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Derrida and how to think about film sound differently

Derrida and how to think about film sound differently

derrida and how to think about film sound differently

JOKE: In what way are film sound theorists like feminists? In that they talk about the image as if it was the man, and about sound as if it was the woman.

I used to do this myself. I used to go on about how filmmakers insist on relegating sound to the shadow of the image. But one day I had this realisation: it’s all very well to say that filmmakers are subordinating sound to the image and giving it a passive role, but what’s the alternative? How do you go about not doing that? If that’s the wrong way, how do you do it the right way?

Of course, it would be impossible to answer that in one simple sentence, but perhaps a good first step would be to shake the impasse a little by dismantling the assumption that took us here in the first place – that film is a visual medium, point-blank period. Therefore, the image must take centre stage. And that takes me to Jaques Derrida.

Derrida was an Algerian-born French philosopher who became famous – and infamous – for deconstruction. Infamous because his method was an attempt to ridicule Western philosophers and their metaphysical approach to life, that is, their quest for the truth of all truths and for the foundation that provides the ultimate origin of all things.

The problem Derrida saw with this approach was that “truth” was being constructed by means of binary oppositions such as good vs evil, reason vs passion, masculinity vs femininity, and so on. Binary oppositions work by giving the first term in the opposition a positive value and privileging it over the second term, and by giving the second term a negative value and subordinating it to the first. This privileged/subordinate dynamic is essential for this type of thinking to work. If the second term was not negative and lacking, the positive term could not hold its position as the ultimate truth. Good is an empty concept without evil.

The aim of Derrida was to undermine this type of thinking, which he saw as deeply flawed. By privileging one part over the other, we fail to see the value in the neglected part, and the aspects of the truth that it also holds. Both need each other. He thought that if we learnt to live in paradox, our experience of life would be much richer. Why does it have to be either one or the other?

Another way of putting it is that when we fixate on the norm, on the privileged position, and don’t question it, we tend to get stuck in the same old rut and we fail to see other things.

Look at this image for a moment. What do you see?

Random irregular and meaningless blocks? If that’s the case, look again. But this time don’t do the obvious thing of looking at the foreground. Instead, focus your attention on the background. Do you now see the word “WEST”?

So, if Derrida is right and we apply this to film, it means that we’re missing on a goldmine of new possibilities by simply thinking in visual terms and then adding sound as an afterthought, as if it was the lesser of the two.

What if we reversed the process for a moment? What if we thought the image in terms of sound – if we took sound as the starting point and figured the visuals, and even aspects of the narrative, from that perspective?

Sounds strange? Then think about this.

Citizen Kane (1941), after nearly 80 years, is still considered to be one of the greatest films of all times because of all the many innovative techniques it introduced in terms of lighting, montage, depth of focus, camera angles and more. But one thing that is less talked about (!!) is that the film also broke radically new ground in the area of sound – probably more so than any other film since sound was introduced in 1927. And who made this film? Someone who had never made a movie before but who had mastered the art of telling stories through sound, a radio guy. Surely not a coincidence.

Could it be that Welles thought about the film first in terms of sound and then figured out many aspects of the image and the narrative from that point? It’s quite plausible.

Another film that springs to mind is David Lynch’s Eraserhead (1976). It’s the kind of film that makes me wonder about the thinking processes that led to its conception. What did Lynch have in mind? How did he think about this idea? David Lynch is a musician too, so I can’t help imagining him in front of a newly acquired sampler loaded with amazing sounds that blew his mind and then asking to himself, “What film can I make that justifies having these sounds play non-stop throughout the film? What would the film have to be about? What would it have to look like? I’m of course not saying that that’s how the film came about, but I can’t help imagining that that’s one possibility of how it might have.

Like Derrida says, the beauty of reversing the way we think about something is that it encourages us to consider things that we might not have considered at all otherwise.

The Bells, Edgar Allan Poe’s Subtextual Acoustic Extravaganza

The Bells, Edgar Allan Poe’s Subtextual Acoustic Extravaganza

The Bells
, edgar allan poe’s subtextual acoustic extravaganza

In The Hero’s Two Journeys, Michael Hauge and Christopher Vogler talk about stories being divided into an outer journey and an inner journey. The outer journey is the external plot, and the inner journey is what goes on inside the characters. In that sense, the function of the external plot is ultimately to reveal the inner world of the character – the unconscious drives that dictate his or her choices, actions, and decisions.

