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Importance Of Sound In Film Film Studies Essay

Paper Type: Free Essay Subject: Film Studies
Wordcount: 2204 words Published: 1st Jan 2015

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Every individual who watches a film knows too well that the choice of music, sound track and any other voice that will be present in the film affect the viewer’s perception of that particular film. There are silent films and sound films. Silent films are those that are dominated by scenes and other contents in the film, where there is less dialogue between the film characters and even the choice of music is very specific, slow, moving almost playing mildly form the background. The sound in the film also dictates the viewer’s opinion of the film, how they feel considering the emotions that the music or the sound effect impact in them.

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Considering these two films, “2001 space odyssey” by Stanley Kubrick and “the birds” by Alfred Hitchcock 1963, they totally contradicting. The birds are full of sound and music where every scene is accompanied by corresponding music while 2001 is full of silence. Although different viewers have different views on films depending on one’s taste, preference and choice, most people find sound films more thrilling and interesting to watch while quite a majority claim to get bored by silent films.

The opening sequence to The Birds serves as an entry to the non-musical, solely-sonic domain of its soundtrack. High contrast visual abstractions of birds move across the frame, half-photographed, half-animated. Concurrently, squeals and squawks attack the viewer’s ears. These sounds have a birdlike quality about them, but it soon becomes apparent that the sounds are more alien than avian, more artificial than natural. Produced by electronic music, the processing of the sounds utilizes many stylistic traits established in the field of musique concrete. In this case, taped sounds of birds are altered in pitch, tone, duration and shape, and then mixed into a multi-layered cacophony of screeches and flapping sounds in sync with the animated silhouettes of bird shapes. Having been cued to read a mimetic representation of ‘birds’ with the title The Birds, we are jettisoned into experiencing a sensation of ‘birdness’. At points the sounds of birds will be the symbolic conveyance of invisible terror; at moments their silence will mark their deathly presence. In short, all modes of audio-visual depiction exude dread as they carry the potential to be diametrically inverted. This is nothing short of a ‘terror of illusion’ – a specifically audio-visual illusion – central to The Birds’ psychological horror.

The psycho-acoustic manipulations which characterize the narrative purpose of The Birds come into play immediately. The first scene set in the bird shop is a remarkably long one where slight plot and character information is imparted. Melanie (Tippi Hedren) orders a bird; she meets and plays a game on Mitch (Rod Taylor); he uncovers her pose as a saleslady; after a heated exchange she decides to buy him the birds he was after. Throughout this scene – one of many banal, domestic exchanges – a wall of bird noise blankets all dialogue, forcing the audience to selectively mask out the high frequency information of bird noise from the mid-range tones of the actors’ voices. While one can readily perform this complex perceptual manoeuvre in reality, many films will selectively reduce the volume of background noise to privilege on-screen dialogue. The fact that The Birds refrains from this indicates that the noise level is deliberately maintained to build auditory stress within the viewer as a means of destabilization. You are subtly yet fundamentally being introduced to the unsettled psychological state which will eventually befall all the characters of the film as they are terrorized by bird noise.

Just as bird noise has already been subliminally ear-marked to trigger anxiety whenever it recurs, so is extended silence now signposted as an aural appendage to telescoped viewpoints. A lack of sound will mean someone (or something) is watching. There is much that is pregnant in The Birds due to a distribution of radical imbalances between the audio and image tracks. The highest degree of this is to be found in the absence of music. Save for a piano, a radio and some children singing (all which occur within the visual diegesis) there is not a single note of orchestrated music sounded for the film’s duration. The soundtrack of The Birds is literally that: voices, sounds, atmospheres. No violins. It rejects all musical coding traditionally employed to inform us of how we should care/think/feel/project at any point in the film. The absence of music is a specific ‘sound of silence’ which greatly enhances the Birds’ peculiarly perverse dramatic tone. Picture one of many silent Melanies: locked into a seductive gravitational sway with her birds as she navigates the winding road up to Bodega Bay. She resembles an entranced conductor orchestrating her droning car engine. No purpose. No reason. No emotion. No music.

The birds themselves narratively thrive in non-musical silence. Rather than embodying or transmitting a superimposed musical logic which tags them as monstrous, malicious and maniacal, they speak in their own voice to their own kind. Their language is foreign, alien, avian, excluding us from the inner mechanisms of their motives and operations. In sync with a decultured slant on nature, these birds simply have no concept of the human. Accordingly, human musical codes do not stick. No JAWS-style orchestral throbbing salaciously trumpets their arrival. As in their attack of the children playing Blind Man’s Bluff at a birthday party, the birds orchestrate and enact a cacophony upon their arrival. Balloons burst, children scream, feathers flutter and beaks peck, all played against a continual delivery of bird squawks. In the absence of music, all sound becomes terror; gulls and children scream alike (Schwam ¶1).

A peculiar type of silencing occurs when Melanie waits for Cathy: a silencing through music. Most of the following incidents are covered by an irritating cannon voiced by the lacksadasical tones of children singing in school. After the cacophonic climax of the Brenner attack, Melanie cautiously checks the attic. All is still and quiet – until she unwittingly shines a torch on the massed birds roosted there like a cancer within the household. They swoop on her as she flails her arms desperately like a man trying to fly. Her cries for help slowly disintegrate into a field of whimpers and gasps. The birds terrorize us from above with sophistication and precision dreamed of in military aviation. They feed off our cadavers in disrespectful piecemeal fashion. And in a fitful triumph of the sonic, they peck out our eyes. As we die and fade to black, so does the film’s sun set, blurring the calm chattering of all those gathered birds into an agitated chorus that reverberates deep in the caves of the hollow sockets which were once our eyes (¶2-3).

