Subtleties found in a film’s sound and music choice often complement the effect of the narrative. These auditory nuances enhance the film’s immersion and truly bring us as viewers into the diegesis of the film. The sounds also set the tone of the events. While there are many techniques one can apply to create this audial ambiance, one particularly popular method is switching from nondiegetic to diegetic music within a scene.
Diegetic music is simply music that lives in the film universe. See a character turn on a radio? Hear a police siren in a chase scene? These sounds are all a part of the fictional world within the film.
Non-diegetic music is just the opposite; it is music that is unknown to the characters but heard by the audience. That overplayed Celine Dion song in Titanic? You can hear it, but the characters of Kate Winslet and Leonardo Dicaprio can’t. The ominous two note theme of Jaws approaching the fishing boat? Well, those guys on the boat can’t hear that sound, either.
Two films released late in 2014 utilize non-diegetic music that is later revealed to be diegetic.
In Birdman, the main character, played by Michael Keaton, is storming through the backstage of a Broadway theater (spoiler alert!) to the ambient tune of a quick snare drum accompanied by a crash cymbal. While this theme is consistent throughout the film, its source is never revealed, thus suggesting its ambiance outside of the diegesis. But then, as Michael Keaton’s character runs through one of the back hallways, the source of the sound is revealed to be a backstage drummer.
In Paddington, early on in the movie, the main characters are being taxied home from a train station just outside of London. In the background, an upbeat melody accompanied by lyrics highlight the wonders within London. Given the context of the events on screen, this would suggest, once again, that the music is outside of the diegesis. However, as the taxi rounds a street corner, the viewer is shown a band playing that exact song.
The concept also appears in the anime series Noir. It is not a common element in anime, but when it is included, it carries an equally powerful effect. In this show, the character Kirika is introduced with a very distinct melody. The tune is haunting and carries a mysterious weight through its simplicity. Later in the episode, it is revealed that the music is emanating from the pocket watch that Kirika carries, but it is also the music that introduces us to the object. The watch then becomes the symbol for “the pilgrimage” of Kirika’s and Mireille’s past, serving as the key to unlocking the memories that Kirika is missing and the memories that Mireille attempts to keep buried away.
Some of you readers might be thinking, it’s just a simple cinematic trick, right? If it’s such a big deal, why have I never noticed it?
To us, as the audience, it may seem like a simple trick. But, from the perspective of the filmmaker, these “tricks” require a great deal of understanding of the diegesis they are filming. There are a few questions that the filmmaker must consider about their audience when making the decision to use this method. In what context should a switch be made? Is it appropriate to pull something like this at all in certain films? Does this draw us in as an audience or distract us from the main themes of the film? The examples mentioned here were fairly simple, so it’s easy to see how this technique can be executed. Often, its execution is much more subtle. I suggest you rewatch some of your favorite movies and see for yourself how much its sound execution really affects how much you enjoyed the film. You might just be surprised!
Kenny Lu is a blogger and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Kaitlyn Peltzer is a junior English and criminology major and can be reached at email@example.com.