letting the audience know that his mood mirrors that of his ex-girlfriend. It’s now just the soundtrack for the scene. You know that shrill sound effect in horror movies that rises to a crescendo when you are about to see what’s lurking behind the corner? That’s also non-diegetic sound. How about Red’s voiceover in the final scene of The Shawshank Redemption? Yep. Non-diegetic.
See if you can identify all the sounds in this scene as either diegetic or non-diegetic.
Now get busy livin’…