Being a filmmaker, it’s essential to know what diegetic sound is and how to use it. In this article, we’re going to define diegetic sound in a short and simple way. Then we’re going to look at key examples from film to show you how experts incorporate diegetic sound into their works.
Diegetic Sound Explained
How do you define diegetic?
When thinking of the "world" of a film, diegetic sound becomes a vital element that every film needs. Non-diegetic sound isn't as necessary but it certainly adds to the overall soundtrack. The overall sound design of a film would include diegetic sound and non-diegetic sound. But how do you define diegetic? It sounds a lot fancier than it actually is.
The word "diegesis" comes from the Greek and literally means narration. Within the oral storytelling tradition, the narrator creates "the world of the story." In filmmaking, we call the world of a film the diegesis — everything that exists within that world is diegetic, everything else is non-diegetic. Let's get more specific with a single element of the diegesis: sound.
DIEGETIC SOUND DEFINITION
What is diegetic sound?
A diegetic sound is any sound that originates from the world of a film. A very simple way to think about diegetic sound is to think of it as that could make sound in the world of a film. If the characters can hear it, it's diegetic.
The sound doesn't have to be featured on-screen. In fact, many diegetic sounds are not shown on-screen. Say there’s an emergency and an ambulance is called. The corresponding siren sound would be diegetic, even if it’s not shown on screen. This is because it’s a natural sound of the film world.
Examples of Diegetic Sounds:
- Dialogue: even internal monologue is considered diegetic sound because it's the voice inside the character's head
- Music: Piano playing at a restaurant, music in an elevator, a street performer banging drums
- Sound effects: explosions, rain drops, car engines, and many, many more
Now that we’ve covered our diegetic definition and explained what diegetic sound is, let’s look at some examples, from the obvious to the not so obvious.
Speaking of Diegetic Sound
Dialogue is really the most simple example of diegetic sound. It occurs between characters as a form of verbal communication within the world of a film. Even internal monologue can be considered diegetic.
Sunset Boulevard (1950)
In Sunset Boulevard, the dialogue does a great job of telling the story of the characters and the world. In this scene, Joe (William Holden) is looking for help in repairing his broken down car. But Norma (Gloria Swanson) believes he’s come to bury her pet monkey.
Through dialogue, we’re shown personalities and how characters interact with one another. The dialogue that ensues informs key aspects of character for the audience.
Steve Jobs (2015)
With a script by Aaron Sorkin, there is plenty of diegetic dialogue to go around. In Steve Jobs, characters are in constant verbal communication.
This is another great example of diegetic dialogue. There are pieces of dialogue within the scene that continue off-screen. The camera cuts away while Woz and Jobs continue their contentious conversation. Take note that this is still diegetic even though some of it occurs off-screen.
The Sound of Music
Diegetic music in film
Music is an interesting element because it can function across the diegetic line into non-diegetic sound. Diegetic music is what the characters can hear, which means any sort of musical score doesn't count. Music on a record player or being performed by musicians on-screen fall into this category.
Throughout his career, Tarantino has mastered diegetic music. Some of his most iconic scenes are driven by it and this video breaks down how he did it. It's more than just playing music in a scene, the right song paired with the right visuals will create indelible cinematic moments.
In this scene from Casablanca, Ilsa (Ingrid Bergman) asks Sam (Dooley Wilson) to play the song “As Time Goes By.” This is an example of diegetic music because it is played within the world of the film.
This scene is also a great example of how to use diegetic music. The song is significant for two reasons; the first is that it implies a connection between Ilsa and Rick (Humphrey Bogart). The only reason Rick comes to Ilsa is because the song is playing and he scolds Sam for playing it because of its obvious emotional meaning. The second is in the lyrics, as they provide a subtext about their relationship.
Here, the music is also diegetic and significant. In fact, the song Speak Low which the character Nelly (Nina Hoss) sings, serves as the climax of the film. The whole plot of the movie revolves around Nelly’s masked identity after being disfigured in a concentration camp.
When she finds her husband Johnny, he doesn’t recognize her. Nelly then suspects that Johnny had something to do with her capture. So, she poses as another woman, hoping to find out the truth behind her husband’s actions.
The only way Johnny can identify Nelly is by her singing voice, which remains intact despite all the physical changes. After learning the truth, Nelly reveals her true identity with the song above.
Rounding Out The Diegesis
Diegetic sound effects
Finally, rounding out the soundtrack of diegetic sound are sound effects. Birds chirping, a car horn blaring, a telephone ringing — everything the characters can hear is diegetic.
Once again, if we look at Quentin Tarantino's sound design, he can be extremely playful with his diegetic sound. Specifically, pay attention to how he soundtracks violent scenes. Here's a breakdown of how he uses sound design, specifically diegetic sound, to control tone.
Whether its gun shots, whips, explosions, or that insane bladed mace that Gogo Yubari swings around, he never lets sound become "standard." Listening to a Tarantino movie can be just as invigorating as watching it.
North by Northwest (1959)
This scene is an excellent demonstration of diegetic sound effects. The sound of the plane hums as it soars overhead. Then, the sound becomes louder and fuller as the plane zooms at Roger (Cary Grant).
Here, Director Alfred Hitchcock uses diegetic sound to build tension. There is very little music overlay. Instead, the drama is built with sounds from the world of the film — the plane, the vehicles, then an explosion.
Mad Max: Fury Road (2015)
Mad Max: Fury Road is chock-full of diegetic sound effects. In every car scene, we’re flooded with engines roaring and metal clanking.
Like most things in the world of Mad Max, diegetic sounds are taken to the extreme. But the way the film uses these sounds really speaks to the immersive impact they can have.
Non-diegetic sound explained
We’ve talked about the qualities that make a diegetic sound, but what about non-diegetic sounds? In this article, we define what a non-diegetic sound is, then look at examples from films that show how they are used by filmmakers to complete a layered and meaningful soundtrack.