When we translate a story into film language, we turn the screen into the window that reveals the inner life of the character, and we create that inner space, to a great extent, by selecting the sensory details that mirror the character’s psychological condition. That’s our aim when we choose a type of lighting, when we select a specific camera angle or movement, or when we ask the sound designer to make that wind sound more mournful or those steps more harried and anxious. We’re trying to give physical form to an abstract inner quality.

In a way, then, good screenwriting and good filmmaking is knowing how to tap into the the audience’s perceptual skills in order to get them to experience the character’s inner life first hand. The Bells, which you’ll find at the end of this page, although not a film, is a perfect example of what we can achieve when we understand this.

Being a poem, it uses the many poetic devices that poets use, but that’s not what attracts me so much to this poem. The Bells is a sonic masterpiece. In it, Poe exploits acoustic and psychoacoustic phenomena both to produce a rich sensory and emotional experience in the reader and also to create a sonic texture that evokes mood, emotion, and the psychological states of the poem’s speaker.

The poem is about the death of a wife in a fire (though there are other interpretations). It is a journey in four stanzas. The first one represents the courting stage, the second one the wedding, the third one the fire, and the fourth one the burial. In emotional terms, it takes us from merriment to rapture to fear to painful insanity. Poe creates the emotional and psychological effect of each stanza by manipulating the sound of the bells in a number of ways.

In each stanza, the bells are made of a different metal, each of which gives the sound of the bells a different timbre, which in turn has different psychological effects and connotations. He uses words rich in vowels that emulate this timbre and also the motion and rhythm of the bells. In the first stanza (courting), they’re sledge bells made of silver, and the stanza has lots of short i-sounding words like twinkle, jingle, tinkle. The second stanza (wedding) has golden bells and lots of o-sounding, swelling words like mellow, golden-molten, oh, on, swell, and dwell. In the third stanza (fire), the alarm bells are made of brass and it has lots of twisted a-sounding words that have a kind of disorderly ring to them – twanging, clanging, jangling, wrangling. In the final stanza (burial), the bells are made of iron and the stanza has a lot of fall-sounding words such as sound, tone, throat, ghoul, toll, and roll, suggesting not only a heavy, low-pitched sound but also a kind of descent (the wife’s body into the ditch and the husband into insanity?).

The poem takes place at night. In the first two stanzas, Poe uses atmospheric conditions – which do affect sound – to add ‘colour’ to the ringing of the bells. The first night is icy, giving the sledge bells a crispy sound. The second night is balmy, giving the golden wedding bells a warm tone.

In stanzas three and four he uses (vocal) personification to add character to their sound. In the third stanza, the bells ‘scream out their affright’. In the fourth stanza, ‘every sound that floats from the rust within their throats is a groan’.

Poe uses musical terms to refer to the tone of the bells and the emotional effect this tone has on those who hear the bells. In the first stanza, the melody of the bells foretells merriment. In the second stanza, their harmony foretells a world of happiness. These associations – melody/merriment and harmony/happiness – have a psychoacoustic basis. The two factors that make music pleasing to the ear are melody and harmony, which give sound a coherent structure that our brains like.

In the third stanza, where the fire happens, Poe says, “What tale of terror, now, their turbulency tells!”. Turbulency in itself is not a musical term, but then he adds, “they can only shriek, shriek, out of tune”, which is a musical term. One requirement for alarm sounds to be effective generally is that they need to be discordant to make us feel distressed and to make us want to get away from them, and therefore from the danger. Our brain doesn’t like random, incoherent sounds. Poe is aiming for that effect in this stanza.

In the fourth stanza, their monody compels a solemn thought and makes the listener “shiver with affright at the melancholy meaning of their tone”. Monody has several meanings. It can refer to a poem lamenting a person’s death, a type of music consisting of only one melodic line, and it can also be used to refer to a monotonous or mournful sound. Genius choice of word, since all apply here.

Finally, there’s the rhythm. As well as most of the other words, Poe uses “bells” repeatedly at the end of each stanza to emulate the rhythmic ringing of the bells, but he does it in a way that adds subjectivity and subtext. The first stanza starts happy, but the constant, almost frantic, repetition of “bells” at the end creates a slight contrast and gives away a neurotic undertone that makes one feel that something’s not quite right. By the fourth stanza, the bells are so manic that they almost evoke images of ghouls circling around, hand in hand, and performing a satanic death dance. This is probably what’s going on inside the speaker’s head. The ringing of the burial bells seems to be making him go insane with pain.

