The Element of Music and Sound in Film

         Music is known to be the art of emotion. It can create and/or reflect happiness, sadness, anger, confusion and content within ourselves. The effects of music in film have played a vital role in the history of cinema. Sound in relationship to music helps a person to react and view a film. During my research of this topic I read about film critic and music composer Michael Chion. He breaks down the way in whichsound is divide into different groups and how it plays a role in film.

         There are three types of sound modes: causal, semantic, and reduced listening. Causal listening refers to the listening of sound in order to gather information about its cause of source. Semantic listening is listening for the purpose of gaining information about what is communicated in the sound and language. Reduced listening is listening for the purpose of focusing on the qualities of sound itself such as pitch or timbre, which is independent of its source or meaning (“Sound in Film and Cinema”).

         Walt Disney's Dumbo, directed by Ben Sharpsten (1941), is one of my favorite movies of all times. The movie Dumbo is about a stork delivering a baby elephant, Dumbo, to Mrs. Jumbo, the mother. Mrs. Jumbo is the veteran elephant in the circus business. Mrs. Jumbo becomes the center of attention and laughing stock amongst the elephants due to Dumbo's jumbo ears. This is the way in which the Dumbo had received his name. Dumbo discovers that he can fly during a circus-performing act. He gets made fun of by the other animals and the audience. Mrs. Jumbo becomes angry because of the chaos, during which she is then locked up as a mad elephant with no access to Dumbo. With no one willing to care for Dumbo, a mouse, by the name of Timothy Q., gives Dumbo motivation and tend to him as a friend. To make the story short, Dumbo becomes popular with his ability to fly and is reunited with his mother, Mrs. Jumbo, and lives happily ever after.

         The reason why I brought up this movie is to compare and describe how the three categories of sound are used in movies. As stated before, causal listening refers to the listening of sound in order to gather information about its cause of source. In the beginning scene of the movie, the stork delivers the baby elephant to Mrs. Jumbo, who is on a train with other female elephants that are a part of the circus. All of the elephants gather around her for the unveiling of her newborn child. Mrs. Jumbo then uncovers her child only to hear the muffle sound of side conversations amongst the other elephants. She sees her beautiful son, Dumbo, and his jumbo ears. This is a form of causal listening because the muffled sound of side conversations amongst the other elephants brings the attention that some type of problem and/or concern has occurred. It is then noticed that her newborn son has jumbo ears.

         Semantic listening, as stated before, is listening for the purpose of gaining information about what is communicated in the sound and language. In the scene of Dumbo’s circus performance, Dumbo is being talked about because of how clumsy he has been during his act because of his jumbo ears and was made fun of by the other animals and audience. Mrs. Jumbo becomes so upset that she charges at the animals and caregivers, causing chaos and fear amongst the animals and audience. This eventually causes the circus to shut down. This is a form of semantic listening because the sound of evil laughter amongst the animals and audience towards Dumbo causes Mrs. Jumbo to create chaos in the circus.

         Last but not least the third sound modes is reduced listening, listening for the purpose of focusing on the qualities of sound itself such as pitch or timbre, which is impendent of its source or meaning. In the scene when Timothy Q and Dumbo surprised Mrs. Jumbo in her elephant jail cell, the music is softly played. This scene depicts a special moment in the movie about Mrs. Jumbo cannot see her son, Dumbo, but can feel his presence by the touch of there trunks. This is a form of reduced listening because although the music is played softly in the background, the sound focuses on the clinging of Mrs. Jumbo’s locks. It reminds the viewer that, though the two meet again, they are separated at the same time. Every time I see this part of the movie I begin to cry. The song selection is so touching and puts me in a state of thought as if I were in the situation.

         As stated before, music is known to be the art of emotion. It can create and/or reflect happiness, sadness, anger, confusion and content within ourselves. I do believe that music and sound can make or break a movie. It helps the viewer to comprehend a scene to form a reaction to and opinion of what is being depicted. For instance, when a romantic scene is depicted on a film in general, soft and soothing music is played in the background to create the mode for the viewer. When fear is depicted in a scene, usually creepy music is played in the background to cause a reaction to the viewer. Music is the unspoken/hidden thoughts of an unseen allusion and/or character in a situation.

         In the book, The Aesthetics of Film Music, written by Roy A. Prendergast, composer Leonard Rosenman wrote: "Film music has the power to change naturalism [in films] into reality. Actually, the musical contribution to the film should be ideally to create a supra-reality, a condition wherein the elements of literary naturalism are perceptually altered. In this way the audience can have the insight into different aspects of behavior and motivation not possible under the aegis of naturalism. Using the sound modes and understanding how music is the unspoken/hidden thoughts of an unseen allusion and/or character in a situation, sound in relationship to music helps a person to react and view a film."

Works Cited

Prendergast, Roy A. The Aesthetics of Film Music. New York: WW Norton & Company, 1992.

“Sound in Film and Cinema” 30 May 2008 (http://www.associatedcontent.com/article/19786/sound_in_film_and_cinema.html).

Kyra Williams

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