Did You Hear That?

When I first thought of audio as it relates to film, video, and noir, the types of sounds that came to mind were loud gun shots, screams, sirens, and voice-over narration. Although sound effects are crucial elements, there is so much more to audio in storytelling. I learned this through the resources that we watched, read, and listened to this week. Audio is used for a variety of purposes. In general, it creates mood and feeling, sets the pace of a scene, and conveys the setting and atmosphere, just to name a few. More specifically, in noir, it creates the sense of eeriness and tension, as well as, contributes to the fast-paced chase scenes and slow-paced conversation scenes that are so common in this type of film.

It is clear that sound drives stories in many ways. Just think about it: how would Jerry ever know that Tom was sneaking up behind him without the suspenseful background music and distinct footsteps? How could Spider-Man ever fight the bad guys if, perhaps, “Hey There, Delilah” was playing rather than hard-core, head-banging rock music? Sound, in all of its forms, including background music and sound effects, gives a story character and can completely change its meaning. This is perfectly exemplified in the two different openings for “Touch of Evil”. In the first, the background music is fully comprised of high-pitched trumpets and swing-dancing type music that automatically sets the mood as exciting, at ease, and quite frankly, fun! The street sounds are highlighted to create light-hearted chaos. The sounds of laughs, whistles, goats, cars, etc. all contribute to the excitement of street life in this opening for the film. Check it out:

On the other hand, the second opening is the exact same scene, but is conveyed completely different simply due to audio. The background music is still filled with the sound of trumpets, but they are played in a much lower tone and joined by a quick-paced drum beat. This combination creates a feeling of being “on a mission” and frighteningly rushed. The street sounds described above are more muffled in this opening, as the focus is on the intense music, as it is pacing the characters’ walk through the street. This is the case, except for time of crises, such as the explosion at the end. As the explosion was not included in the first selection, it completely transforms the audio of the scene. The background music is muted and the film becomes filled with new and amplified street sounds of screams, ambulance and police sirens, and burning fire. It appears like a whole new scene:

It is an understatement to say that sound drives stories, because it, in fact, steers it. It is audio, alone, that changes the scenes, as everything else is the same. In the first example, it steers it in the direction of light-heartedness and exciting street life. However, in the second, it turns toward tension and a chaotic, rushed walk. It is evident from comparing and contrasting these two examples how much sound affects story lines .

The impact of audio on mood and atmosphere is remarkable. The resource, “The Ambience of Film Noir- Soundscapes, Design, and Mood”, conveys this impact, as it outlines the purposes of sound in noir, specific elements of noir soundscapes, and how noir particularly uses sound to create mood. Besides being solely developed to suggest mood and setting, sound also adds the “appropriate ‘beat’ to the ‘pace’ of screen presentation”. For example, the sound of a drum is faint in the first example above, but it is significantly louder and faster in the second, creating the fast-paced feeling. Footsteps, in particular, are one of noir’s key sonic motifs. They structure sequences with their beat and tempo. On one extreme, they portray drama in a typical noir foot chase. One the other end, they convey a different type of drama, as one character may be trying to silently sneak up on another. Changes in tempo and pace are also utilized to mark scene transitions.

The “ambience” of noir is fabricated through the conscious placement of sound effects, as well. Certain elements are accented to relay the typical noir narratives of desire, adventure, danger, etc. As exemplified in the examples above, these elements can often be city or street sounds. The outside city frequently intrudes sonically in noir film.  Sound and its “feeling” permit an audience to share the tense experience of urban cityscapes that is noir. In order to truly see the impact of sound on mood and atmosphere, I researched some examples and found the following video, the sole purpose of which is to show the power of sound.

The final resource that we had at our disposal this week was DS106 Radio. At first, I was unsure of how it could contribute to the ideas behind this post. However, it followed through, as it shows the features of sound in action. I participated in the “The Maltese Falcon” “tweet-along” and noticed many interesting aspects of audio. It was fairly easy to do so, as my senses were isolated to only hearing, since it was a radio show. It was clear that the background music heightened during more suspenseful parts. Also, the music faded in and faded out several times to transition between reality and flashback and between new scenes. Sounds effects contributed to these transitions. For example, the door often opened and closed to signal a new scene. Although I am a huge fan of film, DS106 Radio showed me that sound is the driving force behind most story lines and visuals are not necessary for me to enjoy the plot. In fact, it was a pleasant break from the usual letting my imagination wander during “The Maltese Falcon”. Throughout all of the selections this week, one thing is clear: Audio is a crucial element of media, as it often determines what direction a work goes in and how the audience portrays it, not just provide a sound effect here and there.


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