Sound is a powerful communicator. It is in fact the ultimate form of communication, used by most species. If you think about it, we can’t really do with light what we can do with sound. We don’t have a dedicated organ that allows us to emit beams of light and bend them at will to communicate all the complex ideas and emotions that we do with sound, for which we do have a dedicated organ.

This is not a coincidence. Sound has dense levels of information encoded in it, much more than light. We can trick the eye easily. We can get away with recording images at 24 frames per second. But try recording sound at that rate. The ear won’t be fooled.

Accordingly, the brain is very adept at extracting information about the environment and about our emotional states from sound. Poe understood this very well. He knew how to bend sound to emulate the emotional and psychological states of the speaker of this poem, to create a window into his inner world.

I wonder what Poe would say if we asked for some advice on doing this. He’d probably say: “KNOW THY SOUND!”.

As an end note, if you’ve read the poem, did you notice how each stanza starts with the speaker inviting you to HEAR?

What is Poe up to here? Any thoughts?

The Bells, by Edgar Allan Poe


Hear the sledges with the bells–
Silver bells!
What a world of merriment their melody foretells!
How they tinkle, tinkle, tinkle,
In the icy air of night!
While the stars that oversprinkle
All the heavens, seem to twinkle
With a crystalline delight;
Keeping time, time, time,
In a sort of Runic rhyme,
To the tintinnabulation that so musically wells
From the bells, bells, bells, bells,
Bells, bells, bells–
From the jingling and the tinkling of the bells.


Hear the mellow wedding bells
Golden bells!
What a world of happiness their harmony foretells!
Through the balmy air of night
How they ring out their delight!
From the molten-golden notes,
And all in tune,
What a liquid ditty floats
To the turtle-dove that listens, while she gloats
On the moon!
Oh, from out the sounding cells,
What a gush of euphony voluminously wells!
How it swells!
How it dwells
On the Future! how it tells
Of the rapture that impels
To the swinging and the ringing
Of the bells, bells, bells,
Of the bells, bells, bells, bells,
Bells, bells, bells–
To the rhyming and the chiming of the bells!


Hear the loud alarum bells–
Brazen bells!
What tale of terror, now, their turbulency tells!
In the startled ear of night
How they scream out their affright!
Too much horrified to speak,
They can only shriek, shriek,
Out of tune,
In a clamorous appealing to the mercy of the fire,
In a mad expostulation with the deaf and frantic fire,
Leaping higher, higher, higher,
With a desperate desire,
And a resolute endeavor
Now–now to sit or never,
By the side of the pale-faced moon.
Oh, the bells, bells, bells!
What a tale their terror tells
Of Despair!
How they clang, and clash, and roar!
What a horror they outpour
On the bosom of the palpitating air!
Yet the ear, it fully knows,
By the twanging,
And the clanging,
How the danger ebbs and flows;
Yet, the ear distinctly tells,
In the jangling,
And the wrangling,
How the danger sinks and swells,
By the sinking or the swelling in the anger of the bells–
Of the bells–
Of the bells, bells, bells, bells,
Bells, bells, bells–
In the clamour and the clangour of the bells!


Hear the tolling of the bells–
Iron bells!
What a world of solemn thought their monody compels!
In the silence of the night,
How we shiver with affright
At the melancholy meaning of their tone!
For every sound that floats
From the rust within their throats
Is a groan.
And the people–ah, the people–
They that dwell up in the steeple,
All alone,
And who, tolling, tolling, tolling,
In that muffled monotone,
Feel a glory in so rolling
On the human heart a stone–
They are neither man nor woman–
They are neither brute nor human–
They are Ghouls:–
And their king it is who tolls;
And he rolls, rolls, rolls, rolls,
A pæan from the bells!
And his merry bosom swells
With the pæan of the bells!
And he dances, and he yells;
Keeping time, time, time,
In a sort of Runic rhyme,
To the pæan of the bells–
Of the bells:
Keeping time, time, time,
In a sort of Runic rhyme,
To the throbbing of the bells–
Of the bells, bells, bells–
To the sobbing of the bells;
Keeping time, time, time,
As he knells, knells, knells,
In a happy Runic rhyme,
To the rolling of the bells–
Of the bells, bells, bells–
To the tolling of the bells,
Of the bells, bells, bells, bells–
Bells, bells, bells–
To the moaning and the groaning of the bells.

