Using non-diegetic sounds is a great way for filmmakers to support the worlds that they build. In this article, we’re going to define what non-diegetic sounds are. Then, we’ll look at examples from cinema history that show us how to properly use them.
NON-DIEGETIC SOUND DEFINITION
What is non-diegetic sound?
A non-diegetic sound is any sound in a film that doesn’t originate from the world. These are typically sounds that are added for effect in post-production. For example, a film soundtrack is almost always non-diegetic sound because the characters don’t hear it. If a character were to hear the music so to speak, this would be breaking the fourth wall and that sound would become diegetic.
Examples of Non-Diegetic Sounds
- Soundtrack or music overlay
- Character narration
- Sound effects outside of the film-world
So now that we know what non-diegetic sounds are, let’s dive in to some specific examples.
Of all non-diegetic sound, music takes the largest slice of the pie. A musical score is perhaps the biggest "gamble" for an audience because it's a major element that does NOT belong to the diegesis of the film.
Thankfully, after decades of using non-diegetic music in movies, the audience doesn't think about it to much. Let's look at some examples that use non-diegetic music for maximum effect.
Star Wars (1977)
The opening crawl for Star Wars films are great examples of non-diegetic music and text. The John Williams score is an accompaniment, something exclusively for the audience to hear, not the characters.
The text is also non-diegetic because it is a screen overlay. If the text were displayed on a screen within the film-world, it would be diegetic.
Catch Me If You Can (2002)
Non-diegetic music doesn’t have to be orchestral or produced for a film. In this scene from Catch Me If You Can, Frank Sinatra’s song Come Fly With Me is played.
This is an example of non-diegetic sound because it’s not playing from within the film-world. If it was revealed to have been playing in the airport terminal or from a car radio, it would be diegetic.
Two Great Examples
The second-most common type of non-diegetic sound is narration. This type of narration is limited to literal narration, not any and every voiceover. For example, Forrest Gump narrates most of the movie but he's actually telling his story to other characters (i.e., diegetic).
Another form of voiceover commonly mistaken as non-diegetic is internal monologue (e.g., when we hear a character's thoughts). Since we are lead to believe that the character is also hearing those thoughts, it is still diegetic.
Non-diegetic narration is purely for the audience's benefit. No other characters can hear it and it is not simply a character's thoughts.
Fight Club (1999)
In Fight Club, Edward Norton's character gives us a ton of non-diegetic narration. Whether or not that narration is accurate is the topic for another article. Take a listen.
Norton's character talks us through the fight club that he and Tyler have started, filling in the gaps of what we see on-screen. If you've seen the film, then you know how important Norton's voice and point-of-view are to the story, making this use of non-diegetic narration essential.
American Psycho (2000)
American Psycho is a film that aims to connect the audience with the protagonist Patrick Bateman. One way the film does this is by allowing Bateman (Christian Bale) to speak directly to the audience.
This is done through character narration. Since the viewer is obviously an inactive participant of the film-world, this narration is non-diegetic.
Outside The World
Non-diegetic sound effects
Sound effects are almost always diegetic but in rare instances they can also be part of the non-diegetic sound design. These are often used for comic relief or in exaggerated ways that are clearly meant to be identified by the audience as non-diegetic.
Let's look at a couple of examples.
Shaun of the Dead (2004)
Using quick cuts and exaggerated sound effects (particularly in montages) is something of an Edgar Wright staple. Listen as Shaun reviews their various plans and how sound plays a major role.
Wright uses a lot of "whooshes," especially alongside whip pans, in this clip. There's also that great rumble and clang as Shaun and Ed bring their weapons together once they've settled on a plan.
Kill Bill Vol. 1 (2003)
Tarantino has a lot of fun mixing diegetic and non-diegetic sound effects into his films. Take this showdown between The Bride and Gogo. There are plenty of diegetic sound effects (e.g., the swoosh as Gogo swings her weapon) but there are also plenty of non-diegetic examples mixed in.
What is diegetic sound?
Now that we’ve reviewed what non-diegetic sounds are, let’s look at some examples of diegetic sounds. In this article, we define what a diegetic sound is. Then look at some examples on how they are used to elevate films.