Stanley Kubrick’s “2001 space odyssey” is a profound, visionary and astounding film (a mysterious Rorschach film-blot) and a tremendous visual experience. This epic film contained more spectacular imagery (about what space looked like) and special effects than verbal dialogue. Viewers are left to experience the non-verbal, mystical vastness of the film, and to subjectively reach into their own subconscious and into the film’s pure imagery to speculate about its meaning. Many consider the masterpiece bewildering, boring, slow-moving or annoying, but are still inspired by its story of how man is dwarfed by technology and space.

The first spoken word is almost a half hour into the film, and there’s less than 40 minutes of dialogue in the entire film. Much of the film is in dead silence (accurately depicting the absence of sound in space), or with the sound of human breathing within a spacesuit. Kubrick’s sci-fi experiment intended to present its story almost purely with visual imagery and auditory signals with very little communicative human dialogue (similar to what was attempted in the surreal, fragmented, non-narrative imagery of the Qatsi trilogy. All scenes in the film have either dialogue or music (or silence), but never both together. They hypnotically circle around the black object – Floyd bashfully touches it with his thick glove. A photographer prepares a group of them to line up – and pose before the totem-like monolith like typical tourists, recording the moment of their visit. Just as their picture is taken, a ray of sunlight strikes the monolith – signalling the end of the dark, 14-day lunar night. It is the Dawn of the Moon. Again, the glowing Sun, Moon and Earth have formed a conjunctive orbital configuration. And then suddenly, the object emits an ear-piercing, electronic screeching noise. The group is stunned and staggers – reeling helplessly backwards as their helmet headphones are filled with the blasted signal.

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Music plays a crucial part in 2001, and not only because of the relatively sparse dialogue. From very early on in production, Kubrick decided that he wanted the film to be a primarily non-verbal experience, one that did not rely on the traditional techniques of narrative cinema, and in which music would play a vital role in evoking particular moods. In this respect, 2001 harks back to the central power that music had in the era of silent film (Allison ¶1-2).

The film is remarkable for its innovative use of classical music taken from existing commercial records. Major feature films were (and still are) typically accompanied by elaborate film scores and/or songs written especially for them by professional composers. But although Kubrick started out by commissioning an original orchestral score from composer Alex North, he later abandoned this, opting instead for pre-recorded tracks sourced from existing recordings, becoming one of the first major movie directors to do so, and beginning a trend that has now become commonplace (¶3-4).

On 2001 Kubrick did much of the filming and editing, using as his guides the classical recordings which eventually became the music track. In March of 1966 MGM became concerned about 2001’s progress and Kubrick put together a show reel of footage to the ad hoc soundtrack of classical recordings. The studio bosses were delighted with the results and Kubrick decided to use these “guide pieces” as the final musical soundtrack, and he abandoned North’s score. Unfortunately Kubrick failed to inform North that his music had not been used, and to his great dismay, North did not discover this until he saw the movie at the première. North’s soundtrack has since been recorded commercially and was released shortly before his death. Similarly, Ligeti was unaware that his music was in the film until alerted by friends. He was at first unhappy about some of the music used, and threatened legal action over Kubrick’s use of an electronically “treated” recording of Aventures in the “interstellar hotel” scene near the end of the film (Kolker ¶5-7).

HAL’s haunting version of the popular song “Daisy Daisy” (Daisy Bell) was inspired by a computer synthesized arrangement by Max Mathews, which Arthur C. Clarke had heard in 1962 at the Bell Laboratories Murray Hill facility when he was coincidentally visiting friend and colleague John Pierce. At that time, a remarkable speech synthesis demonstration was being performed by physicist John Larry Kelly, Jr. who created one of the most famous moments in the history of Bell Labs by using an IBM 704 computer to synthesize speech. Kelly’s voice recorder synthesizer vocoder recreated the song “Daisy Bell”, with Max Mathews providing the musical accompaniment. Arthur C. Clarke was so impressed that he later told Kubrick to use it in the film. When HAL disconnects the life support systems, we see a flashing warning sign, “COMPUTER MALFUNCTION”, shown full-screen and accompanied only by the sound of a shrill alarm beep; this is intercut with static shots of the hibernating astronauts, encased in their sarcophagus-like pods, and close-up full-screen shots of the life-signs monitor of each astronaut. As the astronauts begin to die, the warning changes to “LIFE FUNCTIONS CRITICAL” and we see the vital signs on the monitors beginning to level out. Finally, when the three sleeping astronauts are dead, there is only silence and the ominously banal flashing sign, “LIFE FUNCTIONS TERMINATED” (Fiona ¶6-8).

The film industry has made a tremendous progress when it comes to sound films. Film producers have modern and special gadgets that can incorporate any tripe of music or track any sound that the movie producer desires. It does not matter what the genre of the film is, there are all types of sounds and music to accompany the theme, environment and character traits of the actors and basically capture the desired setting of the film.


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