Offscreen sound in I Love You, Phillip Morris’ dance scene: How deep is your love?

Offscreen sound in I Love You, Phillip Morris’ dance scene: How deep is your love?

Offscreen sound in I Love You, Phillip Morris’ dance scene: How deep is your love?

We all know how essential offscreen sound is to the creation of a story world that feels real and alive, how it adds three-dimensionality and  contributes to creating the right atmosphere. Offscreen sound can also serve a more specific dramatic purpose. Usually, this can be anything from attracting attention to people and events offscreen to triggering responses in the characters onscreen.

These are common practices, but offscreen sound can do so much more. The juxtaposition of image and sound can be exploited to create  complex layers of meaning and do so in ways that capture the attention and imagination of the audience.

There’s a scene in I Love You, Phillip Morris that does that. A massive brawl is heard offscreen half way through the scene that does a number of things simultaneously at the level of plot, character, and genre.

The film is a dark comedy telling the real life story of Steven Russell (Jim Carrey), who after nearly dying in an accident decides to leave behind the lie that his life has been and do things his own way, and this involves unleashing the gay man in him. All goes well but he soon discovers that ‘being gay is really expensive’, so he becomes a con man to keep up with the life of excess he’s created for himself. The law catches up with him eventually and he ends up in jail, where he meets Phillip Morris (Ewan McGregor), the true love of his life. Steven finds a way to get the two to become cell mates and this is what happens one night:



One very common use of offscreen sound that I mentioned earlier is to bring out a response in the characters onscreen. Technically, that’s what this brawl should do. It should prompt the two lovers to just get back to their beds and pretend that they’re asleep, but they don’t. They just carry on dancing. It is that lack of response precisely what delivers the dramatic value of this scene. It tells us a lot about their state of mind.

Offscreen sound takes us into the psychological space of the two characters, instead of merely suggesting the space beyond the frame. It gives us a sense of how into each other they are, how deeply in love they’re falling, and how blissfully oblivious to the outside world they are at that moment. It gives us a reference point against which to measure the depth of their emotions – much like when you drop a stone into a well to gauge its depth or when you place a ruler next to an object you’re about to photograph to give the viewer a sense of scale. That’s what the offscreen sound of the brawl does here.

It was a great choice that directors John Requa and Glenn Ficarra made – to let the camera stay with the characters all the way through the dance rather than intercutting between the brawl and the dance, which would have diminished the effect.

In terms of narrative function, it is important for us to get this sense of the depth of their feelings, because it will help us understand later on Steven’s motivation and drive to take his con artistry to incredible heights just so that he can be with Phillip.

The way this scene has been constructed audiovisually also contributes to characterising Steven as a daredevil, and how spellbound Phillip, an otherwise apprehensive person, is by him.

And finally, as a bonus, it adds comedic value.

The Brilliance of the 1975 Jaws Theme

The Brilliance of the 1975 Jaws Theme


The Brilliance of the 1975 Jaws theme

The Jaws theme is undoubtedly one of the most iconic themes ever written for the screen. In an interview, John Williams once explained that when he started working on it, his intention was to create the effect of a shark “grinding at you, just as a shark would do, instinctual, relentless, unstoppable”. He saw it as a sea chase. He got is so right.  

But how exactly did he do it?

There’s the merits of the musical composition, of course. But more specifically, what makes this tune so effective is the way Williams manages to trigger a range of psychophysiological responses in the audience through an interplay of sound attributes.

We’ve all experienced the power of music to evoke vivid imagery and emotions, and to make us want to move to its rhythms and melodies. The reason this happens has a lot to do with the purpose of sensation and perception.

Ultimately, perception is all about figuring out our surroundings, planning our actions, and executing them. There are many areas in the brain dedicated to facilitating the process. Although they are largely autonomous, they do have some degree of interaction between them that allows them to coordinate behaviour. In the case of hearing, for example, when the auditory cortex is triggered, it also engages the parts of the brain involved in activities such memory retrieval, vision, planning, temporal and spatial processing, and motion. 

And this is why music evokes images and why we want to jumpt on the dance floor when we hear our favourite tune.

