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 DEFINITION
What is diegetic sound?
A diegetic sound is any sound that originates from the world of a production. A very simple way to think about diegetic sounds is to think of them as anything that’s real, or anything that could make sound in the world of a film. 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 between characters
- Music played within the world. Piano playing at a restaurant, music in an elevator, a street performer banging drums.
- Sound effects such as: explosions, rain drops on a stormy night, wind whirring through a turbine, and many, many more.
Now that we’ve defined what a diegetic sound is, let’s look at some examples that use it to its full potential.
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.
Through dialogue, we’re shown personalities and how characters interact with one another. 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. 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 communication.
This is another 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.
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.
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, it takes diegetic sounds to an extreme. But the way the film uses these sounds really speaks to the immersive impact they can have.
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.