The Role of Sound, Music and Cinematography

“Dialogue is the moon, and stars are the sound effects”[1]


Cinema is first and foremost a visual medium yet the role of sound and music cannot be understated. Understanding the emotional power of music in film is a complex undertaking. A film may be defined by a stand out score, but it is the combination of multiple elements that make the fundamentals of a soundtrack. “Greater combinations of sounds expressing a wider spectrum of tones, textures and volumes can be heard at the movies more than ever”[2] It is the combination of these elements combined and their timing within the film that ensures the impact of music and sound in film. The relationships between dialogue, music and sound effects are crucial to ensuring the overall impact on the production. The soundtrack can enhance a narrative such as with Baz Lurhman’s re-telling of the classic Romeo and Juliet (1996). The modernity of the music and the edgy feel of its acoustics brought modernity and a relevance to the Shakespearean narrative to young audiences.

Music in film can certainly be overused in attempt to emotionally manipulate the audience. Lord Puttnam was certainly of this opinion and in this respect he quoted director Ken Loach “You must work very hard to earn the audience’s tears”. In a similar vein, when music is used it is critical to ensuring an emotional resonance that elevates what is occuring visually on screen. Lord Puttnam spoke of this in length in relation to Chariots of Fire (19) a film now synonymous with its Oscar-winning score by Vangelis. He accredited much of the film’s success to the music used was critical to success. The use of the Vangelis music for the ‘beach running scene’ was of particular significance. In that it was an early example of using music of a different era/style and fusing it to a key visual scene for ultimate impact. Although it may have seemed out of place in the film’s context it actually enhanced the scene and created a stand-out inspirational cinematic moment.


Conversely, even in the era of the blockbuster brought to us in dolby surround “often, the absence of sound can be just as eloquent”[3]. The soundscape can be equally enhanced by the absence of sound. In its final scene in the Godfather III(1990)  the cries of Michael Corleone are dubbed out by the sound of the infamous score. We see his agony but we cannot hear it, when his cries are finally re-added into the scene it creates a highly emotional crescendo. The layering of sound here has an operatic effect that adds significant poignancy given the death of Mary’s character on the steps of the opera house in Palermo. After three outstanding films the audiences tears have been well earned by Ford Coppola.


[1] (Michael Ondaatje, The Conversations:Walter Murch and the Art of Editing Film (New York:Knopf, 2002)

[2] The Contemporary HollywoodFilm Soundtrack: Professional Practices and Sonic Styles since the 1970’s pg 2



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