It is also why, when we listen to the Jaws theme, our unconscious primal fears get activated, our hearts start racing, and we ‘see’ the shark coming at us, relentlessly and with only one thing in mind. 

The sound attributes that have allowed Williams to achieve this effect are pitch, loudness and rhythm.

You may have noticed how we talk of pitch as going “up” or “down”. This is because over millions of years our brains have built cross-modal and psychological associations that make us perceive pitch in terms of vertical space. Our embodied experiences too contribute to this – when we make low-pitched sounds, for example, our chest resonates, but when we make high-pitched sounds, they seem to be located more in the head.

The Jaws theme starts with a very low pitch but it quickly gets higher and higher, giving us the impression of the shark rising to the surface, where its victims are.

Pitch also gives us a sense of speed. What happens to your car or motorbike engine when you speed it up? It goes up in pitch due to an increase of vibrations per second. So the rise in pitch in the Jaws theme also gives us the impression that the shark is moving faster and faster.

Yet another thing to note about low pitch is that our brains are primed to perceive any creature that sounds low-pitched as big and dangerous. 

Then there’s loudness. Loudness conveys two things about an object or event: size and proximity. A tune representing a shark that starts with a low pitch that rapidly goes up and that gets louder and louder can only do one thing – scare the wits out of anyone. 

And if that wasn’t enough, there’s also the rhythm of the piece, which also gets faster and faster. 

The famous two notes remind one, in the context of a shark about to attack its prey, of the movement of a fish tail swinging from side to side. As the rhythm gathers pace, we can almost feel the shark increasing its thrust.

But the two notes also remind us of the sound of a heartbeat, and that leads to entrainment, i.e., to our heartbeat synchronising with the rhythm of the music and getting faster as a result of the music’s increasing pace.

And what about that note that jumps in from time to time and that conjures up images of the shark biting repeatedly? I love that one.

It’s almost a miracle that the theme hasn’t give anyone a heart attack yet.


The voices of the departed and Brighton Rock (2010)

The voices of the departed and Brighton Rock (2010)


The voices of the departed and Brighton Rock (2010)

A few years ago I read a piece of news about the widow of Oswald Laurence, the voice behind the iconic ‘Mind the gap’ announcement for the London Underground Northern Line. Althought it was recorded in 1969, the announcement could still be heard well into the new millenium.
Oswald died in 2007 and Margaret McCollum explains how she would often wait at Embankment station to hear his voice. But then one day something terrible happened. The voice had been replaced. Stunned, Margaret approached Transport for London to see whether she could get a copy of the announcement. Staff at the station were so moved by the story that they not only gave her a copy on CD but also restored  the announcement at Embankment Station.

There’s something about this story that we can all relate to. We all have an inherent need to keep a bond with our departed, to maintain a connection.

Pictures are a great away to keep the memory of the person alive, but what about a recording of their voice? There’s something very powerful about listening to the voice of a loved one who’s no longer with us. Perhaps more so than looking at their picture. Why?

First, an image is a passive recording of the light a person reflects, whereas the voice is the result of a voluntary effort on their part. Also, what we see in the picture is detached from us, at a distance. But voice, on the other hand, produces mechanical waves in the air that touch our bodies and connect us physically with the person emitting the sound. It is a more participatory experience altogether, a form of communion. Through voice, the person talking shares with us both thoughts and feelings, which can be communicated verbally and non-verbally.

But there’s yet something even more profound about the voice. Our voices are carried by our breath, and breath, as most spiritual traditions will tell you, is life itself. Without it, we can’t exist. This is perhaps why nothing brings more to life a departed one than their voice.

Moments like the one experienced by Margaret have  undoubtedly great cinematic potential. One film that springs to mind is Brighton Rock (2010).

In this film, the main character, Pinky Brown, marries Rose so that she won’t have to give evidence against him (although deep inside he does love her). It’s a very troublesome relationship, mostly because of the sadistic-catholic nature of Pinky. That’s fine by Rose. In fact, she seems to be thrilled by his dangerous personality. Still, she wishes that from time to time he was nice to her and did small things like saying ‘I love you’.

This is what happens during one of their strolls along the pier:



Eventually, Pinky dies and Rosy, who’s pregnant with Pinky’s child, seeks refuge in a  convent. And this happens at the end of the film:



Powerful, isn’t it?